To date 18 rural hospitals or health centres that have either already connected to the RBI network or are connecting.
The Ministry of Health identified a total of 37 rural centres that could use broadband. Which means the job is still only half-done. Over time all, or almost all, will have fibre.
Health is the focus. Yet, running broadband to rural hospitals, health centres and clinics has another benefit. The buildings often act as centres in civil emergencies.
After the Kaikoura earthquake, the town’s local clinic became a communications hub. Crowds gathered outside the building to use connections to let their families know they were safe.
Hokianga Hospital in Rawene recently got its fibre connection.
John Wigglesworth, CEO of Hokianga Health Enterprise Trust says fast broadband makes a difference. He says: “The technology improves data linkages between the hospital and its central GP clinic in Rawene with its nine primary health clinics situated in remote locations throughout the Hokianga.
Rural health video consultations
“This data network means patients don’t have to remember details or repeat their medical history if they go to any of the clinical locations. Medical staff don’t spend so much time re-gathering information that’s already available in the central database.”
Wigglesworth says the hospital uses tele-medicine. Patients in remote areas can have video consultations. The obvious benefit of this is that health professionals spend less time on travel, there’s also a cost saving from this.
He says the hospital also uses these links for planning and administration.
In a similar way, staff can take part in online training sessions. Again, without the need for travel.
Hokianga Hospital uses fibre to send x-rays to radiologists and specialists for diagnosis. In the past couriers handled this. Broadband means responses can be instant — and that can be vital in some cases.
Wigglesworth says: “Having improved internet services available to parts of the community means people who are connected will be able to access their own health information via a patient portal.
“This means they will be able to check their lab results without having to phone their clinic, look up what vaccinations they’ve had and medications they’re taking, and review their medical history. The patient portal provides an opportunity to save everyone – patients, clinicians and administration staff – time. It also enables people to play a greater part in managing their own health care.”
There are still gaps in broadband coverage. The second phase of RBI and UFB will take broadband further into rural areas. Most likely it will mean fibre in places with wireless networks filling the gaps. For some people in remote areas, boosted cellular coverage will give them mobile internet.
Wigglesworth helped ISPs with proposals that could give fibre connections to remote clinics in the area.
He says:“The goal is for our rural health services to have equitable access to the same digital technologies available to urban centres, technology which ultimately contributes to improving health care outcomes for all.”
Hats off to Christchurch local fibre company Enable Networks. The company says it now has 50,000 customers connected to its network. CEO Steve Fuller says that means one in three of those who can get the company’s services are now connected.
Fuller says 24,000 have switched to fibre in the last 12 months. He says: “We’ve connected about 100 customers to fibre every business day – about 50 percent more than we thought we would connect at peak uptake rates”.
Enable now has 6,240 business connections which is an increase of 2,142 in a year. By the time Enable’s network build finishes next year, it will reach around 180,000 premises.
Enable’s 50,000 connection milestone an achievement by any measure. The fibre build hasn’t been easy for Enable Networks, which was named as the government’s Christchurch UFB partner soon after the 2011 earthquake. At the time, the city was still reeling from after shocks.
Tenders closed last month. Crown Fibre Holdings is now assessing the responses. Bridges says the goal of the second stage is to extend fast broadband to the greatest number of homes possible.
Dealing with mobile blackspot
RBI2 includes $50 million set aside to improve mobile coverage in rural areas. This means reducing the coverage blackspots on state highways and increasing coverage in remote tourist locations.
Bridges says: “I’m pleased with the strong engagement and response to the tender process”. The minister says he encouraged regional operators to take part in RBI2. While technologies have not been specified, he says there is a preference for open access.
He says based on what he has seen so far, it looks like the proposals submitted mean the government will be able to “do far more than we anticipated”. In other words, the RBI2 funds will stretch further into the bush. After it is done, there won’t be many New Zealanders left behind.
Bridges hinted that decisions would be made soon. He told the Wellington audience they won’t have to wait long to find out what happens. Officially an announcement is due in August.
Rural Connectivity Group
Three bidders for RBI2 funds laid out their pitches at the symposium. 2degrees CEO Stewart Sherriff represented the Rural Connectivity Group. This is a joint venture between 2degrees, Vodafone and Spark.
The RCG argues that fixed wireless broadband is the best way of connecting rural New Zealanders. It says it will invest many more millions of its own money should it win the RBI2 tender.
Sherriff says: “We’re certainly not going to make a lot of money out of it. But we believe this is the best option to get the best bang for the buck. We also think we can do some good for New Zealand.”
He stresses that the RCG bid is both a mobile and a wireless broadband infrastructure play. “Mobile is becoming more critical than broadband in our opinion. Farmers need access beyond the home. They need it in the cow shed, they need it on the quad bike”, he says.
Competition between the three mobile carriers is often intense, so having all three come together bid has raised a few eyebrows.
Sherriff says that despite co-operating to build a rural network, the three carriers will all continue to compete. “We’ll compete on retail and we’ll compete on the wholesale level”, he says.
“The plan is to set up an independent joint venture to run the network. That means one set of towers, one set of antenna, one power system and one backhaul. These will all be shared. This business case doesn’t stack up with one operator. It barely stacks up with three”.
In effect the three will operate a mobile virtual network.
Sherriff says it will be an open access infrastructure so that other services such as wisps (wireless internet service providers) and emergency services can also use the network. While the towers are designed for co-location, the focus, for now, is on wholesale fixed wireless broadband.
4G now, 5G later
The RCG plan is to build a 4G network now, but make it upgradable to 5G later. Sherriff says the project will also include narrowband IoT. This will give an additional network for the Internet of Things.
Sherriff says the group plans to deploy 520 cell sites. He says: “This gives us 20 percent more coverage in New Zealand. It takes the coverage from around 50 percent to 62 percent in terms of the geography. That’s 20 percent more mobile, 20 percent more IoT and 36,000 more connected households. More than 1200 extra kilometres of state highway will be covered. It will cover 67 percent of mobile blackspots”.
Independent regional ISPs were shut out of the original RBI project. This time they could play a central role. Many small operators run strings of antenna on hill tops and poles to deliver fixed wireless broadband up valleys and in other rural areas.
Their fixed wireless service is not the same as the fixed wireless broadband based on the Spark and Vodafone mobile networks.
Each of the wireless ISPs is making its own tender to CFH for the funding. Many will ask for less than $2 million. This is a cut off point. A condition of the tender is that to receive more than $2 million, you have to build an open access network. That’s asking a lot of small operators.
Lightwire founder Murray Pearson made the case for local wireless ISPs to win CFH funding for RBI2. He spoke as a Wispa representative, not as Lightwire, a Waikato based ISP.
Pearson says a reason to choose wisps for the RBI2 project is that they are innovative and show technology leadership. “Most wisps have been born out of a need to solve a problem. They’ve grown from there into businesses that have evolved to serve their community.
“They focus on appropriate technologies. What you need to service a valley with five users is different to what you need to serve somewhere like the Hauraki Plains where you can see 5000 house from one high site. Most wisps use a variety of tower types to cover a broad range of requirements”.
Wisps have been around now for 10 years. Pearson says they have shown they are both reliable and resilient. “During that time they have demonstrated some very reliable networks. Most build in redundancy so if one site goes down, it’s the only one affected”, he says.
Low-power wireless tech
The equipment used by wisps tends to be low-power. He says this makes it practical for Wispa members to build solar sites. The operators tend to be nimble and able to respond fast when needed. He says this adds up to a cost effective solution.
Local customer focus is important. Pearson says wisps have tended to grow out of the communities they serve. Many of the people working in wisps grew up in the communities they serve. This focus means that the people involved have very good knowledge of local geography.
Pearson says wisps are good at working with others. Some work with lines companies to string cables, others work with organisations like Chorus to use fibre backhaul.
Wisps have some great stories to tell about how they have delivered in difficult conditions. Pearson gives the example of Canterbury-based Amuri Networks which was able to make a huge difference after the Kaikoura earthquake. Not only was it able to respond quickly, but its equipment proved resilient.
The weakness in the wisps case is that many of the businesses are so small they have little support depth. Some may rely on one or two key people to handle the technical work and installations. Who takes over if they get sick or incapacitated? It’s a version of the single-point-of-failure problem.
This can be fixed from a business point of view with insurance policies. But there may not be enough skilled engineers to plug the gaps even if there is money available to pay them. Having the wisps band together in
Chorus brings fibre
Chorus network strategy manager Kurt Rodgers says: “No one technology can do everything in rural. Rural New Zealand is challenging, the trick is picking the right recipe”.
In RBI1 Chorus built the fibre part of the network. It ran fibre to schools, hospitals and connected 110,000 homes and businesses in rural New Zealand. That meant building 1,000km of fibre and upgrading 1200 cabinets. It also ran fibre to 157 cellphone towers.
Rodgers says 80 percent of the 110,000 cabinet connections can get VDSL, but only 20 percent do at the moment.
Either way, there is a lot of suitable infrastructure already in place in rural areas. All of it is suitable to extend the broadband network. The copper telephone network reaches all but the last one percent most remote homes. And there is plenty of fibre.
He says fixed broadband works best where there is “a modicum of population density. The other places are where the other technologies fit in set”.
Rodgers says: “It’s all about taking fibre closer to people.
Because Chorus is a wholesale-only business, it’s fibre-to-the-bush strategy dovetails with other rural broadband approaches. It would, for example, be able to provide the Wisps with fibre backhaul.
While there’s no public RBI2 bid from the company, Phil Cross, the Australia-based sales director of IPStar made the case for satellites to reach the most remote users.
“Satellite often doesn’t get a good rap, but the economics of delivering broadband to remote areas doesn’t give you much choice”.
Cross says fibre and microwave technology will always be preferable, but they are not always practical.
He says one benefit of satellite technology is rapid deployment. He says: “It takes less than a day to get a connection. Often a lot less than a day.”
IPStar has a good New Zealand case study to draw on. It has provided affordable broadband to the Chatham Islands since 2012.
How do they scrub up?
Chorus’s fibre-to-the-bush plan means extending the UFB network or something similar much further into rural New Zealand. In the panel session following the presentations, the speakers all agreed that fibre is an important part of rural connectivity
Some homes and farms will get the same fibre connections as people in urban New Zealand. It’s not clear if they’ll get the same prices, but they will get the same services.
However, fibre won’t reach all the way. It means Chorus will need to use copper to reach a lot of people. There’s not much wrong with copper in itself. It can be fast, VDSL2 is capable of fibre-like speeds when connections are within a kilometre or so of a cabinet.
Wisps fill in the gaps
If anything the wisps’ proposal dovetails neatly into Chorus’s fibre-to-the-bush plan. Wireless is a great way to fill the gaps, especially when extending broadband further up valleys to farms and remote businesses or homes. The idea of wisps using fibre backhaul has appeal too.
The idea of Chorus taking land-based broadband up to say, 90 percent or thereabouts of the population, wisps extending that to 99 percent and satellites serving the last one percent makes a lot of sense.
Although wisps and even satellites could, in theory, help fill the mobile blackspot, that job is best left to the mobile phone companies.
Rural fixed wireless broadband
Vodafone built 157 rural towers for RBI1. In the first years these towers delivers fixed wireless internet connections using 3G phone technology. You really could not describe it as broadband. It was slow and unreliable. Only a fraction of the target audience took it up.
It worked better when Vodafone upgrade the towers to 4G. On a good day, in the right conditions, users can get fibre-like speeds. The downside is that wireless bandwidth is shared, so there’s a huge congestion penalty at busy times. Peak hour speeds are slower than quiet times.
The Rural Connectivity Group’s plan will work well for some of users.
Spending the CFH money
If RBI2 funds were unlimited, the RCG would get money to fill in the mobile blackspots with towers that could also serve wireless broadband. Chorus could extend fibre to wherever the population density makes sense. More RCG fixed wireless could be used in less dense areas, wisps could run their fixed wireless out to farms and up valleys. Satellite could fill the gaps.
IPStar’s Phil Cross nailed the problem when discussing satellite broadband delivery. He talks of the choices you have when delivering broadband to remote areas. Crown Fibre Holdings has $150 million to spend. Private investors will tip in more money, at least as much again as CFH.
We could fix New Zealand’s rural broadband with a world class network. It’s within our grasp. At first sight, the best option would be to use a mix of the technologies discussed above. All have a role to play.
Yet there is a fishhook. The RCG says it is not interested in building towers for the mobile blackspot unless it gets the whole rural deal.
That leaves CFH in a tricky position. Caving in to the RCG means great mobile blackspot coverage, less than ideal rural connectivity and a slap in the face to local wireless ISPs who were officially encouraged to tender. Turning down RCG will leave those mobile blackspots. Presumably one of the cellular firms will pick up the $50 million and fill some of the gaps.
Phones connected to Spark’s Central Christchurch mobile site can now download data at 1Gbps. Or, to be more accurate, they will when the hardware arrives in New Zealand later this year.
Spark has worked with Huawei to upgrade its Central Christchurch cell-site to 4.5G. The company’s Hereford Street building houses the Pacific region’s first commercial 4.5G site. It is one of the world’s first non-test 4.5G sites.
At the network launch today, Spark New Zealand managing director Simon Moutter says: “We built the network well ahead of the devices. One of the key things is to learn from this. We’ll build other sites later in the year.”
Gigabit wireless in New Zealand
Spark’s general manager, networks Colin Brown demonstrated the network’s ability to deliver gigabit speeds. He used special equipment for the demonstration. In the live test, download speeds reached 1.12Gbps. Brown said overnight the test gear recorded a peak of 1.25Gbps.
While 1Gbps is the 4.5G headline speed that’s not what most user will see when they connect. Brown says people will see speeds that are; “three of four times what you see today”.
The key to 4.5G speeds is the technology’s ability to use spectrum in different bands at the same time. The telecom industry calls this carrier aggregation. It also uses multiple antennae simultaneously to boost capacity.
With 4.5G data speeds and capacity increase at the same time.
Huawei New Zealand CEO Jason We says beside boosting data speeds, a 4.5G cell site can service ten times as many users as a 4G site.
Moutter say it took just a matter of weeks to pull the 4.5G demonstration together. He says; “It demonstrates what we had our eyes on and why we were keen to acquire the Woosh spectrum.”
Because 4.5G is, in effect, a software upgrade to the 4G network, Spark could move fast.
Recipe for a 4.5G network
Brown says for a 4.5G roll-out Spark needs four things: “Above all else you need the software. We have this from Huawei and will be rolling out elsewhere between now and Christmas.
“The second thing you need is the antennae. You have to install them at the sites. To make 4.5G work you also need improved backhaul to take data traffic from the cell site to the internet. Generally speaking you need gigabit backhaul. You also need to devices”.
Huawei’s Wu says his company will be bringing 4.5G ready devices to New Zealand later this year.
Spark’s 4.5G project is the latest fruit from the company’s joint innovation programme with Huawei. Previously the two built the world’s first commercial 4G network using 700 MHz spectrum
At the Christchurch launch David Wei, President Huawei South Pacific, says that earlier partnership pushed the boundaries of technology.
He says: “Today we continue that tradition with New Zealand’s first 4.5G giga site. For us one of the best parts of this partnership is that we are able to deliver technologies which until very recently only existed in our research and development labs.”
Spark and Huawei agree that video will be the big application on the 4.5G network. Wei says: “4.5G can support rich content streaming and true 4K video. It will be used to create a strong network supporting the emerging internet-of-things”.
Video made the radio star
Moutter says for practical 4K streaming video, a network must deliver a consistent 15Mpbs.
Brown says one aspect of 4.5G is the 2300 MHz spectrum can be configured with TDD (time-division duplexing). He says this means the spectrum can be optimised for downloading. This is an arrangement that works well with video traffic.
TDD is also used by a lot of fixed wireless broadband services. The potential for a 4.5G network to deliver fibre-like speeds to fixed wireless broadband customers could change the nature of services in rural New Zealand and present Chorus and the other fibre network companies with a serious challenge.
4.5G means bigger data caps
A network capable of 1Gbps downloads could mean customers will chew through monthly mobile data caps in seconds.
Moutter says: “The additional capacity of the 4.5G network is significant. It allows use to expand usage bundles at economic prices”. In other words: expect to see more generous monthly data allowances from Spark as the new network rolls out nationwide.
He offered insight into the pricing of mobile data saying Skinny’s Wireless Broadband which gives users 60GB of data for $55 would have been impossible just two years ago. The same applies to Spark’s wireless broadband product.
Moutter says: “Spectrum has been the constraining asset. We’ve invested in buying more spectrum. Using aggregation is the key to getting more from our investment”.
Moutter says Spark chose to use Christchurch as a demonstration site because it “wanted to do something special for the region.
He says Canterbury area is one of the first to be updated with 700 MHz spectrum services. He says: “We’re close to half-way done with that.
“After the earthquake we had to move the network around in Christchurch. Much of it, indeed much of the city, moved out to the edge. Now we want to focus on bringing technology back to the centre of the city. This was a good opportunity to commit to the rebuild”.
You can see the Spark 4.5 antennae on the top of the Hereford Street building in the photo at the top of the page.