Rural broadband nearly didn't happen
In mid 2016 a national discussion was being held around whether broadband fibre could cross private rural land. The legislation at the time allowed electricity cables to traverse existing infrastructure on private farm land such as telephone poles and pylons but the legislation had never envisaged fibre.
A classic example was the Northpower model of putting fibre over existing power poles resulting in Whangārei being the first city in New Zealand to be ringed by fibre. The problem was that fibre stopped where the poles started crossing private rural farm land on the edge of the city. This was an enormous frustration to rural people who then could not access fibre.
Legislation was put before parliament looking to address this issue however there were challenges.
Federated Farmers was facing resistance from some of their members who recalled electricity companies marching across private farm land in the Waikato and putting up pylons with marginal permissions.
They recalled farmers then being charged exorbitant amounts to get power to milking sheds that even ran close to the pylons.
The situation became even more galling when having consented land for power lines for the "national good", lines companies then became commercialised and companies were making money from farmers goodwill. Participating farmers wanted fair fibre access and I understood these points.
On or around Thursday June 2, 2016, I was called to a meeting with several ministers and a few back benchers like myself to discuss the legislation around the fibre roll out.
At the meeting it was commented that the passage of fibre over existing infrastructure on private farm land wouldn't progress and that Federated Farmers were resistant (for the reasons above) and so we would have to let it go.
Everyone in the room was disappointed but moved on.
I had seen the Northpower model up close and simply moving on was something I couldn't easily do. I figured that if I could get every single farmer in Northland to agree they would allow fibre over their land then maybe I could get a carve out for Northland and possibly the rest of the country would eventually follow. It seemed the right thing to do and so over the next 48 hours I took action.
First, I had an immediate conversation with the national IT spokesman for Federated Farmers and asked him if I could get a carve out if I got every single Northland farmer to agree. He said yes.
Second, I met with the executive team at Northpower and told them the fibre over poles model was finished unless we could get key stakeholders on board and I needed their help. They had already been working on this and immediately supercharged their efforts.
Thirdly, I met with the Northland president of Federated Farmers and discussed with him what was needed and that at the AGM in three weeks' time he had the opportunity to get a mandate from Northland farmers.
The last action was to call the Minister, beg forgiveness and at the same time tell them what I had done and that I was looking for a carve out for Northland that might eventually benefit everybody.
It was made clear to me that I had been told to let it go and that I had better "have the stakeholders in my room at 8am on Monday".
The rest is history.
Northpower worked collaboratively with Federated Farmers and other key stakeholders and eventually a national position was achieved that brought early broadband to rural New Zealand.
I want to thank all of those involved for what we now is vital infrastructure to rural communities and look back with thanks to many who made a difference and look forward to how even more can be done.