Fed Farmers want rural 4G

Federated Farmers has appealed to the Government to ensure telecommunications companies that successfully bid for the "digital dividend" radio spectrum roll out 4G services to "as close to 100 per cent" of the country as possible.

It said the Government should demand that at least "a portion" of remote areas that would not get fast broadband as a result of the rural and urban broadband initiatives would be served by 4G.

The Government plans to auction the 700MHz radio spectrum, which is being freed up by the nationwide closure of analogue television broadcasting, this year.

Communications Minister Amy Adams has not yet set a reserve price for the spectrum, but submissions on the auction rules closed yesterday.

Vodafone and Telecom said in their submissions that the 700MHz band was the only spectrum band in New Zealand that could deliver 4G to rural areas economically.

Both companies have begun launching or piloting 4G services in cities and towns using higher-frequency spectrum, but it requires cellsites sited much closer together to provide the same geographical coverage.

Telecom said freeing up the 700MHz spectrum for 4G would mean that "for the first time, many rural businesses and consumers will have access to broadband speeds currently only available to urban fixed-line consumers".

Last month, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment suggested that successful bidders could be forced to roll out 4G to half the population within five years, and that an additional requirement could oblige them to provide 30 per cent population coverage for their 4G networks in each of New Zealand's 16 regional council zones within the same time frame.

But Federated Farmers' submission appeared to call on the Government to go further, particularly with respect to the most remote communities.

It said some of its members were finding it difficult to comply with new rules that required the electronic tagging of cattle, because of poor internet coverage.

New online services designed to improve productivity and farm information, such as dairying herd and farm management tools Overseer and Minda, and FarmIQ, a farm mapping and analysis tool for the meat and wool industries, made improving rural broadband a priority.

It said New Zealand Post's proposal to reduce mail deliveries meant rural communities with little or "no internet coverage" would become increasingly disadvantaged.

"There is also a social aspect to the internet, which some rural communities are currently missing out on," it said, giving Stuff, Twitter and Facebook as examples.

"Twitter is a great way to discuss an issue and come up with a resolution. Farmers could be discussing an issue like on-farm health and safety ... and asking other farmers how they have addressed certain problems."

Vodafone said it had concerns about the particular type of auction suggested by officials, called a combinational clock auction.

It feared the design could result in "disruptive bidders" raising the price of spectrum while having little risk of being left with expensive spectrum themselves.

The 4G spectrum auctions overseas suggest New Zealand's digital dividend spectrum could be worth several hundred million dollars, although analysts have noted that the Government has not pressed for high prices in the past.

Telecom urged the Government not to "get distracted" by trying to maximise the proceeds of the digital dividend auction, saying the overall economic benefits of using the 700MHz spectrum for 4G would be "in the billions".