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New Zealand Has Patchy Answers to Broadband Demand

With a landmass similar to that of the UK, yet with just four million inhabitants versus the latter’s 63 million, New Zealand has a problem getting all its citizens online. A significant proportion of the population is clustered in a few cities (Auckland alone has over 1.5 million inhabitants) with the rest scattered to the four winds. Large conurbations in NZ have decent internet connections and often free WiFi in the Central Business Districts, but connectivity tails off fast as you move out of town.

To understand the challenge requires understanding the terrain. Aotearoa, the Māori name for New Zealand, means "Land of the long white cloud". NZ's unique combination of geography, volcanic geology and atmospheric conditions produces long, white, stratus clouds that can stretch from one horizon to the other, looming like gigantic, silent UFOs. Winds help shape these clouds. Fierce Southerlies blow up from Antarctica for four or five months of the year, icy blasts that can top 150km/h.

And then there are the earthquakes: straddling the Pacific Rim means NZ suffers regular judders, some of them — as Christchurch experienced in 2011 — with the power to raze cities. Storms? It's an unusual year in which NZ isn't lashed by half a dozen storms comparable to St Jude's, which hit North-Western Europe in late 2013.

It can be a harsh environment, particularly in the beautiful but sparsely-populated South Island, where it's not uncommon for farmers to run sheep or cattle on plots of tens or even hundreds of thousands of acres. The nearest neighbours might be half a day's drive away. As for fixed-line broadband? Forget it. Dial-up if you're lucky, assuming a landslide, lightning strike or fierce gust hasn't damaged the telephone lines again this week.

This is a problem because information is valuable. Monika Riddell and her husband Ralph run a mid-sized farm in the lower North Island and rely on satellite for their broadband. Monika says, "Ralph uses it for work: accessing kill sheets, wool sale reports or internet banking as well as weather reports. I use it more for personal and social purposes. I suppose, living in isolated areas, Skype or Facebook become part of your social life."

I live an hour from Wellington, the capital city, and 1km outside a small town, yet rely on a mobile broadband connection on which download speeds rarely exceed the giddy heights of 1.5Mbps, with a 3GB monthly cap. And it's not cheap. Further down the street the mobile option vanishes entirely as the masts peter out, so most people here use dial-up. Fibre-optic cable markers next to the road warn contractors against digging without first phoning the national telco, but the cables were laid years ago and go nowhere.

Bridget Canning, CEO of WIZwireless Limited, which has been providing internet access to rural subscribers in the Wairarapa region via line-of-sight radio masts for the past eight years, says, "According to the Statistics Department, approximately 68% of rural residents have access to some form of broadband." That leaves a rather large number who don't.

There is a Rural Broadband Initiative to get people online but it will take time to implement: perhaps a long time, given that the national infrastructure supplier, Chorus, recently suffered a dramatic drop in its share price due to broadband pricing caps imposed by the government. That's potentially great for city dwellers but a kick in the teeth for farmers, rural businesses and so-called ‘lifestylers’; people who live on rural blocks of a few acres each and often farm small numbers of sheep, cattle, chickens, alpacas, goats and/or pigs.

For those currently beyond reach of decent copper, fibre or 3G/4G connections, radio and satellite are the only options, but the former requires a line-of-sight connection — often tricky in this jagged country — and the latter can suffer from transmission lag. As Monika Riddell comments, "Skype conversations are painful. The weather does have an influence on our connection too."

Although more susceptible to poor weather, satellite has the greater national coverage and is less restricted by geography. Sara Williamson is marketing manager at Farmside, a provider of satellite internet, and says, "We cover all of New Zealand. Our customers are typically rural based, i.e. farmers, rural businesses and lifestylers."

By contrast, line-of-site radio mast providers tend to be local operations: WIZwireless has around 400 subscribers. Bridget Canning says that, compared to satellite, radio is "more economical, with more speed and data on a monthly basis. The downside is it's more expensive to build farm mini-masts compared to a connection to satellite and mobile card, so unfortunately this cost has to be built into the service offer."

Canning believes many people are missing out unnecessarily.

"If the government truly believed in giving rural residents good internet it could be done very easily with the money they have put into other government broadband projects. It really annoys me when other services are subsidised when urban residents already have choices."

This unsatisfactory situation was one of the factors behind Google's decision to trial Project Loon (‘Balloon Powered Internet For Everyone’) in NZ's South Island in June 2013. A cluster of 30 balloons floating 20km high provided internet connectivity to about 60 people for a brief period, before the balloons were brought back down to Earth. Luckily the winds at such high altitudes are relatively sedate: local wags had predicted that by July the strong Southerlies would have had the balloons plying their trade over Tokyo. Google is planning a second trial in early 2014, modifying the technology by making use of what it learned from the first. But there's no start date for a continuous internet service via balloon: Project Loon is still an experiment.

For now, NZ remains one of the few countries in the developed world where it's relatively easy to go completely offline and switch off. Every (long white) cloud has a silver lining.

 

Freelance technology journalist Alex Cruickshank grew up in England and emigrated to New Zealand several years ago, where he runs his own writing business.


 

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Alex Cruickshank

Alex Cruickshank has been writing about technology and business since 1994. He has lived in various far-flung places around the world and is now based in Berlin.  

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