Joyce flags mobile as rural broadband solution

Pressure for bitstream services over dark fibre mounts

ICT minister Steven Joyce says mobile networks will play a significant role in delivering broadband to rural areas.

Any announcement on provisions for rural and remote areas are still a few weeks away, Joyce says, though the expanding capabilities of cellphone communications could fill the gap.

As a result of increasing competition among three operators, he told delegates at the TUANZ Telecommunications Day conference in Wellington, we will soon have improved mobile broadband networks around New Zealand.

"Mobile broadband is not the whole answer to the provision of urban and rural broadband, but it is a significant part of it,” he says.

Joyce says the planned network could also be expanded beyond the large and medium-sized towns to which service is limited under the current proposal.

“Officials are looking at that”, he says.

The minister says the level of pressure for local fibre companies (LFCs) to be able to offer Layer 2, or bitstream, services under the broadband plan surprised him.

However, he reminded conference delegates that the possibility of bitstream services was mentioned in the draft proposal on the government's broadband plan.

Potential providers agree such a move would be positive.

Offering Layer 2 services would attract more custom from service providers “at the ISP level”, who were not of a mind to take on the comparatively advanced skills of lower-level network provision on the back of a simple dark-fibre connection, says Smartlinx 3 CEO David Haynes.

“I don’t have a problem with a Level 2 service”, says Joyce. “The issue is interoperability and transparency.”

Some potential providers hit that ball straight back into the minister’s court, saying (after he had left) he had not defined yet what he understood by a bitstream service.

At the same time, though, other submissions suggested a subsidy was necessary to stimulate demand by helping organisations get together to plan appropriate use of the broadband. This could be done too, Joyce says, but it would probably be at the expense of the reach. It’s all got to come out of the allocated $1.5b, he says.

Other delegates suggest there will be no need for demand to be stimulated; once improved broadband becomes available, organisations and individuals alike will think of ways of using it.

At a later session, speakers from three companies, ASB, the Beca group and the Automobile Association, showed themselves not lacking in ideas, from richer-media services to customers to saving travel through videoconferencing and letting employees work from home with a secure virtual private network connection.

One of the biggest likely problems with the deployment of a nationwide network, delegates suggest, is the shortage of skilled labour – especially as Australia’s Federal government has announced its own massive broadband deployment and will almost certainly offer higher pay rates for Kiwis minded to hop across the ditch.

One delegate suggests that as New Zealand’s deployment would move earlier than Australia’s we could undertake to train people for later work on the other side of the Tasman for a fee.

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Tags TUANZNetworking & Telecomms IDSteven Joyce

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