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More work ahead for rural broadband

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Federated Farmers’ latest rural broadband survey has highlighted some of the cracks in the country’s rural network that opened under the stress of the covid-19 lockdown.
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Craig Young | September 16, 2020 from GlobalHQ on Vimeo.

Based on responses from 900 people, the survey has revealed 25% of New Zealand’s rural users are stuck on a relatively slow internet speed of 5Mbps, and only one-third of users had uncapped data plans.

Feds president Andrew Hoggard says the survey was conducted mid-lockdown, and came at a time when the entire network was under unprecedented levels of stress. He says while a third of users being capped may seem high, there would be a portion who were at the high end of data allowances.

However, he says that the 5Mbps speed for 25% of rural users was concerning, particularly over lockdown when farm businesses were conducting data hungry activity like Zoom calls.

He referred to then Feds president Katie Milne who had to grapple with 1.5Mbps during Zoom calls within the executive over lockdown.

“I am told you need at least 1.5Mbps allowance per person in the household,” he said.

Telecommunication Users Association of NZ (TUANZ) chief executive Craig Young says he was not overly surprised to learn that a proportion were still on such a slow speed.

“Two things are coming out here. One is that some are still on copper, distant from cabinets and cannot get wireless,” he said.

“Secondly, there is still some older wireless Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) services that are under the constraint of capacity and are older technology.”

Like Hoggard, he believes the problems experienced were increasingly localised, to the point of household clusters within a district, rather than being widespread across a region.

“So, what you may be seeing is in some places with those conditions it is getting congested. It can come right down to a particular tower with these problems,” he said.

“With projects being done now, there is infilling going on in areas to fix those problems. But it won’t stop them altogether, it will keep happening as long as demand for data grows.”

The survey also revealed 60% of rural users have access to 4G cellular. While that appeared a reasonable amount, Hoggard cautioned it did not indicate how much of a farm’s footprint might receive that level of coverage.

“For us, we get three to four bar coverage, but it is only over 50% of the farm, the rest is gone.”

At TUANZ’s online symposium this week, Wireless Internet Service Providers Mike Smith chair said cellphone via WiFi technology offered an emerging solution to farmers seeking better cellular connectivity in difficult cellphone regions.

Young says any funding post-RBI had to recognise there was a constant need to upgrade technology.

“The more it gets used, the more it will get congested,” he said.

He says the Rugby World Cup and covid-19 lockdown had been two key catalysts to keeping the infrastructure upgrades continuing, and he welcomed what appeared to be continuing cross-party support among politicians to hold fast to broadband plans.

Smith says the challenge for rural broadband delivery using wireless services was the high operating costs that accompanied the technology. 

Fibre to rural users would always be hard to justify economically and while RBI 1 and 2 had significantly lifted coverage nationally, there remained work to be done in parts of the country.

“The additional $50 million on offer is welcomed, over the next 10 years much more will be needed as we upgrade to meet demand. We do not want the gap to widen in 10 years’ time, when we have been working hard to close it,” he said.

“The Netflix era has changed things and rural networks need to keep up with it.”

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