It was time to speak frankly this morning as Federated Farmers' vice president and telecommunications spokesman, Donald Aubrey, gave a thumbs down to the government's funding plan for rural connectivity.
Aubrey, speaking at the TUANZ Rural Broadband Symposium in Rotorua, asked whether the current $1.8 billion investment planned for urban and rural investment would satisfy rural New Zealand and then answered his own question with an “unequivocal no”. Aubrey set a minimum target of $500 million for rural investment to achieve equality with urban areas.
Aubrey said rural New Zealand accounts for 25 percent of the country's four million population, despite being the “engine room of the economy” producing 64 percent of exports. That one million is being short-changed, “forced to settle for second best” and “left with the crumbs” under the government's current $330 million rural investment proposal, he said.
Aubrey pointedly asked ICT minister Steven Joyce whether he wanted to be known as the “architect of regression” on broadband and challenged him to increase funding and deliver investment equality between urgan and rural areas.
He asked why the proposed new industry levy would raise just $50 million a year instead of the $70 million raised now through the Telecommunications Services Obligation (TSO).
Aubrey said much urban broadband investment would happen anyway and cited examples of urban rollouts already under way from the likes of Christchurch's Enable Networks.
The Federated Farmers VP said there are innovative ways to leverage broadband investment and suggested frequencies being used for television, now being touted as a possible solution for some rural broadband services, would be better applied to deliver wireless services in cities rather than in rural areas where analogue reception is often patchy.
Aubrey says fibre optic is the preferred technical solution, but other wirless and satellite technologies may have a part to play in achieving 100Mbit/s speeds.
In his address this morning, Joyce said that broadband is a crucial part of the government's plans to secure a brighter future for New Zealand, including delivering increased productivity.
“Allowing people to do more in less time is what productivity is all about,” he said.
He said the government will invest $1.5 billion, and $300 million in rural areas, in direct investment and a revamped TSO levy, focusing on driving backhaul into the country by connecting rural schools to fibre.
Addressing the changes, Joyce said unlike urban investment rural areas would be receiving grant funding rather than the investment funding being used in rural areas. This is therefore more valuable.
Joyce said the government's investment is in communal infrastructure such as backhaul. Users are expected to contribute to the private part of that investment and that approach is consistent between urban and rural areas.
Submissions on the rural proposal have closed and these were positive and innovative, he said. The results will be fed into the tender process to ensure the best outcome for rural New Zealand. Joyce said he is aiming to release tender documents for the initiative early next year.
In six years, the government aims to have 93 percent of rural schools connected to fibre. Eighty percent of homes will receive 5Mbit/s or better and remainder 1Mbit/s or better. Backhaul is the primary limiting factor and getting fibre to schools will go a long way to addressing it, he said.
The minister reiterated alternative access technologies, including wireless or satellite, would play an important role for the 3 percent of schools that would be prohibitively expensive to connect by fibre.