The Government has found $15 million in "savings' from the urban Ultrafast Broadband (UFB) rollout - and will use the funds to help boost broadband in rural communities as they recover from the Covid-19 outbreak.
The money will be used to connect 8000 households, with work due to kick off in a month and wrap up in six months.
"The exact number is dependent on commercial negotiations with Vodafone and the other co-located mobile operators," Communications Minister Kris Faafoi told the Herald.
Where the money is spent is still under negotiation, too, but Faafoi says it will be a matter of boosting capacity at existing rural cell sites rather than building new ones, and that there will be an emphasis on "towers servicing areas with high numbers of school-age children – to support the Ministry of Education in delivering digital connectivity to students."
Graham Mitchell, CEO of Crown Infrastructure Partners which is overseeing the public-private Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI), told the Herald that the $15m will all be spent in areas covered by phase one of the RBI, which saw Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees attach their gear to towers built by Chorus (phase two, currently under way and running through to 2022, sees a Vodafone-Spark-2degrees joint venture in charge of new towers).
But the head of the Technology Users Group (Tuanz), Craig Young, says the Government needs to considerably expand its ambition.
Young welcomed the new rural spending but added, "We know from talking with our rural partners, that many suffer under significant constraints and that there still remain gaps between rural households' experience and urban New Zealanders.
"This has been exacerbated at this time of lockdown and when children are staying home due to the Covid19 response."
The new investment will go some way to ensuring that some of those constraints are fixed, Young said.
Tuanz believes that it is timely to accelerate further investment in rural NZ by committing to a programme of ensuring all rural users have the same experience as urban.
As things stand, the public private Rural Broadband Initiative shoots for at least 20 megabits per second download speed - or what many urban customers used to get from their old copper lines. The cheapest fibre plans in towns and cities offer 100 megabits per second bandwidth.
Rural users also have tight data caps on most plans, whereas some 70 per cent of urban customers are on unlimited accounts.
Young sees Government support for wireless ISPs in rural areas as one of the keys to turning that around.
Mike Smith, chairman of the Wispa lobby group that represents small rural and provincial wireless ISPs, said the $15m package was welcome, and would benefit his members - as did Ministry of Education efforts to help connected students in households without broadband. But he was also looking for government support for small ISPs to upgrade their capacity.
"The lockdown has showed the resilience of our networks, with a huge surge in the number of rural people working and studying from home, and some of these changed habits will last long after Covid-19 is forgotten. However, the extra traffic comes at a cost and support for the necessary upgrades will be very helpful," Smith said.
This morning, Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Kris Faafoi and Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones said the funds would be spent on:
• upgrading some existing rural mobile towers,
• upgrading wireless backhaul, which connects remote sites to central networks, and
• installing external antennae on households to improve coverage.
"This investment brings broadband services to rural households that are currently without access to the internet, and means remote communities will be much better equipped to get going again when we exit lockdown," Faafoi said.
RBI One fill-in
Crown Infrastructure Partners' head Mitchell elaborated, "The upgrades in rural network capacity are to existing infrastructure and are not in areas where the Rural Connectivity Group (RCG) is being deployed under the RBI2/MBSF [Mobile Black Spot Fund] programme – in other words, it is to existing RBI1 areas. This upgraded capacity will mean that towers that are currently at or near capacity [and cannot service any new customers] will be able to provide service to more households inside their coverage area".
Earlier in the lockdown, Vodafone (the largest rural broadband player after buying Farmside in 2018), copped flak for not extending an unlimited-data-for-all relief measure beyond urban areas. The telco subsequently gave rural users all-they-can-eat data between midnight and 9am, but said rural infrastructure just won't support anything beyond that.
In 2017, Crown Infrastructure Partners estimated the $300m phase one of the Rural Broadband Initiative (handled by Chorus) would leave 90,000 rural households without fast broadband.
The $210m RBI phase two, due to wrap up in 2022, is designed to reach 85,000 of those 90,000 left-out households.
The Government has also chipped in $1.78b between phase one and phase two of the urban Ultrafast Broadband (UFB) public-private rollout, and bought an anchor contract with new trans-Pacific submarine fibre cable operator Hawaiki Cable worth around $70m to help the Southern Cross Cable competitor get up and running.
The Government says only 1 per cent of the population will be without fast broadband by the time the RBI and UFB wrap up in 2022.