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Gebbies Valley is the site of the Rural Connectivity Group latest mobile broadband tower.

I had to look the place up on a map before writing this story. That’s kind of the point.

The RCG’s job is to fill broadband and mobile voice coverage gaps. A government subsidy helps. The RCG is a joint venture between New Zealand’s three mobile carriers: Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees.

It runs an open access network. Some of the money funding comes from the Telecommunications Development Levy.  The Provincial Growth Fund also contributes. Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees invested $75 million in the project.

Today there are 100 working rural broadband towers.

Fixed wireless broadband

Each tower offers 4G fixed wireless broadband and 4G voice calling to the local community. To keep costs low, Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees share the antennae. The towers have fibre backhaul, which improves the performance.

Gebbies Valley has Voice-over-LTE equipment which means users can make high quality voice calls. There will also be 3G voice calling, that’s not commissioned yet. This will cover a black spot on State Highway 75.

A media statement from Communications Minister Kris Faafoi says it is a significant milestone for the second phase of the Rural Broadband Initiative. This a government funded project to deliver broadband services to the more remote parts of New Zealand.

Faafoi says the RCG towers now provide broadband access to 8,121 homes and businesses. They also mean extra mobile coverage for 343km of state highway and connect 23 tourism locations.

Eventually RBI2 will cater for 84,000 rural homes and businesses. It will improve mobile coverage on 1400km of state highways and connect 168 tourist sites.

While the project is planned to officially finish in 2023, there’s a somewhat open-ended nature to RBI2.

Early on in the programme, the government asked the RCG to build as many towers as possible with the allocated pool of money. Since then more funds have been tipped in and there’s no reason to think it will all stop at the formal end of the project.

Vodafone’s rural broadband unit Farmside says a wave of new customers joined immediately after June 1. That’s Moving Day in the dairy farming calendar. The day when farmers traditionally move equipment, stock and people to new farms.

Farmside general manager Jason Sharp says the business has now passed 15,000 customers. Most connect via RBI fixed wireless but many Farmside customers have fibre or satellite connections.

Sharp says Farmside saw a 74 percent increase in the amount of data used by RBI customers and a 35 percent increase in satellite data during Covid-19 lockdown levels 3 and 4.

Farmside says it was able to continue connecting remote customers during lockdown and prioritised work for those who needed a physical installation.

Pandemic changed rural broadband

Earlier this year Sharp noted that pandemic had a huge effect on rural broadband.

He says: “As I reflect back on what was an incredibly busy period, it was also a turning point for rural communities forced to go online in ways never experienced before. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve. I also see lots of opportunity for the future of the internet in the country.

“In the past month we’ve seen stock auctions go online, our major agriculture exhibition become the Fieldays Online event and online discussion groups replace face to face gatherings. This comes with a broader reach in terms of markets – but also relies on good internet connectivity so that parts of the country aren’t left behind.”

Rural broadband challenge

That’s the challenge facing rural internet providers like Farmside. Despite continued government investment in infrastructure, the fixed wireless broadband technology used for most rural connections was never intended for the kind of intense use that has become an everyday fact of life.

When RBI was first planned about 12 years ago, the idea of streaming Netflix or interactive games to farms and other remote locations wasn’t in anyone’s sights.  And that’s before we get to streaming the Rugby World Cup.

At the time fixed wireless broadband looked more than adequate for most rural business applications. Since then the amount of data used to run a farm has exploded.

Sharp says: “… satellite connections have become even more important for those who aren’t within the 35km range of rural wireless broadband – or because the landscape renders line of sight to a cell tower impossible.”

New satellite options are coming online which should improve matters for the most remote users. And there are potential upgrades for fixed wireless that can improve data speeds and allow for larger data caps. Yet the best way to level the playing field for rural broadband customers would be to extend the reach of fibre networks further into the bush.

Shenandoah RCG tower

During the Covid–19 lockdown the Rural Connectivity Group switched on 29 new sites. The new sites connect about 2000 homes and businesses to fixed wireless broadband and increase the reach of the mobile networks. This includes mobile phone coverage for a further 110 km of state highway.

The RCG’s recent burst of activity means there are now a total of 92 sites.

RCG sites are part of the second phase of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative.

Joint venture

The RCG is a joint venture between New Zealand’s three mobile carriers: Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees. It builds 4G towers in parts of the country that might not otherwise get cellular coverage. Another part of its job is to reduce the number of mobile dead zones on main roads.

RCG - rural connectivity group cell tower

RCG partner companies share the infrastructure. Towers have one set of access hardware and one set of antennae. Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees all offer their services from each tower. The towers are also open for wireless internet service providers or Wisps to use.

Rural Connectivity Group footprint increased by one third

Much of the work for the new towers was done before the nation went into lockdown. Nevertheless, increasing the footprint by a third at this time is an achievement.

A post on the RCG website quotes RCG chief executive John Proctor who says:

“At the time of the lockdown we had a large number of sites around New Zealand close to completion which we needed to secure and walk away from. Being granted Essential Service status means our team has focused on getting built sites ‘on air’ providing immediate service to as many rural communities as possible.”

Eventually the Rural Connectivity Group will run at least 400 towers. It will deliver broadband to around 30,000 homes and businesses in more remote parts of the country. Those numbers could rise if government finds more funds to fill in coverage gaps.

Last week the government earmarked $15 million to improve rural broadband. If that doesn’t sound like much, you are not alone. Both Tuanz and Federated Farmers have complained that it is not enough.

A media statement from Communications Minister Kris Faafoi and Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones says the money will pay to upgrade rural mobile towers and the wireless backhaul connecting towers to the networks. There will also be money for households to install external antennae to boost reception.

In other words, this is less about extending the rural broadband footprint and more about giving people who already have a connection a better experience.

Faafoi says: “The government’s aim is to provide access to around 99.8 percent of New Zealanders. However, while that work continues some households in isolated regions require reliable access to broadband services in light of Covid-19 – particularly households with school-age children who need internet access for remote learning. The work brings forward capacity upgrades to meet increased demand for the internet where the urgency is most acute.”

Adding capacity

Many rural broadband towers are either at capacity or are nearly there. Rural fixed wireless performance is variable. In some cases fixed wireless broadband is not up to the job of delivering much needed connectivity.

Jones says upgrading the infrastructure this way is likely to be the fastest way to provide broadband to rural households that are in the coverage area but where capacity is stretched.

He says: “The government, through Crown Infrastructure Partners, is prioritising the upgrade of mobile towers in rural areas where there are high numbers of school-age children living in households that cannot access the internet.

“This will provide school-age students in remote areas with access to the digital connectivity programme that the government recently rolled out to support distance learning. It means that students, particularly those in low-income rural households, can continue with their schooling in exactly the same way as those in urban areas”.

A drop in the bucket

Tuanz CEO Craig Young says the money is “a drop in the bucket”. He says there are still gaps between the rural broadband experience and that seen by people in urban areas. He says things are worse in a lockdown when children are staying at home.”

Young wants the government to commit to a programme ensuring all rural users have the same experience as urban.

He says: “In particular this means further support to the local wireless ISPs to continue to upgrade their networks, and to commit to upgrading the previous and current RBI mobile footprint to the latest technology as quickly as possible.”

Farmers Weekly reports Federated Farmers vice-president Andrew Hoggard says big rural areas still have slow or no internet access. He told the paper: “The vast majority of New Zealanders living in towns and cities have absolutely no idea how bad internet access still is in some parts of the country.”

“If you are looking for a shovel-ready project this would be a good one. The shovels are already in the ground.

Rural broadband is hard

There are no easy answers to improving rural broadband. Wisps do a great job in many areas. They understand local needs and conditions which makes it easier to deliver the right services. Part of the problem is that the cost of providing a connection goes up the further you are from other people. If the bigger mobile carriers thought it would be profitable, they’d extend their networks to reach further into the bush without looking for government subsidies or funding.

There are two ways New Zealand can address these issues. One is to accept the higher cost of rural communications. We might expect people living in the bush to pay extra to cover those costs. After all this is what happens with other services such as rural post and parcel deliveries. It costs more to deliver a parcel delivered to a rural address. The cost is not prohibitive.

Alternatively we bite the bullet and pay the extra cost of getting first rate broadband to everyone. Or at least almost everyone. This is how it worked 100 years or so ago when copper telephone networks extended to the furthest reaches.

Either way, it’s a matter of money.

Communications Minister Kris Faafoi says the government will offer spare 3.5GHz spectrum to mobile networks and Māori by the middle of next year. He should put some aside for the Wisps or wireless internet service providers.

Carriers need extra spectrum to offer fuller 5G mobile services. A full 5G service needs 80 to 100 MHz of spectrum to delver the faster speeds and other benefits 5G promises.

Vodafone has a 5G network, at present it only allows fast downloads. Among other things, it needs more spectrum for faster uploads.

Spark also runs a 5G network. It’s tiny and only serves a handful of South Island towns. At the moment it is only used for fixed wireless broadband customers. Spark is leasing spectrum from another company. It needs its own.

Next year’s auction is an interim move. The licences auctioned run until the end of 2022. Usually governments sell spectrum licences for 20 years or so. By 2022 the government plans to have a longer term alternative in place.

Wisps

In an ideal world, both the temporary fix and the long-term 5G allocation will leave capacity for New Zealand’s Wisps.

These are wireless internet service providers. That is, smaller companies who fill the gaps not reached by large telecommunications companies. Most Wisps work on lean margins. They service markets that are not viable for large telcos with their cost structures.

Wisps are often owner-operator businesses. You might find the boss climbing a pole somewhere in the bush or driving a quad bike to a remote site. They are an important lifeline for some rural communities.

New Zealand has a couple of dozen Wisps, maybe 30. Most of them depend on the 3.5GHz spectrum to connect farmers and other rural customers. For many remote users this is the only practical way of connecting to the outside world.

The government is working with 17 Wisps to boost coverage in remote areas.

Radio waves in the 3.5GHz spectrum band are, in effect, line-of-sight.

From an engineering point of view it should be possible for Wisps to go on using these frequencies while the big telcos use the same spectrum in busier areas.

Yet that’s not how licences usually work. So we need a mechanism to stop the big guys from using their financial clout to muscle in on the smaller players.

In February Faafoi said there will be spectrum for Wisps to carry on operating. There needs to be. These companies are a vital link in New Zealand’s telecommunications chain. Their customers are the nation’s largest exporters. They could do with some answers now so they can plan.