Farmers demand better broadband

Case for better connectivity raised at Rural Broadband Symposium

If a foot and mouth outbreak were to occur, New Zealands’s GDP would drop by 10 per cent and it would set the country back by four to five years in its economic trajectory. That’s according to the Ted Coats, Chairman of the National Animal Identification and Tracing (NAIT) — an electronic tracking system for farm animals set up by the government to electronically track the nation’s farm animals.

Speaking at the TUANZ Rural Broadband Symposium in Rotorua at the end of last month, Coats said NAIT intends to track the movements of 5.9 million dairy cattle, 4.1 million beef cattle and 1.2 million deer. The primary purpose of NAIT is compliance, so that if a foot and mouth outbreak does occur in one region, it can be contained immediately and any animals moved from the infected area can be traced and destroyed.

All NAIT records are electronic and data is constrained to 56Kbit/s bandwidth, in order to ensure the farmer on dial-up connections can participate.

As the NAIT concept demonstrates, connectivity is becoming vital to the rural economy.

It is a familiar message for regular attendees at the TUANZ event (now in its fourth year), but this year the focus of the discussion shifted from why better connectivity is required, to how it will be achieved. At the centre of this is the government’s $300 million Rural Broadband Initiative.

Funded by a mix of taxpayer money and industry levy, the goal is to ensure 5Mbit/s to 97 percent of households and enterprises and 1Mbit/s to the last three percent.

In order to achieve this, 97 percent of schools will be connected to a fibre optic network. Rural schools will become connectivity hubs for wireless networks. The Ministry of Economic Development is running the process and has asked for national proposals by 12 November 2010.

Clearly this puts Telecom in the running – whether in its present form as an operationally separated company, or if it is structurally separated into Chorus2 and ServiceTel. Vodafone too has a shot at participating in a national rural rollout – that is, it could provide the wireless access layer in conjunction with a national fibre provider, such as New Zealand Regional Fibre Group (NZRFG) and/or FX Networks.

Certainly Vodafone – who fielded a strong delegation at the Symposium, led by its CEO Russell Stanners – looks like a serious contender for RBI funding. When Computerworld caught up with Stanners he refused to say who the partner or partners could be, but he says Vodafone is serious about the rural space.

As part of the bid Vodafone will have to guarantee open access to the cell towers it builds as part of the RBI – that means it must provide its wireless competitors access to the towers at the same non-discriminatory pricing. “What the government is demanding in return for rural broadband is to create a form of sharing for fixed and wireless. In a sense they are putting up a model that amends itself to passive tower sharing, which is good.”

He says that co-location on cell towers has been difficult in the past because the Resource Management Act has restricted the height of cell towers and this has made sharing difficult. “Build them high where people can’t usually look at them. Councils want us to hide them, which is more costly and negates the ability to share towers. We’re hopeful that government will allow us to build bigger towers, particularly in rural areas.”

Stanners says if Vodafone is part of a successful RBI proposal, it would be mobile data that farmers would consume. “Farmers will keep their landline for their telephone service and use ours (network) for broadband.”

Vodafone (in a presentation by general manager for wholesale and business development Steve Reiger), along with Araneo Ltd and Farmside were the only broadband providers to present at the Symposium. Chorus had a presence – as sponsors of the dinner entertainment – but no representatives spoke, so Telecom didn’t present a view of how it would participate in rural broadband.

IDC analysts Rosalie Nelson and Rosemary Spragg in their presentation showed that Chorus cabinets would serve those towns that had 500 lines, but which were too small to be included in the Ultra Fast Broadband footprint and too large to be served by the RBI.

Also present at the Symposium was 2degrees founder Tex Edwards, who challenged the ICT Minister Steven Joyce on regulatory policy. The Minister indicated that telecommunications regulation is ongoing and endless.

“I think the general situation with market rules is that it is going to continue to evolve and we can do better and I hope that people have seen that we have done better, move more quickly on one or two matters with mobile phone companies, for example,” Joyce said.

Joyce, who appeared by video link, defended his government’s approach to rural broadband after Federated Farmers spokesperson Donald Aubrey suggested it had “stuffed up”, by not putting the broadband needs of the rural areas before the cities.

“You should have perhaps put rural New Zealand unashamedly first, that you should have concentrated on the last three percent first,” he said.

Joyce pointed out that where the UFB will take 10 years, the RBI is expected to be completed in six.

“Both have the potential to lift the productivity of the country forward and we need to get on the case. We’ve been at the pointy end of discussions and the way its shaping up in the rural space we can still keep the costs down. So I prefer not to call it urban versus rural, I think we’ve just got to get on and get it done,” he said.

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