Anthony Doesburg: Fast internet still a pipedream in the country

By Anthony Doesburg

City slickers who complain incessantly about their broadband internet options (that's me - I admit it) should spare a thought for their country cousins.

Donald Aubrey, who farms in the South Canterbury high country, used to take a book with him to read when he fired up his internet connection - it was that slow. Until recently Aubrey had dial-up only, but in rural New Zealand, even dial-up ain't what it is in town.

With phone lines that often stretch for tens of kilometres to the nearest exchange, and interference from electric fences, dial-up's theoretical 56kb/s maximum download speed is often just a dream.

Aubrey's 13,500ha property, Ben McLeod Station, in the headwaters of the Rangitata River, is about as remote as you can get. The nearest shop is 36km away at Peel Forest, and it's 55km to Geraldine, the closest town of any size.

There's no cellphone coverage at his home - if he drives 3km down the road, stops by the third power pole past the bridge, stands on the roof of his ute and holds the phone over his head, he can just get a signal.

He could certainly make good use of better internet access. As well as growing fine wool on the farm, he runs safaris, mostly for hunters from the United States.

Better web access would let him keep a closer eye on wool prices so he could judge the best time to offer his merino clip for sale. It would also let him respond in a more timely way to queries from potential American safari customers.

Four months ago things improved slightly when he installed a dish to connect to the internet via Thailand's IPSTAR satellite.

But satellite connections have their shortcomings - they're affected by the weather, and the lag as data travels up and down to the satellite 35,000km high in the sky can be annoying.

Already this winter, Aubrey has taken the garden hose to snow that has collected in the dish, interfering with the signal.

Despite all that, Aubrey, who is Federated Farmers' spokesman on broadband, is not jumping up and down demanding better service. For one thing, the tyranny of distance is a fact of life many farmers are used to; for another, he thinks New Zealand is having to be a pioneer in finding an affordable way to network a sparsely populated country.

"I make no apology for Federated Farmers taking a very pragmatic approach to the rollout of broadband because, unless we do, the end result will not be something our membership can afford."

Aubrey urged pragmatism on Friday when he spoke at the Rural Broadband Symposium in Rotorua, an event organised by telecommunications users' lobby group TUANZ. Specifically, he encouraged telcos to form joint ventures to make best use of the $75 million the Government set aside in the Budget for rural broadband.

"The more co-operative an approach we can achieve, the quicker the rollout."

A co-operative project in which the major telcos are conspicuously absent was described in an afternoon symposium session by Chris O'Connell, the recently elected chair of TUANZ.

O'Connell talked about Nelson Marlborough Inforegion, an ICT governance initiative of the region's economic development agencies.

The exciting part of NMI is access to a fibre-optic network that other regions would kill for - 350km of high-speed bandwidth connecting Nelson, Blenheim, Motueka and Picton. The network was built by local electricity lines company Network Tasman for about $10 million, with the Government paying about 20 per cent of the bill through Broadband Challenge funding.

There's the potential for communities - such as that of O'Connell and neighbours in the Omaka Valley between Blenheim and Nelson - to connect to the network, if they can raise the money.

O'Connell has a vision of that kind of DIY approach to broadband taking hold throughout the country.

"It's [how], in the really early days, our telecommunications system grew."

O'Connell's grandfather, a farmer, had a hand in it, slinging phone lines across the Southland countryside before World War I, then going on to do linesman duties at Gallipoli.

O'Connell is more impatient than Aubrey, pointing out that Telecom first made ADSL services available to New Zealand consumers at the same time as South Korea's incumbent telco, and that South Korea has leapt ahead while we've stagnated.

Rural New Zealand is getting impatient, he says.

"Broadband is now a country barbecue topic. People on farms do want it." And because of their isolation, it's arguable that they need it more than city slickers.

- NZ Herald

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