Swain: Rural communications to be user pays?

User-pays is rearing its head, albeit tentatively, in the brave new world of rural broadband telecommunications.

User-pays is rearing its head, albeit tentatively, in the brave new world of rural broadband telecommunications.

New Zealand “has to play it smarter” in bridging the urban-rural dimension of the digital divide without direct expenditure of taxpayers’ money, says Commerce and IT minister Paul Swain. “We have to be smarter than Ireland because we don’t have their European Community subsidies.”

But thinking smarter without too much money might, he concedes, involve “an element of user pays” – effectively a variation of the conditions of the Kiwi Share.

This will apply only to broadband communications, he emphasises – and even urban users pay their telco, directly or by way of their internet service provider, for that privilege. Government has managed to get Telecom committed to an eventual, almost nationwide, provision of 14.4 Kbit/s free of and local access charge.

Thinking smarter includes “thinking what role BCL, for example, might play.” The TVNZ communications subsidiary looks increasingly likely, from his frequent mentions of it, to become a key element of future rural broadband communications, when this and other elements of communications policy are revealed “around the middle of next month.”

Government might also consider setting aside radio spectrum to raise communications capacity to rural areas, Swain says.

Already government is contributing, through Industry New Zealand subsidy of the Northland and Otago-Southland telecommunications studies, and stands ready to “facilitate” regional interests’ pooling of demand to make a credible business case to telcos.

Swain refuses to say the concept of further government incentives for rural communications improvement is entirely out of the question, “but I’ve ruled it out for the moment.”

Local initiatives towards "aggregating" telecommunications demand meanwhile continue, but little has yet firmed up.

Swain has questioned whether a regional or a sectoral intiative would be more appropriate. An example in the latter would be a nationwide push for schools to get good communications.

But Clutha Distriact Council chief Ciaran Keogh sees a sectoral effort as the wrong way to go about it. Equipping schools or government offices would still leave the general population on the outer, he says. It's the farmers, the tradespeople, even the doctors who are crying out to make use of the bandwidth. In the early 90s he and his wife ran a consultancy with major clients like Transpower. They could work productively from Balclutha with text via email, even in those early days of the internet's growth; but any graphics had to be sent off-line, and they would still stretch rural capacity today, he says.

A farmer in a remote location has to spend perhaps 70% of the time off the farm marketing to buyers in larger centres. With the help of on-line access he/she could spend much more time back on the farm being productive and further improving productivity with on-line advice and discussion through services provided by services like RD1 and Fencepost.

Keogh has his own ideas for encouraging rural broadband, revolving around the community and local government commissioning a telco or other communications provider to set up the hardware infrastructure to the region, then inviting other telcos to provide services over that infrastructure (see Saving the south from tech redundancy).

Demand aggregation initiatives have emerged in the Wairarapa and the Hutt Valley, near Wellington, but proponents of these schemes both say planning is at an early phase. The Wairarapa initiators are in the midst of quantifying their needs and the opportunities for aggregation of these needs, says Peter McNeur of the Wairarapa Rural Education Activities Programme (Reap).

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