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On the front line of connectivity

01 Apr 2010

As the guardians of their communities, councils have great responsibilities to every New Zealander. They are often the biggest employers in their regions, and provide essential services that affect our daily lives, plus are on the front line in case of civil emergencies. So how do councils run their communications networks to meet these diverse demands?One distinctive aspect in how local government uses telecommunications, is the broad range of communications tools the sector relies on, says Geoff Swainson, manager of development and infrastructure at Local Government New Zealand (LGNZ), the national representative body for councils. “The communications needs of councils are quite diverse and cover a wide range of tools. They tend to use all of it.”Landlines remain the average council’s primary means of communication, but councils are also significant users of mobile, while radio is widely used for remote monitoring of equipment and devices like flood warning systems, says Swainson.Radio is not yet giving way to the internet for such services, says Swainson, but he does not rule out the potential of wireless internet replacing radio in some instances. “Radio is still entrenched. In metropolitan environments hard-wired solutions are the best, but in remote locations, radio is the most robust and cheapest solution. It is hard to envisage that changing rapidly.”Monitoring of waste water and water treatment plants generally still runs across traditional telco lines, says Mike Manson, chief executive of the Association of Local Government Information Management.Emergency frontlineCouncils do have a unique responsibility, however, in terms of civil defence, and in most cases coordinate and manage responses to an emergency. Councils therefore work closely with utility providers to ensure crucial communications and utility lifelines remain operable, or are rapidly repaired, during an emergency, says Swainson.“Most councils with civil defence headquarters attached to them are self-contained in terms of water and power supplies. If their ability to communicate through hard-wired systems is impaired, they have access to radio broadcasts on local stations to get messages out.”Manson agrees that due to their civil defence and emergency response responsibilities, councils require access to good communications links, adding it is especially important for contact centres lines to remain open. “In times of disaster people turn to their local council because other services get flooded.”Robustness of communications systems is therefore a major consideration, says Manson. In addition to his role at ALGIM, Manson also looks after the telecommunications needs of Palmerston North City Council and cites this city’s backup system as being very robust. “We’ve got another PABX and contract centre facility on standby. In the event of our main systems being knocked out, we have the ability to relocate quickly.”Other security systems, such as CCTV cameras in central business districts, also depend on robust communications networks, while parking metres and traffic signals are also linked to centralised systems, adds Manson. “Councils need a range of services to keep citizens safe and need to ensure these are working well.”Meanwhile, broadband is increasingly being used by councils as a two-way communications tool to interact with their communities. “The internet is not just being used for sending messages out but also for getting messages back in,” says Swainson, adding more local government politicians and mayors are even using technology like Twitter.“This shows councils are not backwards in using technology – they genuinely try and use a broad range of tools to communicate with communities.”In terms of general telecommunications, more councils are embracing unified communications systems, while the use of IP telephony is also on the increase, although there is little change to PSTN lines coming into organisations, says Manson.Another innovative way in which councils are starting to communicate with residents is through text messaging. In fact, ALGIM is involved in a project to develop a national text numbering system for councils.Under the system, residents will be able to report faults or issues by text to a four-digit number with the last two digits a unique identifier for their council, explains Manson. “The first two digits will be standard across the country and people will just need to remember the last two for their area. ALGIM is trying to come up with a system to route messages to the relevant council.”While ALGIM runs a Joint Procurement Group, this does not cover telecommunications services, as councils benefit from special government packages available from both Telecom and Vodafone.Overall most councils enjoy a reasonable level of connectivity, but often surrounding communities, especially in rural areas, do not, says Swainson, adding that lack of connectivity does impair the ability of councils to connect with their communities.In some regions socio-economic conditions are a barrier to councils using technology to communicate with their constituents, he adds. “In various parts of the country, PC ownership is quite low. For people who struggle to live on a daily basis those things become a luxury. This is probably more significant [than connectivity] in terms of arranging communications.”Stuck in a hiatusDespite being caught up in the hiatus in broadband roll-out as the new government changed the direction set by its predecessor, local government remains undeterred in its willingness to be involved, says Swainson.“With the Broadband Investment Fund (the Labour government’s broadband scheme), local government was all keyed up and ready to go. The change of government has not taken away that desire – it just stopped the clock in a sense.“You will not find a council or mayor who does not believe their community needs better and faster connectivity. They understand this will contribute to the social fabric of their community and also has economic benefits to the community.”Although LGNZ has not formulated an official view on how local government should become involved in the impending fibre roll-outs, it has drafted a preliminary broadband-friendly protocol guide which is available to all councils. The guide was developed with various industry parties and the MED, and contains case studies of how councils have become involved in fibre roll-out.“It is still a work in progress, but it looks at a smorgasbord of issues councils need to think through,” says Swainson.While councils want to see faster connectivity come on-stream in their communities as soon as possible, they have a range of issues to consider – particularly the reliability of proposed roll-outs. “Councils continuously look at technologies and methodologies to get reliable, sustainable services installed at the best possible cost. One thing the recent XT failures have taught telcos is that people want reliability,” says Manson.He adds that ALGIM plans to provide councils research support on broadband deployment. “We are linked to eight other countries and have access to information on broadband and fibre connectivity that would benefit New Zealand councils.”Local government should encourage and assist broadband deployment, says Manson. “There are areas where work needs to be done by local councils, such as getting more standards in place to aid faster roll-out.”Doing it for themselvesSome local authorities, meanwhile have taken matters into their own hands. Both Christchurch and Wellington city councils have invested in the establishment of fibre networks through Enable Networks and CityLink respectively. And North Shore City Council invested in the North Shore Education and Access Loop (NEAL) with Vector.But it is not just the big councils taking the initiative in connecting local communities, with the Tararua District Council a prime example in this regard.The council has partnered with InspireNet and FX Networks to develop an inter-town fibre network connecting a number of towns such as Dannevirke, Eketahuna and Mangatainoka.The network connects businesses and schools in the towns to fibre, while providing backhaul for InspireNet to provide a wireless rural broadband service.Tararua District Council corporate services manager Peter Wimsett says there was a strong business case for the council to invest in the network, especially as it needed the connectivity itself. “We are quite unique in our geographic spread and had to connect different business centres for data communications.”However, the outcomes for the community from ultrafast broadband “nailed” the final decision. “We recognised that education, healthcare, the rural sector and urban businesses would benefit from it.”According to James Watts of InspireNet, the Tararua District Council’s understanding of the importance of connectivity to its community, and its willingness to become the anchor tenant on the network for the next 25 years, were vital to the success of the project. “The council understands that if they do not participate in deploying connectivity, it won’t happen,” says Watts. “It understands that a huge amount of kids leave the community because of a lack of opportunity and that local businesses need connectivity.”Local government needs to be involved in broadband deployment as it is a critical piece of infrastructure – just like water mains and sewerage pipes, says Watts. “They should be actively involved in connecting schools, libraries and community centres.”Watts says many communities have been waiting for far too long for government funding to deploy broadband. He believes in “just getting on and doing it” as the gains of connectivity are too great to wait around for, especially in education.Wimsett agrees: “How many years does one have to wait while you suffer or lose ground? We made a tactical decision to be relevant and give options to our community. It would be very sad to see business close up because internet connectivity is hopeless.”But local authorities have long viewed communications infrastructure as not part of their core business, says Wimsett. “That’s what telcos did. Councils are experts in infrastructure, not telecommunications.”However, where there has been a failure in commercial broadband to deliver services, local government should step in. “Local government is often the man on the street and is at the cutting edge of delivering infrastructure services – we know infrastructure. We should not be in the business of delivering internet services, but should certainly be a facilitator in the installation of broadband infrastructure.”Councils should at least be involved in the build design of local broadband networks, says Wimsett. “They know where existing infrastructure is and know where the businesses are that need these services first.”Watts adds councils need to develop a policy for how they will support broadband deployment and should appoint a dedicated person to manage their involvement. “You need a person to actively participate supporting it. In bigger councils where no one is in charge, it ends up in a massive finger-pointing exercise because no one wants to take responsibility.”