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Time to Fast Track Rural Broadband

Its high time the government gave rural NZ the priority it deserves when subsidising broadband infrastructure.

News trickled out last week that it is going to take a long, long time to decide where to invest its next round of broadband funding support. An MBIE paper revealed that deployment contracts are not expected to be finalised until the first half of 2016 for UFB2 (urban), and later in 2016 for RBI2 (rural.) That probably means not much actual deployment before the start of 2017.

That’s way too late and will understandably disappoint many.

High expectations have been set. Central government leaned very hard on councils to identify the broadband-deprived parts of their districts, prioritise these, and create digital enablement plans for them. Councils grumbled, but responded positively. High expectations now exist not only within councils, but among the tens of thousands of broadband-hungry citizens, businesses and students who supported the process through public meetings, surveys, and consultation processes.So, such a slow time frame to reach an outcome may not go down well.

We shouldn’t understate the complexity of the task MBIE, Crown Fibre and the politicians have set themselves. By now they must be glumly gazing at rooms full of registrations of interest from councils and infrastructure providers nationwide, in excruciating detail down to the location of every power pole. Somehow officials have to get their minds around the proposals, then balance the technical, commercial, economic, social and political issues involved. Finally, somehow they much match aspirant regions to willing vendors, working within the available funding, while disappointing as few people as possible. Not for the faint hearted!

Some people will be disappointed – that’s inevitable. But worse than that and despite best intentions, when governments intrude into commercial markets like telecommunications there are perverse side effects. One is that vendors who would otherwise have been building out wireless or fibre networks on a fully commercial basis will take a break until they see what the government is going to do – nobody wants to miss out on public money or still worse, compete against it. The length of this process has increased that risk exponentially.

A partial solution could be to park the complex UFB decisions briefly and give priority to resolving the more straightforward RBI. Rural communities’ needs are currently greater than urban ones, and they have fewer alternatives. There is a wide range of wireless operators champing at the bit to fill the gaps in rural NZ’s broadband, as well as mounting interest in Northpower’s model of broadband to every electricity consumer.

I’d love to see the government set aside the urban decisions with their heavy overlay of politics, and the interminable lobbying by Chorus which inherited Telecom's culture of entitlement. Instead it should fast-track some quick win rural solutions using the nimble, low cost operators who have shown their capability in this field..

I remember arguing years ago that the best role for the government in broadband was to start by connecting up the most remote farmhouse, then the second and third most remote, while the industry started in the CBDs and worked outwards. At some point the two would meet in the middle. I still think that concept has relevance, though there are obvious counter-arguments.

But to accelerate the RBI decisions to me is a no-brainer. Minister Adams – are you listening?

(Disclosure – I have been working with a number of Councils and vendors, principally Whakatane District Council, on registrations of interest and Digital Enablement Plans.)

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