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Vodafone says it has "heard the calls from rural customers" and will now offer them the same unlimited data as urban users during the Covid-19 lockdown - but only at off-peak times, defined as midnight to 9am.

And it is still asking them to take data-conserving measures such as reducing quality on video streaming services like Netflix to standard definition (or watch more traditional off-line services such as Sky), avoiding iTunes and the App Store at peak times, turning off automatic updates for Xbox and PlayStation and giving streaming music services like Spotify a miss.

The change kicked in last night and this morning. Vodafone technology director Tony Baird said there was an immediate 40 per cent jump in rural broadband traffic.


So why not offer it 24/7?

"We would love to offer unlimited data to our rural customers at all times – but the rural network has a limited data supply and is simply not built for the hugely increased capacity we're experiencing at the moment," the Vodafone said in a message to its rural customers last night.

"[But] this would require additional radio spectrum and government investment via the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI). This means that if we removed data caps now, it would degrade the experience overall."

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A Vodafone-Spark-2degrees joint venture called the Rural Connectivity Group won the tender for the second stage of the public-private Rural Broadband Initiative, which is still underway - and funded, in large part, through a $50m a year tax on the telco industry.

Photo / File
Photo / File

Last week saw all the big internet providers offer unlimited data to all fixed-broadband customers, with no overage charges, as part of their Covid-19 response.

One rural customer was quick to ask the Herald why the deals did not extend to rural users.

"Are we not as important?" she asked in an email to the Herald.


The Herald subsequently quizzed the providers. Spark and 2degrees confirmed that their unlimited offers did in fact extend to the countryside.

But Vodafone - which in 2018 bought the largest rural broadband player, Farmside - said it would like to but was faced with the limitations of today's rural infrastructure.

Its Farmside purchase simply means that Vodafone has the most skin in the game, an insider said.

Spark has "more spectrum and fewer rural sites."

With its new measures announced overnight, Vodafone is offering rural customers unlimited data from midnight to 9am, though it still cautions not to go wild. A "fair-use" policy will be in place.

Vodafone NZ boss Jason Paris said, "Outside these times, your 200GB data should be enough to work and learning from home without interruption."

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Speaking to the Herald earlier this week, Telecommunications Users Association head Craig Young welcomed relief measures from telcos, but noted many rural users were missing out on unlimited data. The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website

Young and InternetNZ boss Jordan Carter have both pointed out a second major issue: the 211,000 households that have no broadband connection at all as schools turn to online learning, and the government uses it as a major means of communication, during the lockdown. The government gave the Herald an update on plans in that area, which are still developing.

Vodafone's data-saving tips for rural customers

• Keep an eye on data usage allowance via the My Farmside portal daily or by using the MyVodafone app.

• Review all electronic devices that are connected via WiFi or connected to your Rural Broadband device.

• Download software upgrades during the free data period.

• Close down apps on your phone when it's connected to the WiFi so they don't keep using data in the background.

• Turn off automatic software updates on your mobile phone.

• Restrict iTunes and App Store downloads until the off-peak, free periods.

• PlayStation and Xbox game updates consume a lot of data so turn off automatic updates.

• Video content does too, so download overnight taking advantage of your new unlimited data times, then reduce the format to SD (standard definition). This includes YouTube, Netflix and Vodafone TV.

• Listen to downloaded music rather than streaming on Spotify and Apple Music.

• Change WiFi passwords to protect your usage.

• Seek alternative entertainment channels such as Sky