The rising and increasingly visible trend of Kiwis working remotely has seen Vodafone New Zealand "turbocharge" a programme of digital infrastructure investment to offer better mobile phone and internet coverage to the regions.
Manawatū and Bay of Plenty-Waiariki will be the first regions to receive new mobile technology as part of an accelerated network investment programme, which includes upgrading or building at least 250 mobile cell sites around Aotearoa in 2021 and bringing Vodafone 5G to Tauranga and Palmerston North.
The catalyst for this has been Covid-19, lockdowns and the seemingly permanent change of working habits – with many Kiwis opting for working from home or working remotely for at least part of their working week.
That, says Vodafone's Tony Baird, Wholesale & Infrastructure Director, has meant digital technologies have come into focus as increasing numbers of Vodafone staff, and New Zealanders more broadly, work remotely: "The pandemic has proved the effectiveness of free-range working, enabled by New Zealand's world-class internet infrastructure. That has told us that it's time to unlock the talent of the regions."
Covid-19 has meant more companies are more open to where they locate new offices or, like Vodafone, having staff work outside main centres. Vodafone is even looking to sub-lease some head office spaces, knowing that working from home is here to stay for many.
In September, Stats NZ revealed that more than 40 per cent of employed Kiwis did at least some of their work from home during the Covid-19 level 4 and level 3 lockdown – and Infometrics senior economist Brad Olsen told media at the time that remote working would be a key change for post-pandemic New Zealand.
"With 48 per cent of people who worked from home in the June quarter not usually working at home, there's increased scope for some roles to be based in more provincial areas, and will be something for business and decision makers to consider moving ahead," he said. "Businesses were able to adapt and enable employees to continue working from a different location."
Vodafone has also seen what that means for New Zealand, says Baird: "It means we have to build and upgrade digital infrastructure across New Zealand, because data use increased by a whopping 56 per cent during 2020 as more Kiwis relied on mobile technology and digital services to work, live and play remotely.
"That trend is set to continue following heightened alert levels last week – and we believe many of these changes are here for good."
But it's not just work life that's gone online; entertainment and socialising has too. On Christmas and Boxing Day, Vodafone NZ customers streamed 1178 terabytes of data in just two days – equivalent to more than a million hours of video. It is 52 per cent more data than we used the previous Christmas. New Year's Eve celebrations saw 80 per cent more data used by Vodafone customers, compared to 2019-2020.
Throughout December as a whole, there was a 74 per cent year-on-year growth in data use on Vodafone's 4G network and a tenfold increase in 5G in the last three months.
So New Zealand needs to plan ahead to ensure adequate internet networks that can cope with the "new abnormal", says Baird. A high priority is also to ensure the gap between the digital haves and have nots (often in rural areas) does not get bigger and that everyone has access to the digital services necessary to carry all this data, as well as the means to use it. This is why sensible infrastructure sharing is also important in the telco industry, including initiatives such as the Rural Connectivity Group (RCG).
"Each year Vodafone invests hundreds of millions of dollars into our digital infrastructure," says Baird, "but we're really ramping it up this year. Covid-19 has accelerated the use of digital services and data consumption, particularly in regional parts of the country, and we want to invest ahead of the curve for our customers."
Such investments will boost fixed wireless access products, such as 4G Broadband and 5G Broadband, meaning Kiwis can access fast and easy internet connections via Vodafone's mobile network without the need to wait for specialist technicians or lay fibre cabling.
"We want to further strengthen regional free-range working options, plus offer greater Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities to turbocharge regional economies, and help foster greater digital inclusion by enabling community benefits such as improved health, education and social outcomes."
One business looking forward to utilising the power of next generation technology is the Tauranga branch of Craigs Investment Partners. Stuart Prendergast says: "During Covid-19, we kept our business operating remotely – which would have been almost impossible without the internet and phone connectivity. It's important to have access to the latest technology for our customers and staff; 5G is a great example."
Baird adds: "We're building for the long-term so we think it's important to accelerate investment into our network, despite being in the middle of a very challenging business environment.
"Telco industry economics are even more challenging, and New Zealanders continue to get more bang for their buck by consuming more data each year but paying the same or less for their mobile and broadband plans - so we'll keep exploring how we can achieve greater business efficiencies to keep delivering more value to our customers."
For more information about Vodafone NZ 5G, please visit www.vodafone.co.nz/5G