Broadband push down on the farm

By Simon Hendery

Building a fibre-optic network stretching out to the country's farming backblocks may seem like an expensive pipe dream but one lobby group is on a mission to prove it can work.

The Telecommunications Users Association (Tuanz) believes the cost of a "fibre-to-the-farm" network can be justified and it has organised an event - the Rural Broadband Symposium, to be held in Rotorua next month - to help to rally support for the concept.

Tuanz chief executive Ernie Newman says broadband can be used to raise farm productivity through a range of applications from environmental reporting to remote monitoring of cows at multiple milking sheds.

On a DVD distributed to promote the Rotorua symposium, he says there is also a "social wellbeing" spin-off element to rural broadband.

"We tend to think of rural broadband applications very much along the lines of farm productivity, farm security and that sort of thing," he said.

"But the social wellbeing of rural communities is equally important because if farmers want to get over the problem of getting farm labour and having people living in more isolated places - especially with more expensive petrol and that sort of thing - we need to make sure rural lifestyles have some of the bells of whistles and attractions of those in the cities."

Satellite internet service provider Farmside estimated last month that with petrol costing $2 a litre, rural drivers who typically travelled 15,000km a year could save more than $900 by reducing their distance travelled by 20 per cent through more effective internet usage.

Newman said the aim of the Rotorua gathering was "get together the people with the vision about each of the particular applications and aggregate all that and make the national case to get broadband right out there to the farms".

Enthusiasm for a fibre-to-the-farm network has been heightened by National and Labour's pre-election promises to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in broadband infrastructure.

"All of a sudden we've got a political environment where government - of whatever persuasion - is likely to get in on the act and help the industry financially to get connectivity out to the farms so we've got to get cracking and know what we're going to use it for," said Newman.

"I think the scene is set now for us to get serious broadband to most or all of New Zealand's farms provided we can actually make the business case and demonstrate to the industry and the Government that it can be used for productive and social uses that will give them a pay pack."

He said the cost of extending a fibre-optic network to less densely populated rural areas was less than telecommunications companies often claimed.

"The big cost of rolling out fibre-optics, for example, is not in the cable itself, it's cheap. The cost is in the holes that you bury it in," he said.

"You can't just go and import a whole lot of second-hand holes from China under the free trade agreement, so they're very expensive to put in.

"If we can get our minds out of having to bury the cable and if we can say to ourselves, look, we already have a line of poles going to just about every farm house in the country, surely we can string some fibre-optic cable across the top of those to replace the existing copper.

"And maybe some farmers could even run working bees and spend some weekends with their tractors and cherry-pickers out there doing exactly that.

"Then all of a sudden it starts to look so much more manageable."

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