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New Zealand hits fibre milestones, but there's trouble in the countryside

In rural areas, New Zealand's Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) and Australia's NBN face both capacity and funding challenges.
Written by Rob O'Neill, Contributor

Compare these two documents: The first is a progress report from NBN Co on Australia's broadband roll-out; the second is a report on New Zealand's Ultrafast Broadband (UFB) project from Crown Fibre Holdings.

You don't have to read the documents to spot the difference, but if you did you would discern variations in the detail as well as in the effectiveness of the communication.

Nowhere in the NBN document, for instance, can you see the percentage of the roll-out complete or the percentage of population with access to fast broadband.

Earlier this month, New Zealand's UFB project reached two milestones, its half-way point and its first 100,000 connections.

It is often said, mostly correctly, that New Zealand's fibre rollout is less challenging than Australia's. It is, after all, a long, narrow strip of a country, albeit a rugged, long narrow strip.

The UFB effort has faced challenges, particularly in servicing multi-tenanted buildings, but these are being overcome with help from Australian contractors. Experience is also helping to reduce costs as the project progresses.

Unlike the NBN, however, which saw its goals shifted from fibre-to-the-premises to fibre-to-the-node, the UFB's scope has been extended, not cut back. It was originally scoped to provide speeds of up to 100Mbit/s down and 50Mbit/s up, upgradable to 10 times that speed, to 75 percent of the population.

Dark fibre services were also specified while services to schools, hospitals and businesses were prioritised.

The UFB project's reach has since been increased to 80 percent of the population with most of the other 20 percent set to receive wireless mobile broadband under the related Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI).

The combined UFB and RBI now target service to 97.8 percent of the population by the end of 2019. Politically, there is something there for almost everybody.

In contrast, as a result being scaled back Australia's NBN became even more politically charged.

It would be a mistake to think all is well in New Zealand, however. While the fibre roll-out attracts little adverse media attention, rumbles of customer discontent at the RBI are offering the Labour opposition a rare opportunity.

Labour last month called for an inquiry before a further NZ$150 million is committed to the RBI, saying there is no data available on service uptake and those that have signed up report substandard service levels. Some dissatisfied customers even petitioned Parliament on the issue.

Clare Curran
"Rural New Zealanders and InternetNZ have expressed strong concerns that the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) isn't delivering quality internet and has connected very few households," opposition ICT spokeswoman Clare Curran said.

"MBIE officials have also admitted they have no idea of how successful the scheme has been and have conducted no analysis into it."

As Curran agitated, the market reacted. Spark announced it would roll 4G out into rural areas, challenging Vodafone, which won the contract to deliver the RBI network.

Vodafone, in turn, said it would be upgrading its services from 3G to 4G.

Those developments will address some, but not all, of the issues. Wireless remains a poor cousin to fibre and can be hard to optimise. Both 3G and 4G broadband performance degrades markedly when a cell tower comes under load.

Australia is trialing LTE for a potential 50Mbit/s download speed and upgrading other rural areas to a possible 25Mbit/s. That may improve speeds, depending on demand growth, but perhaps equally pressing is how to make services to the bush economic without either a cross-subsidy from urban customers or the taxpayer.

That issue is an emerging challenge for Kiwis too. Curran said there is widespread industry concern about the extension of a levy to pay for the government's planned increase in RBI investment. One provider, she said, had announced it would pass that cost through to its broadband and on-account mobile customers.

While New Zealand is now outpointing Australia in most measures of international broadband service, that is nothing to write home about. Both countries have a long way to go to reach the global top 10 - or even the top 20.

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