Monday, April 22, 2024

Universal internet access a welcome rural boost

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A levy to fund universal access to high-speed internet has been welcomed by technology user group TUANZ as another means to improve rural internet connectivity. Minister for the Digital Economy and Communications David Clark told delegates at this year’s rural connectivity symposium a universal basic internet access was a necessity now and one made even more so in light of the pandemic.
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A levy to fund universal access to high-speed internet has been welcomed by technology user group TUANZ as another means to improve rural internet connectivity.

Minister for the Digital Economy and Communications David Clark told delegates at this year’s rural connectivity symposium a universal basic internet access was a necessity now and one made even more so in light of the pandemic.

“There is work going ahead on this and looking at how it could be enabled,” Clark said.

TUANZ chief Craig Young says a levy-funded scheme could be relatively easily launched and was done in other countries.

“It is something we could easily implement through the Telecommunications Development Levy,” Young said.

The levy is used by the Government to pay for telco infrastructure not commercially viable, including broadband in rural areas and improvements to 111.

“For rural users it is as much about equity as it is about improving productivity in the primary sector,” he said.

Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA) chair Mike Smith says growing demand on rural internet systems was coming as much from farmers installing more digitised equipment as it was from Netflix demand.

“The tech we are seeing go on farms now is often so much greater than what we are seeing go into businesses in town,” Smith said.

The rate of adoption and demand for bandwidth was leaving providers scrambling to keep up and he cautioned failing to do so risked widening the broadband gap in some communities.

While welcoming the advances made through Rural Broadband Initiatives (RBI) 1 and 2, the fast-changing tech needs and equipment demanded a doubling down in the next five years on a programme that no party could step aside from and claim completion on.

“There is no magic bullet solution and connectivity will be through building a fabric of technology that is fit for purpose,” he said.

His members had been “upgrading like crazy” at sites across rural NZ to keep up with demand that had soared since the first lockdown in March last year.

“This also includes building into sites and IoT networks, which is still in its early days,” he said.

Estimates are rural broadband demand is up 75% under the latest lockdown compared to the last.

Similarly, Vodafone is building or upgrading 800 tower sites in the next two to three years and partnering with its other Rural Connectivity Group companies to build an additional 500 RBI 2 sites in the next two years.

Company strategic account manager Murray Osborne noted under its new ownership, Vodafone had enjoyed a shift in priorities to meet NZ’s unique internet challenges more closely.

“At the moment we are having a lot of conversations about RBI 1 issues, about capacity and government help and support in non-economic areas. We need to keep the pressure on government to continue investment,” Osborne said.

Further challenges lay with the low-orbit satellite network Starlink coming to NZ and effectively using the spectrum for free.

“There is a need there for symmetric regulation and they need to be brought into the fold so we are providing an equal playing field for all out there,” he said.

Clark says the sector was to establish a digital strategy in coming months to build greater cohesion into future development of the country’s internet infrastructure.

Under covid funding, the government had invested $15 million to help reduce congested wireless networks and a rural capacity programme for shovel ready projects, along with $60m promised in its election manifesto.

“The goal is for 99.8% of the population to access better broadband by 2023. We now have 85% of the population in 309 towns and cities who can access broadband by fibre, aiming at 87% by the end of 2022,” Clark said.

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