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Rural broadband funding fails to excite farmers, users

Last week the government earmarked $15 million to improve rural broadband. If that doesn't sound like much, you are not alone. Both Tuanz and Federated Farmers have complained that it is not enough.

A media statement from Communications Minister Kris Faafoi and Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones says the money will pay to upgrade rural mobile towers and the wireless backhaul connecting towers to the networks. There will also be money for households to install external antennae to boost reception.

In other words, this is less about extending the rural broadband footprint and more about giving people who already have a connection a better experience.

Faafoi says: "The government’s aim is to provide access to around 99.8 percent of New Zealanders. However, while that work continues some households in isolated regions require reliable access to broadband services in light of Covid-19 – particularly households with school-age children who need internet access for remote learning. The work brings forward capacity upgrades to meet increased demand for the internet where the urgency is most acute."

Adding capacity

Many rural broadband towers are either at capacity or are nearly there. Rural fixed wireless performance is variable. In some cases fixed wireless broadband is not up to the job of delivering much needed connectivity.

Jones says upgrading the infrastructure this way is likely to be the fastest way to provide broadband to rural households that are in the coverage area but where capacity is stretched.

He says: “The government, through Crown Infrastructure Partners, is prioritising the upgrade of mobile towers in rural areas where there are high numbers of school-age children living in households that cannot access the internet.

“This will provide school-age students in remote areas with access to the digital connectivity programme that the government recently rolled out to support distance learning. It means that students, particularly those in low-income rural households, can continue with their schooling in exactly the same way as those in urban areas”.

A drop in the bucket

Tuanz CEO Craig Young says the money is "a drop in the bucket". He says there are still gaps between the rural broadband experience and that seen by people in urban areas. He says things are worse in a lockdown when children are staying at home."

Young wants the government to commit to a programme ensuring all rural users have the same experience as urban.

He says: “In particular this means further support to the local wireless ISPs to continue to upgrade their networks, and to commit to upgrading the previous and current RBI mobile footprint to the latest technology as quickly as possible.”

Farmers Weekly reports Federated Farmers vice-president Andrew Hoggard says big rural areas still have slow or no internet access. He told the paper: “The vast majority of New Zealanders living in towns and cities have absolutely no idea how bad internet access still is in some parts of the country.”

“If you are looking for a shovel-ready project this would be a good one. The shovels are already in the ground.

Rural broadband is hard

There are no easy answers to improving rural broadband. Wisps do a great job in many areas. They understand local needs and conditions which makes it easier to deliver the right services. Part of the problem is that the cost of providing a connection goes up the further you are from other people. If the bigger mobile carriers thought it would be profitable, they'd extend their networks to reach further into the bush without looking for government subsidies or funding.

There are two ways New Zealand can address these issues. One is to accept the higher cost of rural communications. We might expect people living in the bush to pay extra to cover those costs. After all this is what happens with other services such as rural post and parcel deliveries. It costs more to deliver a parcel delivered to a rural address. The cost is not prohibitive.

Alternatively we bite the bullet and pay the extra cost of getting first rate broadband to everyone. Or at least almost everyone. This is how it worked 100 years or so ago when copper telephone networks extended to the furthest reaches.

Either way, it's a matter of money.

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