The latest cellular technology has gained a high profile in recent months, thanks in part to a strong media campaign from early provider Vodafone. But Ernie Newman, spokesman for Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) said as good as the technology was, it was highly dependent upon having a dense user population underpinning it and by nature its economics will always be challenged in a rural environment.
“With 5G the towers may cost less than earlier cellular towers, but you need more of them, and the density of users is simply not there to justify that in rural areas,” Newman explained. “I doubt we will see 5G in most of rural NZ in my lifetime, it’s gold-plated technology.”
Craig Young, CEO for TUANZ said NZ is currently at 79% fibre penetration, and the goal to achieve 87% coverage by 2022 would make the country world-leading.
Once NZ’s ultra-fast broadband targets are achieved this country will be among the top five in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) for fibre availability.
“But that does still leave a chunk of people who want it but cannot get it. This leaves open the question on how best to serve them. It is one we will be asking the minister at our rural internet symposium in September,” Newman said.
A Chorus spokesman said the fibre provider had modelled expanding the network to 90% and beyond, but the cost increases for more remote premises increased enormously.
However, he also confirmed there were additional benefits to upgrading fibre beyond the Ultrafast Broadband target areas.
This included the additional fibre-to-home connectivity, and also that it enabled cost efficient upgrades to the copper network elsewhere to extend the reach of broadband over copper.
The Rural Broadband Initiative has increased cellular coverage to 65% of geographic area but both Young and Newman agree the ability to provide cellular in many areas would always be challenging.
“So it makes more sense to focus on the outcome using fit for purpose technology, rather than a particular technology,” Newman said.
At present WISP members are providing high speed access for 70,000 customers throughout a largely rural client base, and the capacity was there to achieve even greater coverage, often at a more competitive capital cost.
“Typically a cell tower may involve a six figure sum, whereas one of our members’ towers would be nearer $10,000.”
Newman likened the final percentages of the high-speed build to a roading system.
“Just as Auckland has and needs eight lane motorways, it does not mean you need the same in Ruatoki.”
He said the covid-19 lockdown had provided a good opportunity to stress test NZ’s entire internet infrastructure, and it had come through in good shape, including the capacity of the wireless providers.
Traffic data over lockdown indicated a 20-30% increase in daily internet traffic volume.
Meanwhile, Chorus has set out a code for winding back its copper network aimed at protecting those who may not have alternative fibre or wireless access. The withdrawal code means areas outside the ultrafast broadband network won’t be affected by the wind-back.
The use of the copper network has fallen sharply over recent years, from 1.27 million in late 2014 to 581,000 in late 2019 as businesses and consumers switch to fibre services and fixed wireless options.
While fibre connections now exceed copper for the first time, Newman said there was plenty of potential to further ramp up rural users’ options, including technology already at hand that meant a cell phone that struggled for coverage on the farm could switch to the home wireless internet for texts and voice calls once it was in range.
This “cellular over digital” technology was already available, but required a commercial push and regulatory changes to be more accessible.
“While the government is helping to subsidise new builds for towers, we also need a commitment to the on-going cost of running the technology,” Newman said.
“We do have a telco communication levy but we only have it in a diluted form. WISP has a role with the remaining 13% but we need a rethink of policy and objectives to get there.”