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Aubrey: Broadband or Bust


Donald Aubrey
Federated Farmers spokesman for Telecommunications

3.55PM MONDAY 23 JUNE 2008


Broadband or Bust

Forty years seems like a time ago. Some of you here weren’t even born. Some can remember what they were doing the day the Wahine sank at the entrance to Wellington harbour. Others will recall that coke was a drink – not a drug. The party-line was not what the Prime Minister told you to toe – it was a form of telecommunication.

For us living out in the rural community, the party-line was a system whereby up to a dozen neighbours were all on the one phone line and each had to take our turn and wait for our neighbours to get off the line before we could make a call. This was achieved by uplifting the receiver and uttering, usually in as stern-a-voice as one could muster, the word “working?” If others were on the line then a firm “Yes” was the standard response.

Unfortunately if Mrs Brown and Mrs Smith were in heavy discussion and you desperately needed to contact say a transport company then tough! On such occasions the business of farming was halted while the finer points of life were being resolved, albeit slowly.

It was primitive yes – but it meant that we could, with a bit of patience, call up the stock and station agent to come and check our wool or sale livestock, arrange the shearing gang, order other items for the farm and keep in touch with family and friends. Even this very basic service was at the time deemed a necessity.

Since then faxes have been and virtually gone, replaced by email. Mobile phones and texting are the all the rage. There are not many people – especially young folk – who do not own a mobile phone. So long as they can be sourced in the appropriate colour then they are deemed a necessity.

Now let’s go to the next step –broadband. This has now become as important to me in 2008 as the party-line was in 1968 – broadband is in essence a necessity. It’s great that businesses in the cities have broadband and I am pleased for them. But the reality is that food production provides 47 percent of our nation’s export earnings and that about 40 percent of all New Zealanders are employed directly or indirectly in the food industry. Many of the technologies and manufactured products that we produce and export are designed to service the primary sector. New Zealand is still essentially a large farm.

Our primary sector has always been science driven. The theme for the National Fieldays this year was science; a few years ago it was e-commerce. Inventions such as refrigeration, the aeroplane, topdressing, electric fencing, new pasture cultivars, new breeds of animals, computers, and farm machines have all collectively contributed to the growth and modernisation of the primary sector. Science has told us that we can earn more from some land by growing grapes instead of grazing sheep. It’s been able to size aquifers so that more water can be used for sustainable irrigation. The list of developments is almost endless.

What’s changed in recent years is that modern technologies and communication systems have removed the geographic isolation that once set New Zealand apart from the rest of the world. The click of a mouse and, in an instant, information is transferred across the world. We are forever part of the global economy. We saw that recently with high commodity prices being reflected in our own food prices.

For farmers like myself, our businesses are as big and as complex as many businesses in the city. Us rural types are great adopters of technology and we recognise the benefits that it can provide. We need access to information and contact with people just as much as a consultant working on Queen St. Farmers of the 21st century rely on computers and the internet for market information, farm management data and their accounts. We have to interact with central and local government, banks, farmer networks and suppliers, including transport companies. For those with tourism businesses, broadband is an economic necessity.

But it’s not just about economics. Broadband helps us keep in touch with far flung friends and family and it is also a must for general safety and security around our homes. Technology also helps farmers better manage their environmental impacts – for example, GPS application of fertiliser.

We have no choice but to use the internet. In fact I would argue that it’s more important to us than it is for many urban dwellers.

Which I guess brings me back to the theme of my address - the need for all farmers to have access to broadband. The dial-up speeds for many rural subscribers to the internet is painful. It can take some of our members an excruciating two to three minutes just to download the front page the Federation’s website. This takes less than half-a-second in the city.

Federated Farmers has long advocated the need for an early roll-out of broadband to rural areas and to give government and the opposition their due, they have been sympathetic to our pleas. We know the cost is high and the number of subscribers is limited – in fact New Zealand is quite unique. A small population that is reliant on food and fibre exports for its survival. For this sector to provide the nation with its wealth and everyday New Zealanders with their incomes we must remain competitive.

Despite rising costs we still have a competitive advantage because of our adaptation of science and technology and if broadband isn’t rolled out to the remote rural sector, then that advantage could easily be wiped out. Satellite technology at $100 a month is expensive and the quality is at times not as good as we’d like.

I was intrigued at the tongue in cheek suggestion of Ernie Newman of Telecommunications Users Association of New Zealand suggesting that farmers themselves might like to roll-out the fibre optic cable in rural areas to save money. Ernie - for the record, farmers in the past have built irrigation and water supply systems, but this might just be too great a challenge – who knows! If it were not for farmer assistance, the establishment of electricity lines in the valley I live in, in South Canterbury, would have been delayed, possibly for years.

Ultimately technology and the market will provide the solution but the government also has a role. After all, 40 years ago we farmers were trying to persuade the government of the day to replace party-lines with direct connections and eventually it happened. Although coverage is still patchy and there is still much to do, we have now got cell phone coverage in many rural areas. Why not broadband? This is a technological challenge, which needs the support of the service providers such as Telecom as well as government.

I stress again – broadband is not an optional extra for farmers – it is a necessity if we are to continue to remain competitive in global markets and if New Zealanders are to retain first world standards of living.


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