The rollout of faster internet to rural New Zealand kicked off today with the connection of three country schools to fibre optic lines.
Henderson Valley School, Omaio in the Bay of Plenty and the West Coast's Granity School are the first to receive internet speeds of 100 megabits per second under the Government's rural broadband initiative (RBI)
The $285 million project officially begins tomorrow and will be mostly funded from an industry levy set up by the Telecommunications (TSO, Broadband, and Other Matters) Amendment Bill passed last week.
The scheme plans to hook up 95 per cent of rural schools with access to speeds of 100 megabits per second and 86 per cent of rural households and businesses speeds of 5 megabits per second.
500 schools are set for a fibre connection by July next year and the remaining 250 will be linked up by 2015.
All rural households and businesses are due to receive a connection within the next six years.
In response to concerns that some 300 country schools were not covered by the scheme, Communications Minister Steven Joyce said a separate initiative will make sure they get a fibre connection.
The Government would put out a tender for this shortly, he said.
To mark today's event, Joyce, Education Minister Anne Tolley and West Coast MP Chris Auchinvole took part in an online astronomy lesson with students from each of the three primary schools.
"[Hooking schools up] is one of the key benefits of the RBI because firstly schools are good concentrations of demand because all these young people want to be on the internet more rather than less. Secondly, it's important because we want young minds to have the best possible start in life and we don't want to have a digital divide between urban and rural areas," Joyce said.
The RBI will use a mix of fibre lines, copper cables and cellphone towers to provide both faster internet and extend mobile coverage in rural areas.
The build will see 3100 kilometres of fibre laid in rural New Zealand and the construction of 154 new cellphone towers.
As well as cellphone coverage, the towers will also allow some households to connect to the internet via wireless broadband.
The project is a joint venture between Telecom and Vodafone, who were awarded Government contracts in April.
The infrastructure is designed on an 'open-access model' which allows companies other than Telecom and Vodafone to sell internet and mobile services to rural customers.