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Sooner or later New Zealand schools will close their doors to help slow the Covid-19 outbreak. Some schools have already had temporary closures.

In place of classroom lessons students will be asked to log-on from home and continue some of their education.

Yet at least one-in-five New Zealand school students won’t be able to join those lessons. The educational digital divide is real.

That’s the number of homes without internet access. The 2018 census found 340,000 households, 21 percent of the total did not have an internet connection.

‘Households’ may not be the exactly the same as ‘households with school age children’. It’s near enough.

150,000 students on wrong side of educational digital divide

In round numbers this means about 150,000 school students will be locked out.

Likewise many students don’t have suitable personal devices to connect. A home device may be shared by many family members.

We’ve known about the digital divide for a long time. It’s getting better and there are initiatives1 to improve matters.

The digital divide is a national disgrace. The Covid-19 virus came knocking and we have been found unprepared.

There’s more than one digital divide. Some rural areas remain unconnected. Other areas have poor network connections. Old people are often locked out too.

Fixing digital divide easier than fixing poverty

Yet the digital divide usually comes down to poverty. For families struggling to put bread on the table and a roof over heads, computers and internet access are an unaffordable luxury.

This is about politics. It should not be this way.

We’ll leave the ideological and economic arguments aside. Today the most important question is how can the unconnected take part in a society and education system that is going to be home-based in the immediate future.

There are no simple answers. And there are no quick answers.

While there are projects designed to help, they are patchy and lack funding. They don’t reach far enough into that missing 20 percent.

There isn’t enough time to ramp these programmes up to accommodate the tens of thousands of children who will soon be learning from home without 21st century teaching aids.

Government money

New Zealand’s government has committed NZ$12 billion to fighting the likely economic impact of Covid-19.

It would take NZ$100 million2 to equip each of the 150,000 school students who don’t have access.

This money would include a basic, but serviceable device and internet access for three months. If the crisis continues, subsiding internet access might cost $1 million a month. Perhaps less, 150,000 school children live in fewer than 150,000 homes.

This may not be the right answer to the problem. I’ve used it to illustrate the size of the problem and to put the cost into perspective.

There could be better ways to spend the money. I’d prefer to see more of it ploughed back in to the local economy than sent to tech giants who don’t even pay NZ taxes.

If you have a better idea, don’t keep it to yourself.

It’s never the right time

It’s probably too late to get all the ducks in a row for the coming wave of learning from home. Even if everything else was fine, and it isn’t, supply chain problems would make it hard to find 150,000 low cost devices in a hurry. There would be a huge number of last minute broadband installs.

As always we should have started sooner. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act now. By some accounts Covid-19 may come in waves. We might miss this one, yet have everything in place for the next wave.

This is not only about the educational digital divide. Having as many as possible of the most vulnerable 20 percent of the population connected to digital services from governments and private sector companies is going to improve lives. During the virus outbreak it could save lives.


  1. One of my favourites is the excellent Spark Jump programme that gives broadband access to less well off families. It uses fixed wireless broadband. It may look like this contradicts Covid–19: Fixed wireless broadband not up to the job but while fixed wireless isn’t great for binge-watching streaming TV, it is ideal for plugging coverage gaps in a hurry and more than enough for basic and educational needs.
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  2. I admit I plucked this number out of thin air. The precise size isn’t the important issue here. ↩︎

Spark and Vodafone sell fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fibre. The service is far from rubbish. Yet it isn’t up to the demands New Zealanders will make of it while spending more time at home during the Covid–19 outbreak.

Companies are asking employees to work from home. Schools haven’t yet sent students home, but may. Because of social distancing people stay at home instead of going to the movies, the pub or other activities.

All this means people will be more reliant on broadband connections. For work-from-home employees, broadband is their livelihood. For everyone else it is a useful communications tool. It also delivers entertainment needed to stave off the boredom of stopping at home.

Insufficient data

All those examples need data. A lot of it. That’s one thing fixed wireless broadband can’t do. Most fixed wireless broadband plans come with data caps that limit a customer’s data. Which leaves people with a problem if broadband is the main Source of entertainment during the outbreak.

There are two other issues that suggest fixed wireless broadband is not up to the demands people will make of it.

First, fixed wireless is prone to congestion. A fixed wireless tower shares bandwidth between users. If there’s only one user at a given moment, connection speeds can be good. If everyone is online at once, the performance drops. It can drop below the level needed to sustain a video stream.

Swampy Covid–19

During the Covid–19 pandemic most people will spend the evening at home most of the time. The demand may swamp fixed wireless towers.

Spark slowed fixed wireless broadband sales in the run-up to Rugby World Cup for this reason. It knew customers would not have a good streaming experience.

With everyone at home, the data traffic is set to beat the highest Rugby World Cup levels.

The second part of this is that with congestion, some users may not be able to connect at times. It’s one thing to miss the last 15 minutes of a movie. It’s another thing to have your main channel to the rest of the world shut off during the Covid–19 pandemic.

Which brings me to the third problem. Clogged fixed wireless broadband networks can impact mobile wireless reception and coverage. The mobile network is our vital lifeline. Few people still have copper voice line connections. If busy fixed wireless broadband towers make it hard to make phone calls we are all in trouble. We will need phones more than ever during the outbreak.

What should the telcos do?

First, stop selling fixed wireless broadband where fibre is an option. Get customers onto fibre where possible. Where there’s a mix of fibre and non-fibre premises, leave fixed wireless for people who can’t yet get fibre.

Where fibre is not available, it makes sense to give towers a capacity upgrade. Move to 4.5G or a higher technology. And then do a better job of managing the capacity. Which, means not milking the network too hard.

Fixed wireless has a role to play in the broadband mix. Pretending it competes with fibre diminishes its overall value.

Chorus’ biggest data traffic surge since the Rugby World Cup took Kurt Rodgers, the company’s network strategy manager by surprise.

Data traffic has grown hugely in recent years, but there are still surge events like the Call of Duty Warzone release.

This squares with earlier experience. Chorus’ biggest ever day for data was when Wales met France in the quarter final of the Rugby World Cup.  During the game network traffic hit 2.6 Tbps. That was up 37 percent on the 2018 peak. The second busiest day was when England played Australia in the other RWC quarter final,

Rugby World Cup aside, the biggest day in 2019 was on October 15 when. the Fortnite game was updated. Traffic hit 2.47 Tbps.

Earlier in the week Rodgers told me Chorus has noticed increased traffic with more people working from home in the wake of the Covert-19 pandemic. Chorus says it has more than enough network capacity to cope if working from home increases during the outbreak.

 

At the end of September, fibre companies had 880,000 premises connected to their networks. There were 581,000 copper connections. Fibre connections were up 31 percent on the year earlier. Copper connections were down 23 percent.

These numbers come from the Commerce Commission’s Annual Telecommunications Monitoring Report. Last year fibre officially overtook copper as New Zealand’s connection technology.

This happened a couple of months before the first phase of New Zealand’s UFB fibre build was completed. When the project started a decade earlier the plan was to have 20 percent of connections. The planners thought fibre overtaking copper would happen sometime in the distant future.

Commerce Commission Monitoring Report - Fibre overtakes copper

Fixed wireless broadband

Fixed wireless broadband is also up. It climbed 14 percent in the year to September 2019 to reach a total of 188,000 connections. What the Commerce Commission does not reveal is that Spark back-pedalled on fixed wireless sales in the run up to the Rugby World Cup. Without that, the growth would have been higher.

Telecommunications Commissioner Dr Stephen Gale says; “New Zealanders are increasingly moving to the fibre broadband network. This trend is set to continue with nearly three-quarters of a million homes and businesses yet to switch in areas where fibre is available to be connected”.

There’s a curious section in the media statement about broadband prices. Gale says; “…Prices for a medium use fixed-broadband plan (150GB/30Mbps) and voice bundle have remained at $75 in 2019. As the OECD average price has dropped since last year, New Zealand is now more expensive than the international average.”

Well yes, but the plan in question is a strange one to choose. Few New Zealand customers have 30Mbps plans and the most popular plans have unlimited data. You can buy an uncapped gigabit fibre plan for $85 a month. I’ve no international comparative data to quote, but this is lower than the average price around the world.

Competitive mobile plans

Elsewhere in the report the Commerce Commission notes New Zealand’s mobile plans remain competitive by international standards.

Gale says; “New Zealand’s mobile plan prices are below the OECD average for all plan types we measure. For instance, a medium use plan of 100 calls and 2GB of data costs $28, 24 percent below the international average”.

NZ mobile phone prices compared with international

The Commerce Commission also looks at telco market share. It notes smaller companies are growing their share of fixed broadband at the expense of the big names.

“Increased competition in the market is good for consumers. In the past year we’ve seen encouraging signs with small retailers like MyRepublic and Stuff Fibre growing their market shares. Overall, smaller retailers’ market share grew from 8 percent to 11 percent in 2019, with customers largely being wooed over from Spark and Vodafone.”

Jake Voytko posted a long, considered and comprehensive post about his experiment comparing DuckDuckGo and Google Search. It’s a subject that has fascinated me for years.

Voytko’s blog post headline makes his conclusion clear: DuckDuckGo is good enough for regular use.

He writes:

I haven’t tried a new search engine since I tried Bing in 2009. It was time to find out how good DuckDuckGo is in 2020. What was the biggest difference that I found?

Voytko concludes that Google works best for what he calls ‘low intention searches’. He says Google throws out so much information from so many sources that it often returns something close enough to what the searcher wanted.

Broad searches, narrow searches

He found Google shines at broad searches. That’s when you have a less clear idea of what you are searching for.

It wins hands down when you search to buy a product.

Voytko discovered that, in general, DuckDuckGo does a better job when searches are more specific.

Interestingly, the places where DuckDuckGo struggles are also places where Google struggles.

He concludes that DuckDuckGo is good enough for everyday use.

And so it is. Except where it is not.

New Zealand missing in action

Sadly, the place where DuckDuckGo fails me every time is when I search for New Zealand specific information. DuckDuckGo often misses obvious things.

It almost feels as if the search engine is biased against New Zealand. If Google produced the same quality of local results, search engine experts might deduce it had imposed what search professions call “a search penalty” for the entire nation.

I might, say, search for a New Zealand act of parliament, use the correct name of the legislation and yet DuckDuckGo might serve up a Canadian or UK law with a vaguely similar name at the top of search results.

Sometimes the results are totally bonkers, even when I click the New Zealand box at the top of the page. I’ve seen Te Reo names interpreted as spelling errors even when they are commonly used words in New Zealand.

As an aside, it doesn’t do a good job indexing my site either. Google has everything, finding one of my stories on DuckDuckGo can be a challenge.

And yet DuckDuckGo still works for me

Despite all these whinges, I’ve moved all my search to DuckDuckGo because when I’m searching for something specific, say a piece of background for a story I’m writing, it regularly beats Google.

If the results are disappointing, you can always search again and use the G! command to have the search sent through to Google. It’s quicker than opening another browser tab.

I find DuckDuckGo cleaner, easier to navigate than Google. I rarely see advertising, that could be something to do with the New Zealand neglect. Or maybe not. Feel free to enlighten us all if you know what’s going on there.,

One of the best features of DuckDuckGo for my writing work is that you can copy and paste the URLs in the search results. I do this if I use a URL in a blog post. I also collect useful URLs for later use. Google mangles URLs for some reason, making them harder to copy and paste.