Rural folk may have felt pretty secure as they read media reports last month on moves by Chorus and Spark to begin dismantling ageing copper phone and broadband networks.
After all, the reports made it clear that this ‘copper retreat’ is only allowed to happen in areas designated a specified fibre area, meaning access is preserved in rural and remote areas where it’s not economic for fibre companies to build.
Last year’s Federated Farmers Rural Connectivity Survey found that around one in four farming families relied on copper-line dial-up and broadband internet connections. Landline use remains quite high with around three in four of the more than 900 farmers who responded indicating they had a landline, and half of them noting the service was poor or average.
Because fibre isn’t being rolled out into the rural hinterland due to the expense – a mobile services tower at around $600,000 is a far less costly exercise – Federated Farmers Senior Policy Advisor Jacob Haronga says those parts of the network are extremely unlikely to be deregulated.
“The big fish-hook in the offing though is that the copper line network is going to progressively fall away in urban and suburban areas – the cash cows for the service providers.
“Arguably there has been a cross subsidy on copper lines serving those densely populated parts of the network to the less densely populated parts,” Jacob says.
“There will be impacts for the sustainability of the copper line network in rural areas because there’s less money coming into it for Spark and Chorus. It will also become obsolete technology, become increasingly hard to maintain and we’re likely to see the same thing happen to copper lines that happened to the radio direct line-of-sight networks we had in New Zealand, in that they couldn’t order parts from overseas because no-one was doing that any more.”
So where are we heading with rural connectivity? We’ve just seen the Climate Change Commission put to the government as one of its “time crucial” recommendations if we’re to reduce biogenic emissions that the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) must be “resourced and prioritised to achieve its 2023 target, so that farmers have access to data and information to support decision making and the ability to practice precision agriculture”.
Is the government investing enough in the right areas? “Too early to say,” Jacob says. Stage 2 of the RBI is still underway and won’t be done until 2022.
“Until that’s complete we won’t really know whether it has addressed the slow connections, patchy coverage and reliability issues we’ve identified in our surveys.”
The government announced $50 million of funding during the lockdown last year, and $60 million towards the end of 2020.