City, country at odds over DIY broadband

A debate between a "townie" and a Federated Farmers representative on the ease of "do-it-yourself" rural broadband has the citydweller offering services for a test implementation, but the two parties are clearly still far apart in their views.

A debate between a “townie” and a Federated Farmers representative on the ease of “do-it-yourself” rural broadband has the citydweller offering services for a test implementation, but the two parties are clearly still far apart in their views.

Kiwis should “stop moaning” and get going on commissioning and implementing rural data links instead of expecting telcos or government to do it for them, says Richard Naylor of Wellington metropolitan area network operator CityLink.

But Federated Farmers spokeswoman Catherine Petrey says his proposal is simplistic and in parts erroneous.

The debate began over Christmas when some InternetNZ members expressed discontent with the unambitious nature of government’s commitment, largely in collaboration with Telecom, to provide internet access to 99% of the population by the end of next year at a speed of at least 14.4 kbit/s, with 9.6 kbit/s for the unlucky 1%.

A call from a member for some tolerance of the difficulty of the New Zealand terrain brought a self-described “stroppy” response from Naylor.

In reply to a “war story” posted to a mailing list of the member’s farm-based brother-in-law and Telecom’s unsuccessful attempts to eliminate the problem of electric fence interference with his internet connection, Naylor advises him to bypass Telecom. He points to earlier farmer-financed installations of infrastructure.

“How did your brother-in-law get his power? How was his road put in? They were all done by local “boards” financed from public loans. Then they had local contractors or staff building lines around the region. And they did unfinancial installs using a rural electrification scheme.

“Telecom’s job is to make a profit for its shareholders. To best do that it least wants its gear written off as old and out of date. Broadband gear costs capital, which it doesn’t want to spend in New Zealand — it simply wants a return on its existing capital investment, its legacy gear.

Naylor urges the brother-in-law to buy an analogue telephone adaptor for IP and a couple of workgroup bridges, team up with neighbours and build a simple wireless network with voice over IP into the nearest town. “There is nothing stopping anyone digging up the road and becoming a telco, and rural broadband is just waiting for people to stop moaning and get on with it.”

Petrey replies that Naylor’s history is rather astray, and that a good deal of government money went into the installation of roading and electricity. It is simply not true that “anybody can dig up the road” and become a telco, Petrey says, pointing to a two-year delay in getting a Telecom fibre-optic cable from Reefton to Inangahua, as a result of prolonged discussion between Telecom and Transit NZ.

Telecom spokesman Andrew Bristol says the points at issue, relating to “our suggested route and method of installation and their impact on roading”, have now been settled. The undisputed part of the cable has already been laid and work on the remaining part begins early next month, he says.

Naylor, while acknowledging that he had “blurred” some of the issues, nevertheless sticks to his guns. He argues that there was still a lot of community input into electricity and telephone infrastructure, and it can happen again.

“That’s the way the internet was built, and I believe the model scales,” he says.

He maintains permits to dig up the road and install cables are easy to get and in some cases not even needed, and a wireless solution would be even easier. Where laying cable is less practical, “a Cisco wireless base is $1500 [and] will run on two car batteries for a week. Add two solar panels in the North Island and four in the South and it will run indefinitely. I run them already in Wellington shifting medical images.”

Petrey, replying to a later phone call, said last week the debate was “unbalanced” at that point. She had offered “top-of-the-head” comments and said she would need much more time to answer each point in detail.

She points out that farmers, including Federation president Alan Lambie, have put much effort into exploring options for getting broadband to rural areas, and still come up with the problem of high cost and the lack of a critical mass of users.

Footnote: Naylor’s initial remarks were expressed in the private environment of the InternetNZ members’ mailing list, but he gave permission for Computerworld to reproduce his comments. Subsequent discussion took place in open email and by phone. The member with the frustrated brother-in-law has also cleared reproduction of his remarks.

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