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 or AmuriNet (I was a happy user of The 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.

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