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Bad news for rural broadband

Sometimes reality can bite, and that looks to be the case with the latest TrueNet report on rural broadband, which has actually seen real world performance of rural broadband connections decline.

This is surprising because a review of the RBI spin machine leads you to believe that its all sorted, the problem is that it isn't and it won't be sorted for quite a while.

The reason is simple NZ is a really awkward shape from an engineering perspective and farmers choose to live in strange and remote places. Getting adequate services to them is hard and the business models are ugly if you take the traditional approach (especially if you want a telco style return on capital in 5 years).

The other problem is that many urban technologies aren't a good fit beyond relatively densely settled horticultural districts or compact Waikato style dairy farms. DSL performance degrades over distance and even the fasters xDSL's run out of puff about 1km or so from the cabinet.

And its not really very economic to deploy 1 cabinet per subscriber and even then a lot of farms have long driveways. Farmers basically have 2 needs, reliable broadband to connect increasingly sophisticated farming operations to the world and ubiquitous mobile coverage, mainly voice but with a bit of data thrown in.

The TrueNet survey confirms that despite the hype, things aren't getting better for most rural users, in fact they can look forward to them getting worse, with ageing copper infrastructure, a cash-strapped Chorus and no ongoing TSO beyond the end of the RBI.

More and better data would be great, TrueNet want more rural probes and their are also many rural subscribers either on the Farmside satellite network or using local wireless operators like inspire.net or AmuriNet (I was a happy user of The Pacific.net when I was back living in rural Marlborough) who don't really show up in these results.

4G fixed wireless will help enormously, but it will have to be competitively priced with realistic data caps, but ultimately I still believe the answer has to be fibre to the farm.

It can (& has been) done, but it requires out of the box thinking, an acceptance of a degree of self reliance along with a community based funding, build and ownership model - a bit like Northpower are proposing now that they have some time on their hands.

Plus it fits with what I am hearing anecdotally and at forums like Nethui, the RBI solved a number of issues for the Government but it didn't really solve rural broadband at its most basic level. The TrueNet results just illustrate this and also show us where we would've ended up if Telecom hadn't been forced to take broadband seriously. 

NZ needs to take rural broadband seriously as it has a real impact on our wealth as a first world economy built on primary industries & tourism. It's probably the one area where we can also be an ICT leader too! The 'Internet of Cows' has huge potential for us.

The ability to monitor and manage our environment in real time with cheap sensors on a ubiquitous wireless infrastructure can put 'Dirty Dairying' and other scare campaigns to bed forever.

Chris O'Connell is the interim of CEO and a director of Tuanz, the Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand.

Comments and questions
8

This is very interesting, as we at Wireless Nation can currently offer 7 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload, via Optus D2 satellite, our current platform is capable of delivering up to 30 Mbps download and 4 Mbps upload speeds.
We are currently working on a new network option which will hopefully see us delivering up to 200 Mbps download to the rural areas by the end of next year, so from our point of view the future is very bright for rural NZ.

Was surprised to see that 'fibre to the farm' was seen as the best option. Digging ditches across thousands of kms seems illogical with mobile coverage increasing in area, speed and dropping in price.

Farmers can pull in fibre ( that is strong and actually quite cheap) with a mole plough. Because they would be refused access to 'their' road reserve they would pull it inside the fence. I thought wireless or satellite would suffice too and Mr Smales system might be great in his region but its not for everyone. And so getting access to the fibre backbone if desired needs made easier. After all the Crown now surely 'owns' a fair chunk of the asset. If they hadnt intervened with taxpayer cash i would not be so annoyed at the lack of progress. The self help attitude of farmer has been muted by providers promising much bit over time delivering little. Or thats how it appears.

Farmers prefer self reliance over government intervention and because we could see market failure or at least an internet access and quality market failing when I was president of Federated Farmers we set up a company called Fibre From Farms (F cubed). The idea was that farmers would pull their own fibre to at least the roadside, if not to a cabinet where we hoped that under the RBI we might obtain access. Then along came the RBI and threw $48m then another $252 m in the bin. The upshot is what Mr O'Connell exposes; prompt self reliance was shunned in favour of waiting for ?x!?#$% while taxpayer money is utilised to do what? It's hard to see where I live.!

The farmers of north Yorkshire are able to do it for themselves: see more here - http://b4rn.org.uk/

Don't be swayed by the "it costs a lot to dig through New Zealand" because it costs about the same as in Yorkshire and in north Sweden through the tundra and they're both doing it quite quickly.

Paul

Paul, i would have it ( fibre) in 'by lunchtime' but therein lies the dead end. How to get access to the main trunk line is a serious problem. If the Crown had not become so entangled in the provision of BB then i wouldnt be asking for anything. That the Crown has used my money to advantage some over others is typical of big Govt getting it wrong.

I agree with Don farmers need both high capacity broadband and excellent mobile coverage, wireless is not always an adequate alternative to fixed broadband, I'm already hearing about problems with the RBI fixed wireless service that cause it to require a full reset when it tries to switch to another tower.

Don is quite right about farmers ability to build and share infrastructure, as a farm boy myself I grew up knowing that all the things towns had provided to them we did for ourselves (water, roading, sewerage, rubbish disposal etc).

Fibre to the farm is also going to be the only way for farmers to participate in the 'Gigabit' economy that will be the norm within the next decade, it is unlikely that satellite or wireless will ever support these speeds and our ageing copper can't even keep up with todays needs.

My grandfather & his neighbours ran the copper into the Waikaia Valley in eastern Southland before WW1 to bring in the telephone, the answer is going to be the same this century.

We (the farmers) can lay fibre no problem. We've laid our own phone line twice, one to each house (well just the last 300m of it over our property, not the remaining 8km back to the exchange). We've laid many pipes for water troughs around the property. We can lay our own fibre given half a chance, we've got the gear.

If the telcos would just involve us a bit we'd be happy to help out any way we can. Right now it looks as though we will all be on copper forever when fibre runs 1.8km from my house.