Monday, April 22, 2024

More cellular towers coming to rural NZ

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The Government’s moves to boost rural cellular and broadband coverage have been reinforced by Vodafones’ move to also invest in additional cellular towers in provincial towns throughout New Zealand.
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Digital Communications Minister David Clark announced the completion of the country’s 250th cellular tower built under the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) 2.0 programme at Mystery Creek Fieldays.

The commissioning puts the programme well over the halfway mark in its bid to add an additional 400 towers to the rural network.

Vodafone’s chief technology officer Tony Baird says in a separate venture Vodafone has an additional 70 towers planned to help service the ever-growing data demand in smaller provincial towns.

“We will be starting in Whanganui-Manawatū, then Bay of Plenty, Taranaki and Southland,” Baird said.

He says digital demand through the company’s network grew by 56% during the covid lockdown, and was estimated to grow by at least an additional 40% this year. 

That data demand is also being accompanied by a corresponding drop in landline voice phone connections, as customers switch to cellular only, or voice over internet protocol (VoIP).

In announcing the tower’s commissioning, Clarke said the Government has also committed a further $10 million to rural cellular spectrum for rural communities where broadband capacity is under pressure. The 600mHz spectrum available offers greater coverage and reach, suited to rural needs.

Vodafone is also poised to release technology that will enable farmers in poor cellular reception areas to use their mobile phone across wireless platforms, switching seamlessly between the two, depending upon cellular coverage.

“Voice continuity and texting will be assured anywhere you have cellular and wireless coverage, but it will require a cell phone newer than an Apple 6,” Baird said.

Improved technology also means the Chatham Islands is about to receive its first functional cellular network through the Rural Connectivity Group (RCG), funded through the three main telcos Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees.

But as the technology driving the RBI 1.0 initiative starts to become obsolete, Telecommunications Users Association head Craig Young is seeking a clearer roadmap from the Government on how that technology will be upgraded.

“Compared to when RBI 1.0 started, we have witnessed a lot of improvements in technology. But we are not getting any real sense of a digital strategy going forward, although there is an industry transformation plan to come out,” Young said.

Like much of the country’s provincial infrastructure, Young says there was a real risk rural internet infrastructure could face decay.

“RBI 1.0 was the first ring outside the metro areas with 150 towers. There are improvements coming, some through RCG. RBI 1.0 is struggling with 3G now,” he said.

Baird says a $40-plus million tender has just been issued for RBI 1.0 upgrades throughout NZ for the 150 towers, owned wholly by Vodafone.

The company is also installing an Internet of Things (IoT) protocol to enable better equipment connectivity based on a standard platform.

He says a challenge remained ensuring fibre capacity hooked into 5G cellular towers was in place for backhaul, but again technology was coming to the fore with microwave technology now capable of fibre-like speeds for tower connection.

Overall Baird maintained the RCG joint venture has been a success for rural users, helped by world-leading technology that has enabled the towers to switch calls seamlessly between the different carriers.

Clark says the Government also remains committed to its election promise to provide an additional $60m committed to backhaul delivery in rural communities with poorer connectivity.

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