Watch out for the government adopting a hands-off … approach to rural broadband provisioning, and a hands-on … approach to water
Multi-tasking Minister Amy Adams went to Canberra last week to talk about a number of things that will have an impact on our rural areas.

As Environment Minister, she attended an Australian government meeting on environment and water issues.  “We’re interested in the work Australia is doing in areas such as national water reform, waste policy, and a national plan for clean air.” she said in a press release.

It is tempting to think that New Zealand is well-endowed with water resources.  In terms of water flow, we are, but in terms of water storage, we are not.  The Canterbury Plains have a local water issue and the government stepped in to solve it for the locals.

Waimakariri River on the Canterbury PlainsThe Pukekohe area also has a water issue.

Our water resources are in high demand with the area’s groundwater allocation more than doubling over a ten year period.  Watercare’s extension of the Waikato River pipeline to Pukekohe will result in the town getting water of the same quality as Auckland City’s and so relieving aquifers and ground water supplies for farmers.

Our local water issue was solved locally, without resource to government intervention.  It is curious that the government is thinking about national water reforms but is avoiding getting directly involved in solving rural broadband issues.

During her trip, Ms Adams also met Australia’s Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy.  The meeting resulted in a draft report on a joint investigation into trans-Tasman mobile phone roaming charges, something that pales in to insignificance compared to the issues that rural broadband users face.

In a press conference, Ms Adams was questioned about the merits of a Fibre-to-the-Node (FTTN) broadband network, compared to a Fibre-to-the-Premises (FTTP) one.

She came out strongly in favour of an FTTP solution.  She said “…fibre to the home is always our preference. But you have to be realistic about how you reach a farm in the, you know, the back blocks, and how you best spend taxpayers’ money.”

Yes we need to set a realistic line about what is economically achievable.  But for rural broadband, the government have set the economic bar too low, affecting up to 25% of households.

Is Ms Adams being realistic when her government’s capital contribution per household for rural broadband is around 60% of that being spent per urban household?

Her comment is disingenuous considering a number of facts about building broadband infrastructure in rural areas.  First is that the Rural Broadband Initiative was an afterthought to the urban program.  Second is that the government’s focus is on the cost savings it can achieve in delivering health, education and government services.  Third is that the source of its contribution to rural broadband is largely by way of a charge on telcos and not from the taxpayers’ coffers.

The government’s commitment to realism in the delivery of rural broadband infrastructure will be tested in two policy reviews that are coming up.

One is the current review of its radio spectrum management processes.  This will affect how the allocation of the 700MHz ‘digital dividend’ frequency band will be managed.

Next year, the government will review the rules about its universal service policy.  This is about the minimum level of telecommunications service that should be guaranteed to everyone, and how best to make that happen.

Watch out for the government adopting a hands-off, leave-it-to-business approach to rural broadband provisioning, and a hands-on make-it-my-business approach to water.