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Community Owned Telcos for the Regions?

MEDIA RELEASE
15 November, 01

Community Owned Telcos for the Regions?

APATHY from large telcos about developing high-speed telecommunications services in rural New Zealand, has spurred some communities to consider setting up their own local telephone companies.

Community telcos are common in countries such as the United States, but unheard of in New Zealand, where large corporates dominate the telecommunications sector, says Steve Canny, convenor of a new rural steering committee established in Wellington this week.

Representatives from rural economic development agencies, local authorities, the education sector, user groups, and other interested parties elected the five member committee, with technical support from Industry New Zealand, at a meeting hosted by the Ministry of Economic Development.

Mr Canny, who is also the development, policy and special projects manager for Venture Southland, says lack of modern communications infrastructure in the provinces is a national concern. Recent research in the Otago/Southland, Taranaki, and Far North regions have demonstrated the limitations of existing networks, he says.

“If the regions don’t take a stand and proactively overcome the barriers of delivering high speed communications to their communities, there is a real chance it will never happen in rural New Zealand.”

“Decisions about how to deliver these services may vary from region to region, but we have a common vision that access to decent telecommunications infrastructure is essential for social and economic development. These services need to be available on a whole of community basis, to farmers and everyone at the end of the line – not just those who live in towns.”

The New Zealand Broadband Communications Steering Group will lead the charge, challenging Telecom and other telcos to invest in rural high speed services – or face competition from local community-owned start-ups, says Mr Canny.

The feasibility of a community-owned telco is already being explored in the Far North, and the concept is attracting interest in other areas.

“In Southland the idea of a community owned telco is a fallback position. We would prefer to see a robust incumbent invest in the infrastructure we need. But we recognise that Telecom is probably unwilling to make the investment – so rural communities may have no option but to become their own telecommunications service provider.”

“It’s an issue facing Northland, Southland, Otago, Westland, the East Coast, Wairarapa, Waikato, and every other corner of rural New Zealand. That’s why we’re taking a cooperative, regional approach to the challenge of bringing modern telecommunications to even the most remote parts of New Zealand.”

Emerging technologies would allow community telcos in rural areas to bypass Telecom’s copper network, he says.

“We are interested in seeing robust, stable communications networks established that could, if necessary, replicate the existing copper network, and also provide a very significant growth path for future services.”

“It is lamentable that the regions are having to drive these initiatives because there has been so little rural telecommunications development over the past decade. Without better infrastructure, rural New Zealand can’t participate in the new industries or e-learning, and rural businesses will not be able to compete or provide similar services to those in urban areas.”

The new steering group will share information, develop strategies for regional communications development, and help communities develop a voice to influence the direction of future services – and who provides them, says Mr Canny.

“We’re being forced to develop our own solutions, because the telcos aren’t offering any. What is happening in rural telecommunications in New Zealand today, is not dissimilar to the evolution of the power industry last century.”

“In an ideal world, an existing telco would see the long-term opportunities of supporting rural New Zealand. But if that doesn’t happen, rural New Zealand is gearing itself to make its own investments, and create its own opportunities.”


ENDS

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