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New Zealand Editor

Most NZ farmers have decent broadband, but improvement is needed

News Analysis
Sep 13, 20205 mins
Agriculture IndustryBroadbandInternet

The option of unlimited data plans, a choice of providers, and greater investments are among the top needs cited in a Federated Farmers survey.

Plugging the gaps in connectivity and increasing competition among broadband providers will improve the state of rural connectivity in New Zealand. That’s the view of Federated Farmers President Andrew Hoggard, following a survey of its membership.

“The task ahead is less one of pushing broadband into ever more isolated and remote locations and more one of addressing the gaps in coverage and constraints on capacity of earlier builds. More targeted investment towards bespoke builds would go a long way towards addressing connection speed and reliability concerns,” says Hoggard, who is also the organisation’s telecommunications spokesperson.

“Competition is a concern, with many members finding they only have the one provider and have to take it or leave it as regards price and quality of service,” he says.

Broadband, mobile and landline survey results

The Federated Farmers survey on connectivity received almost 900 responses from members across the range of farm types, as well as geographical area. It revealed a strong reliance on wireless and mobile broadband services.

In terms of fixed-line broadband, about 50% are on wireless broadband connections, with 27% on copper line connections (ADSL and VSDL). About a third of respondents are on unlimited download monthly plans, while those on capped plans complained that they’d like to switch to uncapped but their provider doesn’t offer it, says Federated Farmers senior policy advisor Jacob Haronga. “Many of these comments made [in the survey] mention of how Spark and Vodafone provided unlimited downloads during [the COVID-19] Level 4 lockdown and questioned why that couldn’t continue to be the case.”

Meanwhile, 70% of respondents recorded speeds up to 20Mbps, with 25% “enduring” up to 5Mbps. This is only a slight improvement on last year.

Smartphone use is high, with about 95% of respondents using the devices, with 60% able to access 4G speeds and 2% able to now connect to 5G. “Signal strength is looking OK, with around 50% of respondents indicating they can get four or five bars of reception on their mobiles,” Haronga says.

Landlines continue to be used on farms, with 75% of respondents indicating they still use them, and about 50% rating the service as either good or excellent. Faxes, on the other hand, are on the brink of extinction, with only 8% of respondents indicating they had used faxes in the past year.

Telcos respond to capped-plans complaint

Vodafone says during the lockdown it lifted data caps for fixed-line broadband customers who were on data-capped plans, while those on fixed-wireless broadband connections had data caps lifted during off-peak periods only. Its rural ISP Farmside has subsequently introduces two off-peak booster plans.

“Wireless broadband traffic on RBI [Rural Broadband Initiative network] is prioritised and, because there is no single line to your home (like fibre or copper), the amount of capacity that is available needs to be shared by all users on your local cell sites. This means that, lifting data caps on this finite capacity will congest RBI cell sites even more, potentially degrading the experience for all existing users. There are plans underway to increase capacity, however these plans will require additional radio spectrum and government funding support,” a Vodafone spokesperson says.

Spark says removing data caps nationwide during the first and second lockdowns was an “unprecedented decision”. “At peak times, a small percentage within our network would experience a slower service than our usual standard. Lifting data caps also required tight controls around data usage and active monitoring of our network traffic to anticipate and avoid congestion and ensure a good experience for our customers,” a Spark spokesperson says.

“While it will take more time until we can offer uncapped [plans] across the board whilst still maintaining an excellent service for all our customers, the first lockdown gave us the confidence to increase data caps in rural areas and offer one of the highest wireless data plans in the market for rural customers,” the Spark spokesperson says.

From July, rural customers on Spark’s 120GB wireless broadband plan were brought up to 160GB, and those on the 240GB plan were brought up to 300GB.

The future of rural broadband funding

The Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) is currently in its second phase of the rollout, with the 100th rural mobile broadband tower going live in June 2020. Participants include the Rural Connectivity Group (a coalition of Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees) and independent wireless service providers (WISPs).

“The RBI is the primary vehicle for improving rural connectivity. It has achieved a lot, but not as much as earlier assumed. We still have great numbers of farmers out there enduring slow speeds, unreliable connections and poor coverage across the farm,” Hoggard says.

RBI is partly funded by the New Zealand government through initiatives such as the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) and by a levy on the telecommunications industry called the Telecommunications Development Levy (TDL).

The TDL is set to be reduced from $50 million to $10 million annually in 2021, but when asked if he was concerned about this change, Hoggard was ambivalent. “Yes and no. We need more money from government to improve rural connectivity, but the government has more recently relied upon returns from earlier RBI and Ultra Fast Broadband builds (this funded much of the second stage RBI build and accelerated the rollout by a year) and PGF and economic stimulus funding for their more recent announcements shrinking the reliance on TDL revenue,” he says. “The PGF and economic stimulus investments will come to an end before anyone can say ‘mission accomplished’ on rural connectivity.”