Talk about how improved infrastructure can improve rural connectivity is all very well but what is needed are practical solutions, Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand (TUANZ) chief executive Craig Young says.
One of the positives that Young took out of Rautaki Hanganga o Aotearoa – NZ Infrastructure Strategy 2022–2052, which was published earlier this week, was that the report recognised how important it is to people in rural NZ to be connected.
“It does talk about the requirements for good infrastructure in this space, but they don’t really have any concrete solutions,” Young said of the strategy produced by the NZ Infrastructure Commission.
“Their main answer is a national digital strategy, which I think we have all been calling for and we know the minister (Digital Economy and Communications Minister David Clark) is working on one, but we would like to see a specific, practical, multi-party agreement on the way forward for rural.
“We don’t want it to be a political football, we want to see a 10-year plan on upgrading the quality of rural broadband to being at least as equal to the experience urban users get.
“And then keeping it there.”
He said right now, rural connectivity is still playing catch-up to its urban counterpart.
“While there have been some improvements, particularly in coverage, there are still issues around quality in places,” he said.
He agrees with the strategy’s emphasis on the need to accelerate the adoption of digital change but says as the situation stands, rural and urban users have different needs.
“It’s not just about saying ‘well, we’ll give them (rural users) something that will keep them going’,” he said.
“We have to bring rural (people) up to the same standard, so that they can do the same things that urban dwellers can.”
An underlying theme of the infrastructure report is sustainability and Young said better rural digital coverage will help that, as better digital access will help inform and support sustainable farming practices.
He said solutions to shortfalls in rural digital coverage will not be found by giving financial support to one or two providers and expecting that approach to be successful.
“It requires a whole new approach. It requires figuring out what rural users actually need,” he said.
“These days we’ve got so much data about where rural people live and what sort of coverage they can get, we need to be flipping this on its head and saying instead of meeting the suppliers’ needs, let’s meet the customers’ needs.
“Work back from the customer.”
He said that information should be utilised to find the best and most cost-effective solutions to bring rural users’ coverage up to the equivalent of urban users, or at least as well on the way to that as possible.
“It could be that a particular user gets a customised solution, which might be one of the new satellite connections, or it might be (their coverage challenges) are able to be solved with a group of others,” he said.
“We’ve got to get away from just going ‘we can give a big chunk of money to one provider and they will solve all the problems’.
“It doesn’t work that way. And we know it doesn’t work that way.”