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Fibre to the Farm is a Walk in the Country

The Rural Connectivity Symposium today, run by TUANZ and the Rural Health Alliance, was inspirational. It was incredibly heartening to see these organisations leading the connectivity debate. And it delivered a first for me – the first time I ever recall the best speech of a conference coming from the mandatory Cabinet Minister. Amy Adams is a class act – she spoke from the heart, was informal, informed, and engaging.

It made me think.

And I concluded that we are pussyfooting around with rural connectivity. Fibre to every farm – and marae, and rural health centre – is the end goal. And New Zealand should forget about interim steps. Lets go for gold now.

First, a few givens. Rural New Zealand is our economic powerhouse. The Internet is not about to go away. Demand for bandwidth will continue to grow exponentially despite phone companies acting like startled rabbits caught on the hop. People living in isolated places need more, not less connectivity than city dwellers. Bandwidth is far more essential in rural areas than urban for education, health, business, lifestyle and entertainment. It is a necessity and not a luxury. The economic and social case is overwhelming.

Fibre is the ultimate solution. It has massive capacity. Yes, cellular wireless is needed also, but primarily for voice traffic and for the premium data traffic where mobility adds value – cellular is an adjunct to fixed lines and not an alternative, just as basic sea freight and premium air freight co-exist. Yes, fixed wireless too has a role for a while, but long term it will never match the capacity of fibre to the premises. Satellite is excellent as a service of last resort, but has fatal flaws in speed and cost.

Fibre, beyond doubt, is the future.

Fibre to the Farm can be ridiculously easy. Northpower, with its considerable success in Whangarei, demonstrated that today. Lines companies are very, very good at the simple business of stringing lines along poles. Conversely phone companies worldwide preserve their business models by making such simple tasks seem absurdly complex.

Last century an earlier generation of Kiwis reticulated electricity all over rural New Zealand. They had few labour-saving devices. They cut down trees, fashioned them into poles and cross bars, dug or concreted them into the ground, and laboriously strung copper wires across them.

So if 20th century Kiwis could achieve that, then surely we 21st century ones can get fibre to farms? The poles already exist. We have technology like chain saws, bucket trucks and mole ploughs. We can minimise compliance costs by legislating for fibre telephone lines to be carried across poles with copper electricity lines without additional consent processes - that’s easy. Added visual pollution, if it exists, is negligible.

So let’s take a lesson from our ancestors. Stringing fibre along existing power poles is literally, a walk in the country.

The Minister should engage the electricity lines companies over this. She should ask them how feasible it would be to string fibre to every one of their rural electricity consumers, what it might cost, and how much they would have to charge telecommunications companies for the lease in order to make the investment viable.

Telecommunications companies have survived historically by intimidating and bamboozling governments into thinking their business is far more complex than is the case. Perhaps its time to slow down the new Ultra Fast Broadband and Rural Broadband programmes, so fibre to the farm over the electricity network can be seriously explored as an alternative.

If it works financially it will future proof our communications needs for many decades ahead, and provide a massive economic and social dividend.

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