NZ government announces NZ$150m RBI extension, mobile blackspots program

The New Zealand government is targeting broadband coverage in regional areas by extending fixed-line services and announcing funding for a mobile blackspot project.

New Zealand Communications Minister Amy Adams has announced a request for proposals (RFP) into an extension of the government's Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI2) to bring fixed-line broadband services to further regional areas, as well as providing more mobile coverage through a mobile blackspots program.

"Around 293,000 rural New Zealanders are accessing better broadband under the first phase of our RBI program. This next stage sees an investment of NZ$150 million to extend coverage to even more New Zealanders," Adams said.

"My aim is to provide high-speed broadband to the greatest number of under-served rural New Zealanders within the funding available, and give regional communities access to high-speed broadband. We also want to improve the reach of mobile services to support safety on state highways and enhance the visitor experience for tourists."

The RBI extension would provide broadband speeds of at least 20Mbps.

The newly announced mobile blackspot funding would enable mobile coverage for "a long list of state highway and tourism locations", the government said.

There are already over 200 locations noted down as needing mobile coverage, but the government said the designated funding will not cover all of these -- and other areas that are not listed because they already have limited coverage and may receive funding for increased coverage.

"We identified a long list of mobile black spots to guide respondents to highway zones and tourism areas without mobile coverage. The areas finally selected from this list will be as a result of negotiations in the course of the RFP process," she said.

Highways will be provided with a minimum of 3G services, with 4G networks "preferred" for popular tourist areas. The RFP closes on February 2, with contracts expected to be announced by June 2017.

New Zealand telecommunications carrier Spark welcomed the announcement, saying RBI2 and the mobile blackspots program will bring much-needed connectivity to regional areas.

"We welcome this decision, and we're looking forward to working our way through the details and working with government, community stakeholders, and other telecommunications network operators to identify how the government's RBI and Mobile Black Spot Fund can be best directed to improve ultra-fast broadband availability in rural New Zealand," said Spark GM of Regulation John Wesley-Smith.

Fellow telco Chorus said it intends to take part in the RFP.

"Chorus welcomes the government's announcement today about the next stage of the process to extend the Rural Broadband Initiative," a spokesperson for Chorus told ZDNet.

"We will go through the request for proposal and put in a submission by 2 February."

The New Zealand government is targeting 99 percent of the population with 50Mbps minimum broadband speeds by 2020, with the remaining 1 percent to have speeds of at least 10Mbps.

The RBI will provide broadband for 20 percent of the New Zealand population, with the initial RBI project 100 percent complete as of June, having enhanced and extended fixed-line coverage to approximately 110,000 premises for a total cost of NZ$282 million.

The RBI has seen an uptake of 88 percent as of June 30, with Chorus flagging during its results that it was "awaiting RBI2 details" from the federal government.

The remaining 80 percent of the population will be covered by the Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) project, which already provides speeds of up to 1Gbps using fibre to the premises (FttP).

By comparison, the Australian government's National Broadband Network (NBN) project will provide 100 percent of the population with minimum speeds of 25Mbps by 2020 using a mix of FttP, fibre to the node, fibre to the basement, fibre to the distribution point, hybrid fibre-coaxial, fixed-wireless, and satellite.

The Australian government also has a mobile blackspots program: Under the first round of the blackspots program, Telstra and Vodafone Australia secured AU$185 million in government funding to help build or upgrade 499 mobile towers across Australia -- 429 by Telstra and 70 by Vodafone -- with Telstra also commissioned to install small cells in 135 small towns to provide 4G services where Telstra infrastructure is already available.

The government announced the second round of the program in December 2015, providing a further AU$60 million to those participating. At the end of May, the Coalition then pledged to spend an additional AU$60 million to fund a third round of the mobile blackspot program to build or upgrade a further 900 mobile towers. Funding for round three is expected to commence in mid-2017.

As of September 28, 69 base stations under round one of the program were "fully operational", with 200 more to follow over the next 12 months.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO), however, recently published a report criticising the blackspot program, saying the program's administration had various "weaknesses", including the assessment criteria for choosing which blackspots to fund.

The opposition argued that areas already covered with mobile networks should not be targeted under the program, and added that the blackspots program has become politicised, with Coalition electorates receiving the most funding.