A property owner could be forced to trim their trees if they interfere with their neighbour's wireless broadband, according to a High Court judgment - and a top lawyer says the decision could spark a flurry of legal action.
An August hearing pitted Kaipara Flats land owners Ian and Karen Vickery against their neighbour Christine Thoroughgood.
There was a two-fold dispute about trees along the boundary line, which the Vickerys wanted trimmed.
Lowndes Jordan partner and IT specialist Rick Shera notes that one element of the clash was very familiar. The Vickerys argued that the untrimmed trees caused undue obstruction to their easterly view.
But the other element was new: that the trees also caused undue interference with the Vickerys' wireless broadband network.
After considering expert evidence, Justice Sally Fitzgerald says in her ruling, issued September 3, that the Vickerys - who were attempting to overturn a District Court decision - did not have a case with their wi-fi argument.
A workaround was available to the couple: placing a receiver on a pole some distance from their house (even if that was not the Vickerys' preferred position).
But, crucially, she did accept that "undue interference with a wi-fi signal caused by trees could constitute an undue interference with the reasonable use and enjoyment of an applicant's land for the purposes of s 335(1)(vi) of the [Property Law] Act."
"This decision is interesting because it finds that, in some circumstances, neighbour A can require tree trimming, or removal, repair or alteration of a structure, on neighbour B's land, where the trees or structure unduly interfere with the neighbour A's wireless connectivity," Shera says.
Like many in the country, the couple have a fixed wireless broadband connection, which requires line-of-sight. Fixed wireless has been a mainstay of the public-private Rural Broadband Initiative.
Over the past year, it has also become increasingly common in urban areas, with Spark pushing it hard as an alternative for those not yet within reach of UFB fibre or after a cheaper alternative.
Spark's number of fixed wireless customers has surged from next-to-none to 120,000 over the past three years.
"With wireless becoming a necessity, the proposition that your neighbour can force you to trim trees or alter a structure if they are interfering with their connectivity will come as a surprise to many," Shera says.
"The bar is high but given how important connectivity is as we work, learn and socially network anytime anywhere, I think we can expect people to try to exercise these rights."
Telecommunications consultant Jonathan Brewer says that in the Vickerys' case, the type of wireless broadband, supplied by Compass Communication, was a factor.
"Trees can interfere with wi-fi - but all wireless is not created equal," he says.
"The frequencies used by Compass at Moir's Hill are in the 2.6GHz band, so a little bit higher than standard wi-fi. They lose around half their strength for every six meters of woodland they travel through. Meanwhile, the 700MHz frequencies used by Spark and Vodafone's rural broadband service handle trees much better. They need around fifteen meters of trees to lose the same amount of signal."
The MBIE-approved radio certifier adds, "Trees are a fact of life for wireless service providers, and it's also a fact that some people just can't be bothered with them. Ideally, a property owner would first find the best service provider for their situation, then build a mast on the most appropriate part of their property, before breaking out the chainsaw or imposing on a neighbour."
In his experience, "Some people just want trees gone, and would rather rip out an entire row of trees than put a trench across their garden so their broadband antenna can be located away from their house or office."