Acting Business Editor for the NZ Herald

Rural broadband yet to deliver

Farmers expecting to reap big productivity gains from $500 million project to boost internet performance.

Initiative aims to help farmers manage more information about their land and animals. Photo / Dean Purcell
Initiative aims to help farmers manage more information about their land and animals. Photo / Dean Purcell

Rural communities are yet to see most of the benefits from a $500 million scheme to boost internet coverage and speeds but farmers are still expecting to reap big productivity gains from the project.

It is hoped the connectivity offered as part of the rural broadband initiative will help farmers manage more information about their land or animals, allowing them to make more informed decisions.

The six-year scheme is a joint project with Chorus rolling out 3100km of fibre lines and Vodafone building 154 new cell towers to provide both fixed-wireless and mobile internet services.

Almost 400 cell towers are also being upgraded in the project, which began 18 months ago and aims to offer 86 per cent of those in rural communities internet speeds of at least 5 megabits per second.

The initiative is funded through a $285 million industry levy, with Vodafone and Telecom paying for the remainder of the project, which is expected to cost up to $500 million.

The rollout is on track but asked if the benefits of it were being felt, Federated Farmers chief executive Conor English said: "It's just starting. The more infrastructure you get, it's the old thing, 'Build it and they will come' ... we're at the emerging end of it."

Telecommunications Users Association chief executive Paul Brislen said it was probably a bit early for the project to be having any major impact for farmers.

However, connectivity in rural areas had improved, he said.

"We're still very much in the build phase, so it will be a little while before we start to see any real flow-through effect, I guess, in terms of education or the economy but I have high hopes we'll get there in the not so distant future.

"Alongside the RBI, Telecom and Vodafone also plan to roll out 4G internet services to rural areas. 4G - or fourth-generation - mobile services are much faster than their 3G counterparts," he said.

A Vodafone spokesman said yesterday that "every RBI tower was 4G ready" and Telecom said it plans to install 4G services on rural towers from early 2014.

However, both companies said yesterday that the ability to offer 4G services was dependant on the Government's auction of 700 MHz spectrum planned to happen later this year.

While 4G was being turned on in cities on the 1800MHz band, the 700MHz spectrum - which is being made available when free-to-air television broadcasting goes digital - is more suited to rural areas because its lower frequency means the signal can travel further.

Telecom could give no commitment on a timetable for the 4G rural rollout until more details on this auction and spectrum allocation emerged.

The extra connectivity on offer from the RBI and 4G rollout will allow farmers to collect and aggregate different sets of data more easily.

English said the RBI and 4G rollout was going to be the "railway tracks of the next wave of productivity gains" on the farm.

"You can measure everything now from nutrients in the soil to the soil temperature, stuff that happens under the ground. You can measure stuff that happens on top of the ground in terms of pasture growth and irrigation. You've got technology now that allows you to put water on one square metre over here," English said.

Other examples of technology on the farm include GPS collars on sheep which can track grazing patterns to see if a flock needed herding towards particular areas they would not graze on if left to wander.

"You get all that physical data of what's happening on your farm," English said.

"And you can aggregate that with the data from your bank, from your dairy company, from Fonterra, your meat company ... you have more information in order to make better-informed decisions."

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- NZ Herald

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