Heavy-handed fast-tracking that undermines farmers' rights won't speed up an important part of rural infrastructure
First the good news. The latest Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) quarterly report suggests that Vodafone and Chorus are on target to meet their goal of connecting 90 per cent of high-speed broadband into rural communities by next year.
This is great news for farmers. The much-anticipated rollout is vital to improving the running of many farms - both homes and businesses - as the online services on which they increasingly depend on become more elaborate and data hungry.
What is unlikely to please farmers is an amendment to the Electricity Act 1992 through which the Government will seek to allow local lines companies to freely run fibre cables over farmer's property along existing electricity lines, poles and towers, and to do so without consultation.
The message is that delivery of high-speed broadband overwhelms a landowner's property rights to determine the use of their land by others, but is the opportunity cost too high?
The alternative would be to require lines companies to secure easement rights, as is currently required by law.
This process requires consultation with the landowner, where often the key concerns are the business and land impacts, or simply the timing of the works.
In Federated Farmers' experience, this process often saves time in the long run. We've supported farmers in their dealings with electricity lines companies where fast-tracking and a lack of consultation with landowners has lead to costs and delays resulting from legal action.
It's possible the Government will submit their amendment of the Electricity Act 1992 before the end of this year. If it goes through, we may again see landowners push back on this intrusion on their property rights and, once more, the end result could be farmers exercising every legal right they have to delay the rollout.
Another challenge facing the RBI is lack of ambition. This was a core deficiency in phase one of the RBI, which was designed to get us to 90 per cent coverage.
Phase two, taking us beyond this, is now under way with the launch earlier this year of a tender to select the delivery partners. An appointment is due by the end of the year.
While phase two will build on phase one's achievements, the question should be asked: does this achieve all that rural New Zealand could reasonably hope for?
There are limited funds that can be put towards any infrastructure project, and it makes sense to aim to achieve the best bang for buck.
For a lot of the phase-one build, the improvements to rural telecommunications networks are great, but one wonders whether a less capital-intensive 'good enough' approach might be a better model for what remains of the rollouts.
Only time will tell. Farmers, meanwhile, keep their fingers crossed for the coverage they need and the consultation they deserve.
* Jacob Haronga is a senior policy adviser with Federated Farmers