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Broadband help just around the corner

Broadband help just around the corner

Surely, nothing can be more frustrating than a painfully slow internet connection, or the disappearance of cell coverage into a deep black hole during a crucial conversation.

An excruciating exercise in hair pulling; watching the slow emergence of a web page or the sending/ receiving of an important email can make the trickle of the sands of time through an hour glass seem rapid in comparison. Help is on the way, and quite possibly just around your corner.

Two significant broadband expansion projects are currently underway that will bring benefits to both the rural and residential communities – Ultra fast broadband expansion (UFB) and the Rural Broadband Initiative phase two/Mobile Black Spots Fund (RBI2/MBSF).

Both projects are being managed by Crown owned company Crown Infrastructure Partners Ltd (CIP), in conjunction with several private sector partners delivering the infrastructure.

The UFB programme originally aimed to provide ‘fibre-to-the-premise’ (FTTP) access to 75% of the population by the end of 2019, but due to the programme’s success, this target was expanded twice in 2017.

Ahead of schedule by 6% and on cost, the programme now aims to make FTTP available to 87% of the population by 2022. Tanya Hansen, Stakeholder Relations Manager for CIP says overall UFB uptake is now over 43%, which is much higher than forecast.

“As more people use the UFB network across the country, awareness of it and its capabilities has spread and increasingly rural people and people in smaller towns are demanding better internet speeds.”

The objective of the RBI2/MBSF programme is to make broadband available to as many ‘underserved’ end users as possible in regions around New Zealand, and to close as many mobile ‘black spots’ as possible on State Highways and in tourist areas.

Initially CIP undertook analysis of all existing telecommunications networks (fixed and mobile) mapped against rural households and businesses, to identify households and businesses that could not access at least 20 Mbps download speeds.

This resulted in CIP identifying the ‘gaps’ around the country where people are but there is no sufficient broadband available. These were then included for tender under RBI2.

“For MBSF, CIP identified State Highways with high incident rates and where there are long stretches of highway without any mobile coverage from any operator, and also tourism areas with the highest number of visitors,” explains Tanya. “These mobile ‘black spots’ were also included for tender.”

In August 2017 the Government announced that CIP had entered into ten contracts with partners for the RBI2/MBSF programme; Rural Connectivity Group (RCG) and nine Rural Wireless Internet Service providers (WISPs).

CIP has partnered with nine WISPs who know and understand their local areas very well.

They are locally owned businesses run by an owner operator. Knowing the local terrain provides a huge benefit when providing high speed broadband access in rural areas.

RCG is an independent entity established to build the infrastructure shared by New Zealand’s three mobile network operators and to operate and maintain the new open access network.

“RCG is using an innovative solution to ‘share’ the antennas on the RCG towers, so all three mobile operators will provide service from all RCG towers. This will not only give people new mobile coverage but they will also have a choice of providers and therefore competition.”

In total, the contracts provide for new RBI2 broadband coverage to more than 70,000 rural households and businesses, leaving only around 17,000 left without broadband coverage.

CIP is now running a further tender process with $105m of funding to try and close this gap as much as possible, with announcements due later this year.

CIP’s contracts also provide for over 100 tourist sites, and over 1,000km of State Highway mobile coverage.

Tanya explains that the work required to deploy infrastructure for RBI2/MBSF is quite different to the UFB programme.

“RBI2/MBSF requires wireless towers to be built and installed, primarily on private property or government land such as DoC and NZTA. These sites are more often than not, quite remote. They usually require much more consenting and other council regulatory requirements due to the size and height of towers, and the type of land they’re on. Availability of power among other things, is also a key factor in determining a viable site.”

Power for the towers can be a big challenge. “It’s often the case that the mains power network doesn’t stretch out to where towers will be going, necessitating either an extension to the power network or use of alternative power supplies like solar.However solar can be problematic in places without sufficient sunlight hours.”

Despite these challenges, CIP and its partners are up for the job.

The WISPs know their areas very well and typically have existing relationships with land owners. The RCG is now carrying out substantial planning and site acquisition and is pressing ahead.

Everyone involved knows the huge benefit that broadband and mobile access will bring to these communities and we are striving to go as far as possible within the existing funding. The RBI2 and MBSF builds are now also due to be substantially completed a year earlier than planned—by 2021.

A recent report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly declared that access to the internet was a basic human right, enabling individuals to ‘exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression’.

New Zealand’s rural community is now well on track to enjoy the benefits of fast broadband connectivity with the outside world.

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