The Tech Users Association of New Zealand has repeated its call for a 10-year strategic, multilateral plan for improving rural connectivity in NZ.
In an on-line briefing to the NZ Guild of Agricultural Journalists and Communicators, TUANZ chief executive Craig Young said the end goal should be to ensure that the rural experience is at least equivalent to urban.
“We need to work out a path that everybody buys into, one that means if there’s a change of government it doesn’t matter because we all know where we’re going.
“The thing about rural New Zealand that a lot of decision-makers forget is that rural connectivity is not just about watching Netflix, the Rugby World Cup and so on, it’s about managing the farm, running the business and improving productivity.”
Craig acknowledged some useful work and investment to date. But surveys by Federated Farmers and Rural Women NZ showed there will still be too many farms and rural areas with slow, patchy and even non-existent coverage.
Referring to a graph that he called “the lost pie chart”, Craig said 85 percent of New Zealanders are on track to get ultra-fast connectivity, which is essentially fibre – “the world-leading network with world-leading outcomes”.
Another 12 percent – and that’s mostly rural New Zealand – get “fast-ish” broadband. That’s from wireless internet service providers (WISPs), the Rural Connectivity Group (RCG), upgraded copper, the government’s RBI 1 (Rural Broadband Initiative 1). A Feds survey found 51% of rural respondents were using wireless broadband, achieving download speeds of up to 20 megabits per second.
“That’s what I call fast-ish. I’m in an urban area and I’ve got a gig (a gigabit, or 1000 megabits per second). There’s no comparison.”
Then there’s the “lost 3 percent that we’re all struggling to figure out how to solve their issues”.
While there are places such as Fiordland which has overall poor coverage, and understandably so, it’s not correct that the lost three percent are easily distinguishable in geographical areas, Craig said.
“There are people who can see Auckland’s Sky Tower but have no coverage. There are people on the Canterbury Plains who get no coverage from the new RCG tower because of trees.
“So it’s a misnomer to try and say the poor coverage is only in really remote areas,” he said.
Governments have tended to take an approach involving throwing large amounts of funding to a single provider to get rural connectivity progress. TUANZ argues a multi-technology approach is needed, and a change to the funding model to a more transactional and end-user focused model to ensure continued investment in network capacity, capability and offering enhancements such as free installs of CPE [customer premises equipment such as routers, network switches, convergence products].
“This end-user focused approach should be supported by rolling out a publicly available national connectivity register, allowing users and providers a view of the best form of connectivity at their location, as well as providing real life experience reporting.”
Craig said we’ve got the data and data scientists to figure out this register, and the funding can follow it.
“So instead of going, here Spark, here’s $100 million to build five towers, we go ‘well, John or Joanna in Waipawa hasn’t got coverage. How do we get them the best coverage?’.”
All of this will fail, though, if users are not aware of their options or the opportunities they are missing out on. A concerted and planned awareness programme delivered at the community level is needed, Craig said.
He was asked by one of the Guild member on-line whether the $47 million from the Covid Response and Recovery Fund announced in February for rural capacity upgrade was along the lines TUANZ favoured. Digital Economy and Communications Minister David Clark said at the time the $47m was for upgrading existing cell towers and building new towers in rural areas experiencing poor performance, as well as fibre, additional VDSL and other wireless technology. The money would go to 11 different organisations, including WISPs, to “de-load” congestion on the RBI 1 network.
“By the end of 2024 47,000 rural households and businesses should experience faster internet speeds and better reception than they do right now,” the Minister said.
Craig agreed it would help.
“They’re getting better at it. The people who are sitting at Crown Infrastructure Partners – all credit to them. They’ve been around and they’ve listened to us; they’re taking a much better view.
“But I think we’re getting to the point where we’ve got to be even more granular.”
What about John Key’s call earlier this year for more fibre in rural areas?
“It would be amazing to get fibre to every person and every premise in New Zealand, and allow the user to choose what they want,” Craig said. “But let’s be honest, pushing fibre right out is pretty expensive and may not be the best use of money.”
Wireless internet service providers are talking about rolling out their own fibre.
What should happen is that when additional capacity opens up – perhaps an RCG tower goes in and Chorus is asked for fibre – then a requirement should be put on Chorus so that as that fibre link is extended into the rural environment, it’s built so that services can be provided along the way, Craig said.
Face to face to discuss connectivity
Satellites, on-farm technology, developments in IoT, Telehealth, Spectrum and the future of mobile are just some of the topics to be discussed at the TUANZ/WISP Association ‘Rural Connectivity Symposium 2022’.
It’s happening at the Claudelands Events Centre in Hamilton, 14 and 15 June.
Find out more at https://tuanz.org.nz/rural-connectivity-symposium-2022/
Eye in the sky – where are we up to with satellites?
Satellites can play an important role in rural connectivity, particularly with the hard-to-service “lost 3 percent”, Tech Users Association of NZ boss Craig Young says.
It’s clear from TUANZ’s recent discussions with other members of the International Telecommunication Users Group in countries including France, the Netherlands, Germany, the UK, Indonesia, that satellite delivered connectivity “is becoming a really competitive space,” Craig said.
While a number of countries, Australia especially, are envious of the progress of roll-out of ultra-fast broadband to New Zealand’s urban areas, many nations have in common thorny issues around rural coverage. Satellites are seen as one solution.
Craig said there was no reason broadband couldn’t be provided from the Optus satellite, the provider for SKY TV. “It would be pretty slow, the latency would be significant and you’d get rain fade – all the things that came with the original Farmside satellite.”
Then there’s the 18-month old KA band network, with companies such as Kacific, which have much more focused beams. “[Their satellites] are still geosynchronous (orbital period is the same as the Earth’s rotation period) which means they’re in the same spot in the sky all the time, but they are significantly better than the older ones,” Craig said.
And then there’s “the flavour of the month” – Starlink and other low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. These satellites are not geosynchronous, so a network of them are needed.
Craig said Starlink has 2100 of these small satellites already in orbit, with 1600 of them active.
Plans for another 12,000 LEOs have been approved by the USA’s Federal Communications Commission, and applications for an extra 30,000 have been lodged with the FCC and International Telecommunications Union.
“It’s fascinating to see all this develop. The sky is going to be littered with thousands and thousands of these satellites.
“When the cable servicing Tonga was cut, calls went out for Starlink services to be made available in Tonga. And of course in Ukraine, low earth orbit satellites are being used significantly to keep communications going.”
New Zealand is fortunate in that a row of Starlink satellites fly south to north across the country.
The kit needed by users includes a dish that has to be powered to move to follow the satellite. When it loses that one, the dish moves to pick up the next satellite.
“So it’s really clever technology,” Craig said. “But of course if the electricity goes off (the user’s) satellite service goes down.”
The cost is another factor.
Craig said he has a friend in Albany who swears by Starlink. “But as soon as he can get fibre, he’s getting it.
“So it’s a really good service but it’s not as good as fibre. I don’t want to be quoted as saying fibre is the answer to everything. But I think the experience you get with fibre is the answer to everything.”