Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Rural NZ bears opportunity cost of poor WiFi

Neal Wallace
Communities say their connectivity is substandard, congested and inconsistent.
The Commerce Commission says it has seen some evidence that rural internet consumers might be getting a raw deal.
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Rural people do not want gold-plated internet connectivity – just reliable services that allow them to perform basic online activities.

Poor connectivity leaves rural people with no option but to turn to libraries, marae and schools to link into their WiFi or to study or work late at night or very early in the morning to avoid congestion.

These are some of the findings of a rural digital connectivity study by Research First, commissioned by the ministries for primary industries and business, immigration and employment.

New Zealand has more than 4.5 million internet users with 94% internet penetration as of January 2021, but rural communities say their connectivity is substandard, congested and inconsistent.

The study was conducted last year during the Auckland Anniversary Day floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, which heightened the importance of a resilient network.

Rural users want internet access for the same reasons as their urban cousins – running a business, schoolwork, study, accessing healthcare appointments, connecting with friends and family, seeking information, shopping online, playing games, using social media or livestreaming.

Researchers found the core issues were limited bandwidth restricting access and use at preferred times, unreliable coverage, the high cost of possible solutions such as satellites, and a lack of knowledge and confidence on connectivity options.

Users say they have adapted to poor connectivity by travelling to places with better services or learning to work around the loss of connection, high usage times, and numerous localised drop-out zones.

One interviewee was told to cut down trees to get better reception but countered that those trees were a primary form of shelter.

Another pays $300 a month for a WiFi service that is poorer than that available in town.

One person running a business from home has to stop work at 3pm when the network becomes too congested and another completes their studies at 1am to ensure their connection isn’t interrupted and they don’t lose their work.

Others open documents at 5am or midnight to get around slow WiFi speeds, while anyone holding an online meeting contends with links that constantly freeze.

Poor connectivity was also identified as an employment barrier for farmers and business owners.

One interviewee said it is common for rural people to park outside their local school or marae and connect with their WiFi network to send emails or do online shopping or other tasks needing reliable connections.

During the covid lockdown the connectivity was so slow, one person said, their children could not do their schoolwork.

Some users relied on access through an extension or multiple booster modems, either from their original modem or from their neighbours, to ensure they receive connections at different parts of their house.

Other solutions require investment such as VHF systems and satellite phones, but since the study was completed, One New Zealand and SpaceX have begun forming a partnership to provide 100% mobile coverage across the country.

For many internet users, copper cabling, which provides landline access, is the most reliable source of WiFi connectivity.

Users told researchers they are worried what will happen to their internet access if those lines are disconnected.

Research First concluded that, rather than looking at per capita cost when assessing improved services, the government and agencies should look at the  opportunity cost of rural businesses not being able to compete and people not being able to thrive.

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