Opinion: Rural broadband an opportunity for Kiwi developers

We have smart developers who combine sharp technical skills with Kiwi "can do" imagination

One by one, the countries of the Asia-Pacific region are marking their metropolitan narrowband or broadband rollouts as “mission accomplished” and turning to their rural areas.

And that’s a great opportunity for smart Kiwi software companies, especially those with an agricultural alignment, to make hay.

That’s been my take-away message from a half-day session on rural connectivity at last week’s six-monthly meeting of APECTel — the Telecommunications Working Group of APEC which I attended in Lima, Peru. It was a session at which New Zealand made a useful showing.

Let’s start with a step back. Communications technology, whether fixed voice, wireless or broadband, eliminates distance. If you’re on a fast enough line for what you’re doing, nobody knows you’re half a world away.

That means countries that are isolated in the world, and people who are isolated within those countries, have a greater dividend to claim from communications technology than the rest. Sure, isolated and sparsely populated areas are the dearest to get broadband to, but the return is way, way greater than in CBDs.

So the purpose of the Industry Futures Roundtable in Lima was to showcase a few topical examples of innovative ways telecommunications is being deployed in isolated areas as exemplars and thought-starters for others.

A star attraction was a presentation from Wellington’s MediaLab — well known to many TUANZ members and a participant in our Rural Broadband Symposium, held in Rotorua a few months ago.

Bridget Hawkins gave a very comprehensive and practical update on MediaLab’s work. She explained how dairy farms in New Zealand are becoming larger at the same time as the population becomes much more sensitive to environmental issues. The disposal of farm effluent is a major issue.

She then took the audience through the way MediaLab’s product, based on communications technology, brings together weather and soil conditions, the state of the farm’s effluent pond, the movement of the irrigator and other factors to make visible and manage the farm’s overall challenge of getting rid of effluent in an environmentally acceptable manner.

Hawkins, of course, was not the only presentation, though it drew significantly more questions from the audience than most others.

British Telecom described its implementation in rural Peru of a mobile network to enable citizens in remote places to run a bank account. It’s based on a fleet of armoured trucks that deliver payments through the region on a regular cycle.

Suddenly, rural Peruvians — including those without electricity — have access to financial services equivalent to those in cities. It may not sound like much to a Kiwi from Hamilton, but if you’d had a lifetime without normal banking services available wouldn’t that opportunity spin your economic and social wheels?

Then there’s telemedicine. Peru presented an absorbing session on university-based regional coverage with two-way radio providing voice and data exchanges in the Amazon and in the Andes. Its designed to support primary health care activities and stimulate learning opportunities for health personnel.

Health posts are, in many isolated pockets of Peru, staffed by “sanitary technicians” who work alone and feel very isolated. The new programme focuses on epidemiologic surveillance of malaria in the Andes. As a by-product, it also enables the sanitary technicians to communicate electronically, eliminating on average one meeting a week with more than a day of travel time.

There were several more examples I could quote, yet it was MediaLab that stole the show. The economic and environmental value of their work, and the professionalism, stood out.

Hence my conviction that there is a very special opportunity for New Zealand’s software industry here. Many, many countries, rich and poor, are starting to get serious connectivity into isolated areas. They know that in concept it can work some real magic for the lives of rural people, as well as enriching their social and economic wellbeing.

Yet when it comes to developing and implementing suitable customised technologies there is a long way to go.

New Zealand can lead. We have smart developers who combine sharp technical skills with Kiwi “can do” imagination. We are world leaders in innovation for food production. Our rural population is wealthy and technology-literate by the standards of most Asia-Pacific countries.

Solutions developed and trialled here could have huge application and real scale in many other countries. With leadership and co-ordination, we should be able to make some serious ground.

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