COMMENT




As everyone in rural areas knows, having a steam-driven internet connection is no fun.



A relative emails baby photographs and you make a pot of tea while your computer hiccups its way through the download.



Your city mate emails the latest jokey pictures, or a business colleague forwards a large document and you can go milk the cows while it arrives into your in-box.

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As I live just 10 minutes' drive from the centre of Hamilton, well-connected friends told me that Telecom's Jetstream was the answer to my problems, so I inquired in July whether I could hook on to this cyber nirvana.



Unfortunately, came the response from Tony of the Jetstream Team, I was 1.5km too far from my closest Telecom exchange. "ADSL is limited to around 5.5km, your connection is some 7km from the exchange," Tony said.



(ADSL or Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line works by utilising the full frequency spectrum of the copper wire currently used in our telephone lines.)



Adding insult to internet injury, Telecom emailed a special offer in October. I could hook on to Jetstream and save $99. I queried whether Jetstream had now leapt that gargantuan 1.5km but have had to presume by the lack of a reply that, indeed, it has not.



Oh, to be in the South Waikato. A community-funded broadband internet wireless network trial has shown that the residents, businesses and schools around Tokoroa and Putaruru could be networking anywhere in the world courtesy of hook-up that is always on, cheaper and faster than what I'll have to put up with for many a year.



South Waikato District Council economic development manager Noel Ferguson championed the idea of using the improbably named but well-proven 802.11b technology, which uses radio frequencies to carry data.



Herald IT editor Chris Barton described

how communities worldwide had been experimenting with this "high-tech equivalent of No 8 wire to create their own broadband pathways through the fresh air".



Last year the council's economic development strategy identified technology as the key driver for future economic well-being in a district hard hit by the forestry downturn and it put up around $350,000 for the trial that began just over a year ago.



The council put up a point-of-presence or POP aerial on its Tokoroa headquarters to make its high-speed connection available to other computer users. Initially, anyone within 3km of the council building could erect their own aerial - no bigger than a Sky TV aerial - put in a bit of software and hook up to the internet at a fast 11megabits per second (Mbps), about five times the speed of usual residential broadband internet of 2Mbps.



It costs users just $55 a month, which covers the cost of the aerial, installation and internet use.



The council partnered with technology company Rural Networks, which had trialled the technology in Te Kaha in the eastern Bay of Plenty.



Since then more POP aerials have gone up - on Tokoroa's Colson's Hill, and in Putaruru on a railway building and the council office - which has made the network available to around 70 per cent of South Waikato people.



This week those people are being asked whether the council should invest further in the technology.



The council will hear public submissions on three options on Friday. It will then decide whether to exit the trial or - its preferred position - spend $1 million to set up a company with Rural Networks that would seek more investment to expand the network.



Ferguson, naturally, is enthusiastic for the district to become increasingly wired and for the technology to be community controlled. He's not alone in believing that broadband access is as important a piece of infrastructure in today's information age as roads, electricity and water reticulation have been in the past.



He has calculated that at least $4 million a year could be retained in the district if the community owned its telephone and internet infrastructure.



A wired community would no longer be subject to the tyranny of distance and locked into its traditional economic mainstays of farming and forestry.



While it could go wirelessly out to the world, the world could come to it in the same way, lifting its image and potentially increasing tourism, migration and business.



Twenty thousand sales leads each month via the internet could "easily" translate into 25 per cent higher turnover for district businesses, Ferguson says.



Integrating the web and focusing on export markets could create up to 800 new jobs within three years.



The young people and families who have been leaving the district in droves over the last decade could stay put or return.



From where I sit with my Hobson's choice internet connection I can only envy the people of the South Waikato, hope they back this initiative and push it into the rest of the province.



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