By Peter Fowler
One thing I forgot to check when I purchased my small farm in Hawke’s Bay in 2001 was the Internet connection. Which was really stupid given I owned a rapidly growing Internet news service, newsroom.co.nz.
Turns out I live in a communications black hole, despite being just 20 mins from Havelock North. There wasn’t/still isn’t any cell phone coverage, no terrestrial radio or television signals.
The only comms I had were copper wires from a 1980s Telecom wireless party-line transmitter at the gate which pointed to an antennae on nearby Mt Kahuranaki. Importantly the phone worked during a power cut. But after a long power cut about 5 years ago the battery died and it no longer worked and they wouldn’t fix it.
2degrees seems to exclusively offer the recent wifi calling feature, which means I can now use my mobile phone, but it still doesn’t work in a power cut.
The top download speed when I arrived at Hapua was 16Kbs on a dial up modem. It took hours to download a 1MB email, in which time dozens more emails of similar size would come in and start backing up. I couldn’t work, so began a desperate search for a solution.
In mid-2001, I ended up paying $30,000 to get a big satellite dish installed on the homestead roof and got an account with a company that provided comms for the likes of remote research stations. Monthly bills were in the thousands and the speeds/performance were not good enough to stream video.
But at least I could download my emails and load web pages.
Over the next ten years, I would spend another $25,000 just on hardware getting another four satellite dishes installed from various providers, as I continued my quest for faster internet speeds.
One thing that really pisses me off is the false hope given when broadband companies ring you to offer great deals with high speeds. We go through the morbid process of them actually looking up my location coverage and confirm I am in the group that will likely never get high speed Internet in the air or with cable.
They managed to get electricity lines to the farm way back in the day, but nobody seems willing to run high speed internet cables along the power lines like they did in Australia.
Apart from all the things wrong with telling a minority they can never have an essential service the majority enjoys, there are good business and social reasons for extending broadband, say along power lines, to areas such as mine.
Attracting digital entrepreneurs and remote workers to live in the country brings people with lots of spending money that is sourced off-farm and is not subject to the vagaries of the local economy. NZ country schools are the best but as school rolls decline, the addition of remote worker families would provide a boost.
But they need reliable high speed Internet, not to mention the locals who are already there.
Unlike 20 years ago when I arrived at Hapua, there is now a high speed satellite option available through Elon Musk’s Starlink, which by all accounts can give 100-200 Mbs from anywhere. The catch is it costs thousands to set up and install, starting with hardware and shipping at $1210. The monthly cost: $159.
Starlink appears to have NZX-listed telecommunications infrastructure provider Chorus worried. Chorus is building approximately 70% of the new fibre optic Ultra-Fast Broadband network, and received a government subsidy of nearly $1 billion to do it. Just last month in an article online it wrote Starlink “is changing things quite a bit” and is at pains to point out the sizable up-front costs while presenting the alternatives.
As a satellite internet veteran, the one issue I encountered with NZ satellite providers was their transmitters were high in space, so information was sent in packets. This meant a YouTube video would play for a couple of minutes, pause for a few seconds, and then repeat. You rip your hair out.
The reason Starlink is changing things is because its satellites are much closer to earth, so it can stream a constant signal and is superior to the old systems I used and, if you can afford the setup costs, it would appear to rival Chorus’s Ultra Fast Broadband.
Starlink’s service could dent Chorus but is unlikely to displace it, but it could wipe out small rural broadband entrepreneurs such as Ray Taylor from Gecko. I couldn’t care less what happens to Chorus, because they don’t care about my community. But I care about what happens to Ray.
Over 15 years ago I was driving home and saw a small sign in a paddock and spray painted in black was “Need Broadband – Call Ray.” So I did. This young bloke in his early 20s had put a wireless transmitter on top of nearby Mt Kahuranaki and could deliver uninterrupted internet of 10Mbs for a fraction of the cost I was paying for the incumbent satellite provider.
He solved my problem.
I became his third customer and today he delivers usable internet to thousands of rural households across Hawke’s Bay.
Starlink is ten to twenty times faster but about 25 percent more expensive than Gecko Broadband and you get a landline with Gecko. Gecko Broadband customers are Starlink’s target market and if big setup costs were overcome, say through Government subsidy, US-based Starlink has the potential to wipe out these small local providers.
Then everybody is at the whim of Elon Musk, who once in a monopolistic position, could set pricing higher and higher. So whatever happens, if I can afford Starlink one day, it will have to be on top of a continuing subscription to Gecko to ensure we retain a local broadband solution, even if it’s not as fast.
Or the Government could give another billion dollars to our rural broadband pioneers such as Ray Taylor and he could launch a global service to rival Elon Musk, using the nearby Rocket Lab launch pad on the other side of Hawke Bay.