Build it and see – how to roll out rural broadband

The export sector has its say at the TUANZ Rural Broadband Symposium

In 1973 Britain joined the European Union and New Zealand pledged to diversify its economy away from primary sector exports. More than three decades later, delegates at the TUANZ Rural Broadband Symposium were told that 47% of the country’s exports are produced by 2% of the population.

In the opening presentation to the symposium, commentator Rod Oram was eloquent in his explanation as to why, despite the setbacks, New Zealand has never moved on from being a food-producing nation. Oram told the conference that the world’s population is set to quadruple in his lifetime and so too will the food supply required to feed it.

So what does this all have to do with broadband — everything and everything. Once it’s accepted that agriculture is likely to remain the staple source of wealth for this country, the business case for rural broadband begins to stack up. Certainly the mix of scientists, technologists, educationists, entrepreneurs and community leaders at the symposium presented a convincing argument.

Dairy NZ general manager for research Eric Hillerton said that dairy sheds now include many technological devices that measure milk quality in real time and these machines need to “communicate” outside the farm. Often this sophisticated machinery is imported so online maintenance and faults reporting to overseas factories is essential.

Fonterra’s chief technology officer Andrew Wilshire said that the cooperative, which has annual revenue of $14 billion, wants for its shareholders the following: conferencing collaboration tools, convergence of voice and video on to the IP network, presence-based communications, and better broadband with less latency to enable SaaS applications.

The desire for broadband is not only about better technology. Hillerton said that farm labour is in desperately short supply. For example, 33% of dairy production is now occurring in the South Island, which has a dispersed population. Educated South American workers are filling the job vacancies and they’re demanding high-speed broadband connections so they can stay in touch with their families back home.

The skills shortage is also a problem for Solid Energy information services manager Christine Dormaar, who said connectivity was the key to attracting miners, geologists and engineers to Stockton on the West Coast. Why? The workers want to ensure their families have access to quality education and health services and as the rural areas empty of people who service these communities, their expertise can only remain via such tools as video conferencing.

Connectivity also provides isolated individuals with the ability to meet people online. Social networking sites have replaced church hall dances as the place where single people meet in the 21st century.

National Animal Identification and Tracing project manager Craig Purcell outlined the universal livestock identification scheme for cattle and deer, which is to be mandatory in 2011 and is designed to mitigate disease. But traceability is about more than animal health; it’s presenting a marketable product to the high-end consumer on the other side of the world. MediaLab Farmgate programme manager Bridgit Hawkins spoke about Rissington Breedline, where the company electronically tags sheep to identify which animals will produce the choicest cuts of meat for sale on the supermarket shelves of Marks & Spencer in Britain.

Scottech general manager Roger Hardy discussed the telemetry product his company has developed in conjunction with regional councils. Water is so scarce in some areas that in order to ensure every farm gets its correct allocation, a water meter is installed in the pump house to deliver real-time data. Hardy spoke of his utter frustration in dealing with telcos, who were unable to provide in-depth information on how to deliver services across their own networks.

Landcorp national manager for marketing and procurement Phil McKenzie outlined how the SOE, which owns 112 farms, centralised all its data at its Wellington office. He said they’d thought it would be a six month project, but it took two and half years. Fairport Farms Systems managing director Gavin McEwen, who oversaw the process, joked: “What’s the difference between a car salesperson and a software salesperson? The car salesperson knows when he’s lying.”

But the telecommunications industry was listening — just about every major company was in the room. Kordia, Gen-i, Baycity/Farmside and Ericsson sponsored the conference and their chief executives and top managers were in the room. Chorus, Alcatel, Telecom, TelstraClear and Vodafone were there and were active participants. And it was clear by the end that not one of them had the solution, a fact neatly summed up by Kordia’s chief executive Geoff Hunt when he said: “Collaboration is the name of the game.”

Hand in hand with collaboration is community. Council representatives were there looking for ways to combine government funding with telco investment. Keynote speaker Mark McElroy, from Connected Nations, presented on the Connect Kentucky project, where broadband was rolled out county by county until all 120 acquired connectivity. It’s about mapping the infrastructure already there, creating detailed and specific technology plans for every community and aggregating demand among major users such as banks, schools and hospitals, he told the Symposium.

In many areas the work has begun. Environment Bay of Plenty technology group manager Miles McConway talked about a regional plan where seven councils have formed a separate “council controlled organisation” to build a regional backhaul duct network to link Tauranga, Whakatane, Kawerau and Rotorua. Basically it’s a pipe in the ground into which competing telcos can run their own fibre. McConway said they don’t want to compete with telcos — instead they want to become a “telco friendly zone”.

Then there was James Watts, director of three companies involved in every layer of a rural fibre network and a strong advocate for open access networks. He told us he’s partnered with FX Networks to build a fibre backhaul loop connecting Dannevirke and Eketahuna to Palmerston North. When the fibre loop is completed, residents in those two small towns will get access to a 100Mbit/s broadband connection. Traffic between their town and the Palmerston North peering exchange will be free — this means users will be able to partake in virtual study at Massey University and teleworking with businesses based in the city.

The Tararua District Council has signed on as an anchor tenant because it recognises that unless it becomes actively involved in encouraging broadband to the region, their ratepayers will miss out.

A small settlement called Mangamaire is about to embark on a DIY fibre to the farm rollout. The local school — which has just 45 students — will be directly connected to the Taraua loop and will become the centre from which fibre is rolled out to the surrounding farm houses.

Watts came to the symposium fresh from signing a deal with FX Networks to provide a 1Gbit/s circuit to the school for $1,000 month. Currently the school pays Telecom’s SchoolZone about $2,400 a month for two 512kbit/s connections. From the school they will roll out a wi-fi network offering a 1Mbit/s connection to 98% of the town.

At the beginning of his presentation Watts spoke about the difficulties of getting the government, the telcos, the councils and the community to line up and deliver broadband to rural and marginal users. He said that in his experience the best way to build a fibre network was to offer free beer to every contractor digging up a road who would allow him to put a fibre duct 600mm under the ground.

He said we could all waste a lot of time talking about how to roll out broadband to rural areas, discussing how it will be funded and what it will be used for. In the end, it was his question that proved to be the most powerful statement of the two days.

“Why don’t we just build it and see what it can do?”

Sarah Putt is policy and communications manager at TUANZ

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