Chorus has come to the Covid-19 relief party with an offer to help connect students in up to 50,000 homes - although a lot of work lies ahead with partners before it becomes reality, and retail ISPs want to take a different tack altogether.
The network operator says it will waive its wholesale charges for six months to help school kids in low-income homes get connected.
Wholesale charges typically account for around half the monthly cost of a broadband connection offered by retailers such as Spark, Vodafone, 2degrees and Vocus.
At the beginning of the outbreak, InternetNZ head Jordan Carter thanked retailers for offering unlimited data to most users, but said it remained a major problem that many households had no internet at all at a time when online learning, and communication via the internet, were emerging as key elements of the Covid-19 response.
Carter quoted the 2018 census, which put the number of households without broadband at 111,000.
A broadband connection would be made available to student households that the Ministry of Education identifies as needing broadband to be installed for educational purposes and where Chorus has intact infrastructure, Chorus chief customer officer Ed Hyde said this morning.
Chorus said last week, as it reaffirmed its 2020 earnings guidance, that it has suspended most of its field work, including new UFB connections.
That means if there is no fibre in a student's street, Chorus will upgrade their household's copper connection from ADSL to the faster VDSL copper broadband standard or, if that's not possible, connect them to ADSL (the entry-level form of copper broadband).
"Chorus is ready to support the Ministry of Education and the Government in whatever capacity is needed," Hyde said.
Delivering on the programme would be a "huge operational challenge".
"As a wholesale provider, Chorus can't deliver the whole solution," Hyde said.
"We're now looking to the internet service providers who package up our products for consumers to also support the Ministry of Education, with both financial and operational support."
Retail telcos: Maybe cut Chorus out of the loop
The Herald asked retail telcos for comment. Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees all emphasised fixed-wireless technology - which would cut a Chorus landline out of the equation - as a key part of the possible soution.
A spokeswoman for Spark said, "We are currently working with the Ministry of Education to look at how we can quickly scale our subsidised broadband solution, Skinny Jump, to get as many families connected as quickly as possible. There are around 35,000 homes where copper or fibre isn't an option, so a fixed wireless solution like Skinny Jump is a critical part of the mix. Those discussions are ongoing, and we will provide further information when possible."
A spokeswoman for 2degrees said, "2degrees and the wider industry have been working with the Ministry of Education towards connecting students currently without broadband. We are looking to offer a combination of fixed wireless and broadband and we'll be working through the finer details of that in the coming days."
For Vodafone, a spokeswoman said, "The industry has been working closely with the Ministry of Education for a number of weeks on how we can practically deliver connectivity to the students and households that are most in need. The Ministry has outlined the scope of the challenge they are looking to address and asked the telco industry to review and respond on solution options, to be funded by the ministry. These options may include fixed broadband solutions as well as fixed-wireless access solutions."
Chorus also recently put a price increase tied to inflation on hold.
Other telecommunications industry measures include Spark reanimating its Jump programme to offer cut-price fixed-wireless broadband to students in low-come households, and Spark saying it will not to disconnect anyone for financial hardship reasons over the next two. Vodafone put a six-month hold on disconnections.
The latter move sparked a spat with Chorus over who would pick up what share of a looming "wall of bad debt".
Earlier today, Chorus confirmed that overall broadband use, while still much higher than normal, had pulled back from last week's peaks.
Chorus shares closed yesterday at $6.89. The stock is up 17.3 per cent for the year.