A brand new telco – let alone one endowed with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars before it is even constituted – doesn’t emerge every day. So the lack of fanfare about the creation of the Rural Connectivity Group (RCG)1 seems surprising.
Maybe that reflects a perception that the RCG is nothing more than a semi-legitimate child of three parents – 2degrees, Spark and Vodafone.
That perception could be right but that would be sad. It would mean the RCG exists just to suck up government money, fork out a bit for infrastructure, and divvy up the spoils among the three shareholders, working strictly within the lowest common denominator of its shareholders’ comfort zones.
But I hope that perception is wrong. I hope the RCG will be given a broad mandate to find cost effective, imaginative, collaborative solutions to New Zealand’s remaining mobile and broadband black spots. I hope it will step out ahead, not just hang about until the government chucks more money in.
Ultimately fibre to the farm will be the end game, but that will take time that rural customers don’t have. Meantime wireless is much faster to deploy.
One realistic solution is cellular over WiFi. Thousands of rural homes and businesses have excellent broadband provided by WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) but frustratingly, no cellular connection. These places could easily be configured so that mobile phone calls and texts could be received over a home WiFi connection. Sure there would be no handovers and the service would work only within the confines of the building. Yet to rural people who presently use their mobiles only when away from home that would be a huge leap forward. There are no technical barriers – only commercial and attitudinal ones, so if the RCG is given the latitude to collaborate with WISPs it could be the conduit to enable such a service rapidly.
Likewise mobile black spots on highways have had a high priority in the RBI2 project. Post-RBI2 there will still be a vast length of main highways with little or no cellular coverage, much of which can never expect 100% cellular coverage economically. A really good solution would be mobile white spots – intermittent areas served by fixed wireless, clearly signposted, where a motorist can drive up and make a cellphone call. Again, the technology is not an issue – it can be done here and now if the will is there, partnerships established, and incentives aligned.
So I’m hoping the RCG will be defined by its name more than its parentage. I hope it will develop its own ethos of using creative solutions to fill the gaps in rural connectivity. If it does, it will reflect great credit on its three parents and make a breakthrough for the rural community. We’ll all be better off.
Ernie Newman is a digital economy consultant based in the Bay of Plenty. He is also associated with WISPA.NZ – the Wireless ISP Association but the views above are his own.
1The previous National government announced on 30 August 2017 it will extend the Rural Broadband Initiative and deliver mobile coverage to more areas through a Mobile Black Spot Fund. The Rural Connectivity Group (joint venture between 2degrees, Spark and Vodafone) received a contract for $250 million, which will involve building 450 new cellphone towers.