Rural broadband gains traction

Broadband is more than just surfing the net faster than dial-up, but what exactly is it? What's the business case for broadband and why should we be bothered about it?

Broadband is more than just surfing the net faster than dial-up, but what exactly is it? What's the business case for broadband and why should we be bothered about it?

I have it. I like it. I get to connect to the work servers from home at a usable speed. I can surf the net and watch movie trailers without having to wonder about when the damned things will be ready to view. I can have multiple browsers open and merrily switch from one to the other. I would say I could download MP3 files as fast as I liked, but despite being told Xtra doesn't throttle bandwidth for peer-to-peer apps I can't seem to get any speed faster than about 1Kbit/s.

But try explaining to newbies, or to the company accountant for that matter, why that's important and you get blank stares. I'm beginning to see their point of view.

You may have seen an amusing email press release from Telecom. It's signed up its 20,000th JetStream customer. Nearly 70% of Telecom's exchanges are now enabled for the DSL-based broadband service but it's won over only 20,000 customers? Something's clearly amiss here. Meanwhile, the government's regional broadband programme rolls on, and Fonterra jumped into the game a couple of months back asking for proposals for selling broadband to rural users. Clearly a few providers think broadband is a good idea, but why?

The problems are obvious: there is little content for a home user to hang their broadband hat on and precious few mission-critical apps delivered over the internet for corporates to be bothered with. Sales guys out in the field? They need cellphones and cars. Call centre staff? They need headsets and access to a local database or network.

Despite Fonterra's plans, one segment that has been somewhat ignored has been the rural sector. Farmers are for the most part (currently) earning a good living. They spend a lot of money. They seem to manage this buying and selling without the aid of cellphones or lunches on the quay. Some would have you believe they barely switch on their PCs let alone run their businesses through it, and prefer to deal with faxes rather than emails. Stats NZ has primary industries citing "not relevant to business activity" as a relatively strong factor -- 39% -- behind not using the internet.

However, Geoff Lawson, managing director of TVNZ's transmission arm, BCL, believes farmers are crying out for access to useful information because it will make their lives easier. Automating the routine buying and selling side of business is what B2B is all about and the guys at BCL could really make that work.

Lawson told me about two schools BCL has been working with in remote parts of New Zealand where the principals are "evangelical" about broadband. They keep staff who would otherwise have left -- enabling staff career development opportunities without having to fly teachers around the country -- and can offer classes that previously weren't available, which keeps kids in the school.

On slightly different lines, BCL has equipped a mobile surgical unit with broadband facilities. Surgeons in Auckland can talk to surgeons in the back of beyond as they work on a patient, supervising what's going on with the aid of several cameras watching the action. We've all seen the astonishing situation in the far north with women in labour being flown to alternate hospitals because of staffing constraints. Surely this is a great way to avoid that.

I should remind you that Telecom is somewhat hoist on its own petard when it comes to rural New Zealand. For years we've been told the rural sector is costing Telecom money -- $180 million a year last I heard. It's unprofitable and costly to maintain and a drain on Telecom's coffers. Now, however, with BCL making a play in the rural market and with the CBDs being saturated with fibre offerings, Telecom has to jump on the rural bandwagon without appearing to reverse its position. The rural network can make money but if Telecom admits that then it has to do away with the idea of being given wads of cash by the other telcos to offset its "losses" in the local loop. Tricky.

There may not be that single killer application that makes everyone say "broadband: gotta have it" -- there may never be -- but in the business world it looks like it's gaining some traction.

Brislen is IDGNet’s reporter. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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