Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Rural NZ urged to weigh pros and cons of cellular-satellite coverage

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TUANZ CEO urges management of expectations as alternative comms come to the fore.
Almost one in five farms in New Zealand are shifting to satellite broadband services such as Starlink.
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While not equal to fibre, the much-touted cellular-satellite broadband service coming to New Zealand promises to fill some gaps in rural coverage across the country.

TUANZ CEO Craig Young welcomes the service’s arrival, with One NZ, formerly Vodafone, announcing in April it has partnered with Starlink to provide connectivity to mobiles in zero cellular coverage areas. The service is predicted to kick off next year. 

Earlier this month Spark also announced it will be providing a satellite to mobile service for customers with a trial set to launch later this year.

“It has a real place. It gives coverage to areas that don’t have it, but it does not necessarily solve the accessibility issue given the cost of installation and to have the service,”  Young said.

While for farms it may be a business expense that can be claimed, the $150-a-month cost is likely to be an obstacle to many lower socio-economic rural communities, he said.

A recent Commerce Commission report looked at options open to rural communities for connectivity beyond the national fibre footprint plan and how they stack up for price and performance. 

Over 80% of the country now has fibre, but more than one in 10 households do not and almost one in five farms are shifting to satellite broadband services like Starlink.

Young also cautioned about the inability to share a single satellite account across a number of devices or users, possibly demanding multiple connections and with them, additional expense. A farm dairy, for example, would require a separate account for the farm home.

Young cautioned the satellite service being offered at present for broadband is also provided by an overseas company (Starlink) and that can bring its own challenges when users require assistance. 

“There are also no regulations on them around that, even if you are buying the receiver from a local outlet.”

When it came to satellite-cellular coverage next year, he cautioned it would not mean users could have the luxury of watching Netflix on their cell phone.

“The 100% coverage will be text only. 

“But that can still be enough for people in events like Gabrielle. The thing we have heard the most from people in areas like Ruatoria is they just wanted to be able to message loved ones that they are all right.”
Young said NZ is uniquely fortunate to have access to the burgeoning Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite systems that have come early to this country and cover the north-south length.

He said he would like to see “domestic roaming” capability introduced at no cost, where cell phones can default to the satellite systems if other transmission methods are not available.

“They will play a big part in fixing network holes but now attention needs to return to network capacity and capability.

“We can fix those holes. Now let’s put investment into continuing to improve what we have, whether it is through wireless providers, fibre further out or through 5G. Internationally we are doing reasonably well, but we do not want to take the foot off the accelerator.”

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