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Patchwork approach to coverage

Venture Southland received more than 700 survey responses and nearly 100 letters in support of its effort to secure the further rollout of ultrafast broadband, rural broadband, and improved mobile services in the district.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is planning the second round of investment into this infrastructure, and expressions of interest from regional stakeholders were due last Friday.

Venture Southland enterprise project manager Robin McNeill said the public input backed up Venture’s own research into Southland’s lack of satisfactory coverage.

“They confirmed really what we know, but it’s good to have it confirmed,” he said. “How it will go, I don’t know. We cross our fingers and hope for the best.” Venture Southland submitted a proposal including 19 sites with an urgent and economically viable need for infrastructure.

“We also put in a non-confirming bid, where we’ve said there needs to be a 15-year strategy plan in telcos (telecommunications companies) in New Zealand.” National initiatives like this were a “patchwork approach” providing only a partial solution, he said.

“That doesn’t solve the problem of what do we do in the rural areas,” he said. “We do need to have a concerted effort to get fibre to every farm, every dwelling.” Some residents would continue to get upgrades, like 3G mobile coverage to 4G or urban upgrades to fibre, but there didn’t seem to be any plan for those rural communities with little or no service at all, Mr McNeill said.

“We’re going to have three digital divides if we’re not careful: smoke signals and dial-up, slow speed broadband, and fibre giving people as much as their appetites can handle.” With mobile coverage, telcos needed to be forced to allow “open access” to all providers on their respective infrastructure, so that coverage for consumers wasn’t dependent on their provider, Mr McNeill said.

“It’s no good putting up another Mobile Black Spot Fund site if it only works with one network and not another.” So far, the only MBIE conditions on new infrastructure were a continuation of the status quo, although there was still room for greater open access rules, Mr McNeill said.

An MBIE spokesperson said the suppliers of any future infrastructure would have to give other mobile operators the ability to share the tower or the equipment on the tower.

However, “no decision has been made about whether open access requirement will include an obligation to offer mobile roaming services to other carriers”.

Vodafone now boasts 97 percent coverage across the district, according to a spokesperson.

Spark communications adviser Vicky Gray said the company had spent more than $1.2 million over the past three years installing equipment on Vodafone towers.

“Spark is committed to co-locating on every one of the Government’s Rural Broadband Initiative sites where we don’t already have coverage.” Recent co-locations at sites including Nightcaps, Lorneville, Centre Hill, Lumsden, and Waikaia had cost Spark $175,000 each.

Apart from one new mobile site at Riversdale, all planned Spark investment over the next two years was upgrades of 3G coverage to 4G, she said.

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