Broadband Challenges in the Waihopai Valley

posted Nov 9, 2016, 11:38 PM by Dayal Phillips

Waihopai Valley, Marlborough residents 'vulnerable' due to patchy broadband connection

Poor internet and cellphone coverage is hurting small rural businesses, Upper Waihopai Valley resident Summer Weir says.

Poor internet connections in rural Marlborough are putting residents at risk in civil emergencies, stifling small business growth, and limiting learning opportunities for schoolchildren, residents say.

Waihopai Valley couple Summer and Jason Weir both own separate businesses which rely on internet satellite connections to advertise and complete sales.

The couple have become increasingly frustrated with endless connection "drop-offs" which temporarily shut down communication with clients without warning.  Their three primary school children also struggle to receive a reliable internet connection to complete homework.

Engineer Jason Weir said sending design plans to clients by email was often disrupted when the connection dropped off.  "It's a right pain in the butt, clients get very frustrated," he said.  "You can send an email only to find out at the end of the day the client hasn't received it."

The couple were among 38 households in the upper Waihopai Valley, 40 kilometres from Blenheim, where broadband internet was patchy, cellphone coverage non-existent and landline connections weather dependent. The Waihopai Valley is home to the controversial Government Communications Security Bureau's intelligence base.

The couple said no-one in the valley should be disadvantaged by technology living only 30 minutes from a main centre.

Artist Summer Weir said the lack of cellphone coverage created anxiety among residents when a forest fire in the Wairau Valley threatened to spread down a ridge towards properties last summer.  The danger was only averted by a wind change but not before rural fire authorities drove to the house and warned the couple they had an hour to evacuate should the fire spread towards their house.

"With no cellphone, we only have internet and landline phones to reach the outside world in the event of weather disturbances, natural disasters, health complications and accidents," she said.  "We have horrendous issues ... our communication issues affect everyone up in our valley in some way or another.

"We feel vulnerable in emergency situations due to faulty communication facilities."

The Weirs estimated they had spent up to $21,000 over the past four years on an internet satellite connection which provided up to 80GB data a month.

The couple's most recent data plan, a one-off special, provided 24GB during peak hours, and 50GB off peak, for $263 plus GST a month.  Much of the overall cost came from data upgrades, usually near the end of the month, when the couple had to top up their plan to ensure a connection.  One month the couple received a bill for $1000 after two backpackers staying at the house used Skype to contact family in Europe and exceeded the data plan.

An unlimited data plan was unavailable, Summer Weir said.  Broadband internet installer Mike Blair said Marlborough's rugged terrain in rural areas was a challenge for many internet providers.  "Satellite is the only answer to provide internet connection for many residents but unfortunately it is the most expensive."

Farmside, which is the biggest rural internet provider, offer ADSL, wireless or satellite to customers in Marlborough costing between $84.99 and $139 a month, depending on location.  A Farmside spokeswoman said the company was anticipating an improved service in the region once the Government's Rural Broadband Initiative 2 (RBI2) was rolled out.  An increased number of cellphone towers in the area would improve wireless reception, she said.

Under the rollout, the Government had earmarked $200 million for ultrafast broadband for rural townships, $100m for rural broadband and $50m for mobile black spot cellular coverage.

Ultrafast broadband fibre installed in Renwick, Havelock, Seddon, Ward and Wairau Valley townships would help provide wireless services to supply broadband connectivity, and improved cellular service to nearby rural communities, a Marlborough District Council discussion paper reported in 2015.

Council support services manager Dean Heiford​ said the council had applied for part of the funding for broadband expansion, including RBI2, and was running a feasibility study to estimate cost, site location and access to improve internet connections for rural residents.   "The technology does exist to deliver high speed broadband to most rural areas in our region," he said.  "The key issues are site access and connecting the dots."

 - The Marlborough Express
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