Whanganui rural residents have growing concerns over the quality of internet that is available to them.
A 2020 survey by economic development agency Whanganui & Partners and the Whanganui Rural Community Board found 77 per
cent of farmers had access to some form of internet, but 73.3 per cent of them reported having download speeds under 10Mbps.
As well as slow internet speeds, mobile coverage and data were poor in many rural areas, making it difficult for both business and communication.
The Whanganui Rural Community Board’s strategic plan for 2020-30 includes a focus on advocating for ultrafast broadband through rural Whanganui.
Chairman Grant Skilton said improving both internet and mobile coverage was key for the future.
“Traditionally over the last 10 years the rural community board, spearheaded by Tex Matthews, has been working pretty hard getting wireless broadband into the rural areas.
“At the moment, the general feeling is that most people have at least some internet coverage to their house. The main issue we are working on is actually getting a bit more mobile coverage in rural areas.”
From a business operation perspective, a lot of technology was moving onto smartphones, which need mobile coverage and data, Skilton said.
“[Internet provider] Inspire has been working pretty hard in putting in various networks.”
For residents outside the city, the only options available are fixed wireless broadband or VDSL over the copper wire phone line. This means it is subject to interference such as weather, local demand or local topography.
Fixed wireless is considerably slower than fibre, up to 20 times on average. Fibre plans start with download speeds of 30Mbps and can go up to 200Mbps.
Skilton said some of the networks could get quite convoluted because they were bouncing two or three times before getting to the user.
“Therefore they are a little bit prone to things going wrong. A small power outage at one of those steps and everything needs to be reset.”
Skilton said there were many barriers and it was getting harder and harder to operate rurally.
“Some of these are also health and safety issues too. We start to rely on these systems in remote areas for emergency situations.”
Whanganui & Partners agribusiness strategic lead Colleen Sheldon said only 16 per cent of rural residents surveyed last year had no cell coverage, but only 10 per cent had 100 per cent coverage.
“Rural communities are unique in that they face rapidly changing needs for compliance, traceability and uptake of agri-technology in order to meet government requirements and consumer needs.
“Lack of connectivity also hinders rural residents’ ability to connect to essential health, social and educational needs.”
Stephen Goldsbury, who lives in Holmwood Rd off State Highway 3 at Kaitoke, said several housing developments were going on in the area and would exacerbate an already-bad issue.
Goldsbury said he was concerned the quality of the service would continue to drop unless significant investment in infrastructure was made.
Sheldon said central government investment was essential to achieve improvements in rural connectivity.
“In April 2020, the Government announced a rural broadband upgrade to boost Covid-19 recovery in remote communities. This upgrade may have a positive impact on connectivity in Whanganui. However, the priority is to upgrade towers that provide coverage to the most number of people and Whanganui’s rural community consists of spread-out properties and tiny rural settlements.”
Kaitoke resident Hazel Gamec said while she had no issues with her service provider, the quality and consistency of the internet was not up to standard.
“My provider is great, the quality is absolute crap. As soon as everyone moves around here, it just gets slower and slower.”
Gamec said it was the closest she had lived to town and it was the worst internet she has had.
“I think we are just being left a bit behind. I’m very concerned with health issues and if something happens.
“The speed isn’t the worst part. It’s the consistency and quality. It doesn’t need to be that fast, but when it doesn’t work at all, that’s a huge issue.”
Clive Rivers, who also lives at Kaitoke, said having fibre installed would be the dream, but was not realistic.
“We’re only 7km from town and we can’t get fibre. We are right here but it’s just not available. I’d go on fibre in an instant if we could get it.”
A spokesperson for Spark said the company made “significant investments in rural capacity every year, both directly and through our joint venture with other mobile operators, the Rural Connectivity Group – which just built its 200th rural cell tower”.
In the meantime, there aren’t a lot of alternatives for those in the rural regions.
A potential, but costly, solution for rural households could come from one of the richest people in the world.
Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s satellite broadband service Starlink has become available in New Zealand for pre-order.
SpaceX’s plan for Starlink is to put 12,000 satellites into low Earth orbit that offer high-speed, low-latency internet anywhere on the planet.
The service will cost $159 a month plus $799 for Dishy, the satellite transceiver, and $114 in handling and shipping.
Goldsbury, Gamec and Rivers said they would seriously consider Starlink and were going to look at the possibility.
“$150 is very reasonable, we are already almost paying that now,” Rivers said.
Sheldon said Starlink was a much-anticipated development that would help farming businesses increase connectivity.
“The expectation is that it will be overhead rather than line of sight, and, therefore, use will not be inhibited by nearby trees or mountains. Of course, it all depends on cost and access.”
This content was originally published here.