Super fast and a super help

Last updated 12:00 12/09/2009
WARWICK SMITH/The Manawatu Standard
CONNECTED: Lizzie Udy says ultra-fast broadband has made a big difference to her and husband Craig's lives.

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Broadband is opening windows to the world for rural residents.

In the countryside, on a beef farm southwest of Pahiatua, Lizzie Udy is training to be a midwife.

Rural communities need people like her.

"We've got only one permanent midwife in the area at the moment," she says.

Her study is made much easier by super-fast broadband a service usually denied to rural New Zealand.

"A lot of learning is online," she says.

For Mrs Udy, ultra-fast broadband in her backyard has given her a hassle-free connection with Massey University and opened a window to the world.

"It's life-changing for me.

"There are a lot of intelligent rural women out there who could benefit from such good internet access," she says.

City folk may be familiar with the information super-highway, but rural communities have grown used to a service akin to metal roads full of pot holes. Their internet connection is often so hopeless there is little point trying to use it.

Good infrastructure can be critical for communities wanting to provide a reason for people to stay, so lack of internet speed became a quality-of-life issue Tararua District Council decided to address.

The council formed an alliance with four telecommunications providers Inspire Net, Inspired Networks, Digital Nation and FX Networks to link up Tararua's towns with fibre-optic cabling. The groundbreaking initiative will service the district's population of nearly 17,800 people for about 30 years.

From next week, Dannevirke businesses will be able to hook into the fibre network, following an upgrade of the town's main street.

At Mangamaire, fibre was going past the farm gate of Mrs Udy and her husband Craig, so they dug a trench that enabled them to connect.

Mr Udy uses the internet to look at beef schedules and weather forecasts.

"The agricultural sector is a bit behind. A lot of farmers can't get broadband," he says.

Mr and Mrs Udy are unsure if the midwifery training would've happened without a fast internet connection to their farm. "I would probably have had to go to Massey every day," Mrs Udy says. "It would have been extremely frustrating.

"Instead, I'm sitting at the kitchen table."

Her training started in November last year.

"I couldn't study on dial-up," she says.

She wouldn't have been able to access journal articles. The home computer couldn't handle PDF files.

It was difficult to get photos online. "We could leave it downloading all night."

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Their experience on dial-up was "not nice at all". They used a website to rent DVDs, but the website expanded, making it practically impossible to use. It was quicker to drive into town. So, like many rural families denied an adequate service, they gave up. They had been told Telecom wouldn't upgrade the local exchange.

"Then we heard Inspire was looking at connecting farmers up." There was a flier drop in the area and a community meeting at Mangamaire Country School. Schools in the district were connected and the fibre-to-the-farm initiative was born.

Tararua District Council development and strategy manager Peter Wimsett says the council was forward-thinking he had to sell an idea ahead of its time, but the council quickly got on board.

The super-fast broadband project proves rural areas can benefit from partnerships with the private sector, he says.

It also provides "evidence to government policy makers that national broadband policy must expand beyond the major cities".

Three of the four companies involved in the partnership with Tararua District Council belong to Palmerston North entrepreneur James Watts.

The fourth is FX Networks, which wanted to create an eastern loop in the North Island and was persuaded to come to Tararua.

"We've spent $2.5 million in Tararua in the past two years," Mr Watts says.

That money would've been spent in Palmerston North if the city had been clear about its goals, he says. The city has been well catered for, he says, but he's not sure about its next stage of growth.

Whatever, rural communities have been given a boost. Sometimes, groups of farmers can get wireless internet access if they band together to make a project viable, Mr Watts says.

Some of his customers moved to the countryside for lifestyle reasons and then worked out there was no broadband available.

Broadband helps people who want flexible work hours, he says. "Once you've had it, you can't go back."

Dannevirke Community Hospital manager Chrissy Shedd says super-fast broadband has made it easier for medical practices to communicate with each other. Bigger packages of information and images can be sent between doctors, the Dannevirke hospital and Palmerston North Hospital much quicker than before, she says.

"[Previously], we would consider printing it out and posting it."

Mr Wimsett's 12-year-old daughter Rhiannon, a Ruahine School pupil, says she uses the Google search engine a lot for research and she plays mathematics games. The school has a wireless internet connection. Her school choir uses the web to look at songs on YouTube.

At Mangamaire Country School, pupils recently engaged with Te Papa Museum via video-conferencing. Natasha Bailey, 13, and Jamie Smith, 10, say they looked at a giant squid being caught and the students asked questions from their school, instead of travelling to Wellington.

"They could see us and we could see them," Natasha says. "It was really fun ..."

They also used the internet for research for their school speeches. Jamie's speech is about giant pandas, while Natasha's speech tracks changes in the way people live.

Mr Udy describes himself as a news junkie and he uses iTunes for music and the TradeMe auction website. The family also uses Skype for communication and has used the internet for online bookings.

He says six-year-old daughter Emma is picking up the technology quickly.

"Emma's just beginning to understand what the internet is capable of," Mrs Udy says. The family has put boundaries around its use.

"We don't want our kids growing up and missing out on a tool that's huge worldwide," Mr Udy says.

DIAL-UP internet speed is about 42 kilobits per second over a 56kbs modem.

Depending on conditions, it can range from 20 to 50kbs, Tararua District Council development and strategy manager Peter Wimsett said.

Upgrading to fibre optic improves the speed to 100 megabits per second.

That's 42,000 bits against 100 million bits.

So, ultra-fast broadband is about 2381 times faster.

Something that would take about 20 minutes to download on dial-up would take half a second with ultra-fast broadband.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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