Fair go for rural
Having always played the poor cousin when it comes to Internet technology, rural New Zealand now wants to step out of the shadows and join the global Internet community. But how can this be done and what will it cost? And, if rural New Zealand has access to ultra-fast broadband, what will they do with it? Daniel Pilkington sought answers at the TUANZ Rural Broadband Symposium in Rotorua. It is not enough and it is not fair, says Federated Farmers. For the farmers’ political lobby group, rural broadband has become a major issue, which is why in 2009 it has stepped up its involvement. At this year’s symposium, Federated Farmers graduated to associated partner along with organiser TUANZ. In Rotorua, the Fed’s cause was championed by president Don Nicolson, as well as vice-president and telecommunications spokesman, Donald Aubrey. And the message from Aubrey in the symposium’s opening presentation was clear: rural New Zealand is not getting a fair go. Aubrey said farming has proved itself to be the backbone of the country and the engine room of the economy, accounting for 62% of export earnings. But this didn’t seem to be taken into account by the government when it set about planning the rollout of the fibre network, he asserted. Highlighting his point using simple farming math, Aubrey said that while one-quarter of the country’s population resides in rural New Zealand, the government has allocated only one-sixth of its overall investment in ultra-fast broadband to the rural sector.Aubrey said in fairness, rural New Zealand should at least be given an equal share of government funding based on population, which would mean increasing the $300 million currently on offer up to $500 million.(The $300 million includes the new levy on telecommunications companies that will INDEPTH replace the existing Telecommunications Service Obligation.) Aubrey believes the government needs to take rural broadband more seriously by being more ambitious with its fibre network plans, because it will only get one chance to do it. “What we want to say to the government is ‘get it right’,” he said. “It is a once-ina- lifetime opportunity and it needs to be implemented properly. The consequences of getting it wrong will have significant and long-lasting effects.” Getting ultra-fast broadband to rural communities would enable widespread use of analytical Internet-based farming tools to increase productivity and help rural people overcome the isolation of living in remote areas of the country, Aubrey said. “We want to be able to social network,” he told the gathering. “Becoming a digital ghetto is not what we want to be. We need First World solutions, not Third World solutions.”Aubrey said the recent announcement of an increased milk payout by Fonterra would go a long way towards helping the rural broadband fund hit the $500m he believes is needed. The increased payout would pump$1.8 billion into the New Zealand economy. If taxed at 30%, that would give the government $600m. He also suggested that increasing the new TSO levy to fund rural broadband would help. Once Aubrey finished his opening address, it was time for ICT Minister Steven Joyce to take to the podium and talk shop. Government’s vision While the government’s overall goal is to provide fibre to every home in the country, the mid-term sights are more conservative: to get broadband into 93% of rural schools over the next six years. There is a need to be realistic about the fibre rollout, Joyce said. Significant issues need to be addressed, not least of which is the sheer scope of connecting rural New Zealand.There are 200,000 households in rural New Zealand located on more than 76,000km of rural roads, compared to the 16,000km of urban roads. The government will begin its rural rollout by focusing on rural schools because it will significantly increase national fibre backhaul into rural communities through the rural schools. “Fibre backhaul is the main factor. Getting this in place will allow improved options for rural communities,” Joyce said. Once the fibre backhaul is established, the fibre network will be extended out from the school and into the community – a task the government expects hand over to a private partner. There is a major difference in the funding for the urban and the rural fibre rollouts which needs to be taken into consideration, said Joyce. The government’s $1.5 billion investment into ultra-fast broadband in urban New Zealand comes with strings attached; it’s expected to provide return. However the money for rural will be provided as a grant. While fibre is the “preferred option”, other options such as mobile broadband, or defunct analogue television broadcast frequencies could also be used in the quest to connect more remote areas. Farmers could also look at what they could to do help the process, whether that is allowing work to be undertaking on their land, or running the ‘last mile’ of fibre themselves, Joyce concluded. Broadband options Although fibre to the home is the overall goal, in reality it will take more than 20 years, says Stefaan Vanhastel, head of product marketing DSL for Alcatel-Lucent. In the meantime, don’t discard the existing copper network. Vanhastel, who travelled from Belgium to attend the symposium, believes that with some modification, such as bonding two DSL copper wires, you can double the bit rate at the same reach, or extend the reach for the same bit rate. In addition, there are improvements that can be made in wireless connectivity, such as using lower frequencies (sub-1GHz) to increase the wireless coverage in rural regions. If the goal is to provide every home in New Zealand with broadband, Vanhastel says there is a need to think logically. By employing a mix of difference options, including deep fibre, bonded DSL copper wire, wireless and satellite, you will be able to provide 100% of the country’s homes with broadband connectivity, he says. Tony Baird, managing director of Farmside, says satellite broadband is currently the driving force in the rural market.With more than 12,000 customers throughout rural New Zealand now subscribing to satellite broadband, satellite is fuelling broadband growth, he says. Satellite plans start around $50 a month, plus a set-up fee of around $300. Given that satellite is a developing technology, with speeds always improving, satellite provides the perfect “bridging option” to fibre, Baird says. Benefits of broadband While getting ultra-fast broadband to rural communities is both a complex and expensive commitment, what kind of benefits will it really have for the country? Lots, says Gavin McEwen, business manager farm software at Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC).With 5.4 million dairy cattle throughout the country producing 22% of New Zealand exports, dairy farming is one of the country’s biggest money spinners, he says. Broadband is an enabler – it enables the user, says McEwen. This is why getting broadband out into the dairy industry is so important. But broadband won’t “enable” farmers unless they have the applications to make use of it – applications such as LIC’s Minda On-farm computer system which, used alongside LIC’s national database, will help farmers to collate important on-farm data and make management decisions based around robust figures.Another broadband-enabled solution on display at the Symposium was CRS Cashmanager, a rural online accounting program. CRS Software managing director Brian Eccles says poor Internet speeds, latency and stability in rural areas are constraining the program’s use, but with ultra-fast broadband, farmers will be able to change with technology to better business management practices. Outcomes While there was a definite consensus that the government needs to be more ambitious with its plans for rural broadband, no one doubted the concept, says Ernie Newman, CEO of TUANZ. However, more work is defi nitely needed in regards to the fi ner details, he says. For that reason, TUANZ’s Rural Broadband Symposium provided the perfect outlet for debate and the “breeding grounds for collaboration”. Newman also believes it is important not to just focus on connectivity, as applications are equally important. In addition, rural broadband is about health and education, as well as farming. Newman believes there is also too much emphasis placed on “fairness” in regards to urban to rural funding.However, this is not the way forward. Given the market failure of broadband in rural communities and the economic productivity of these regions, the government needs to provide resources based on where they will receive “the greatest gain”, he says. Although Steven Joyce is pushing the government’s fibre rollout along at an impressive speed, if the thoughts on offer at the Rural Broadband Symposium 2009 are anything to go by, there is still a lot of work to go before we get to see the final picture.