Savannah and Chatham County have joined for a feasibility study of broadband services. The initial report stated that for businesses there are fewer retail options for broadband services than there are for household customers. It also states that providers offer the service in some instances on an individual basis.
The report recommends the city and county form a partnership with a private company in a multi-year plan to expand broadband availability. Also recommended is a focus on economic development projects and corridors for conduit placement and to explore state partnerships. The work could be funded by a future SPLOST referendum.
As part of the study, a survey was conducted to households and businesses with questions about internet access and satisfaction, along with broadband service questions and costs. Responses from 1,134 homes and 134 businesses were submitted. Those numbers have a 95 percent confidence level with a three percent plus margin or error for households and a eight percent margin of error for businesses.
Business results The survey results for business found 98 percent have internet, 91 percent consider it a utility, and 19 percent would move for better internet access. The majority, 48 percent, would definitely not move.
Slightly over half of businesses surveyed said their internet services are through cable; 19 percent have fiber, 13 percent have DSL, eight percent have fixed wireless and seven percent have mobile wireless, less than two percent have T1. Businesses with over 50 employees are more likely to have fiber, while businesses with under 20 employees are more likely to have cable. On a scale of one to six, with six being completely satisfied, 28 percent gave price a rating of four, 21 percent gave speed a rating of five, 25 percent scored reliability a score of 4 and 25 percent gave support a rating of one, or not satisfied.
^ Household results Cable internet provides service to 84 percent of households with 38 percent, the majority, paying £50-£74 per month.
Overall 97 percent of households have internet service.
Only 0.2 percent report having fiber.
— DeAnn Komanecky
The second stage of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative was centre stage at the 2017 Rural Connectivity Symposium in Wellington last week.
In his keynote address Communications Minster Simon Bridges put the project into the broader context of government telecommunications policy. He says the goal is for 99 percent of New Zealanders to be able to download at 50 megabits per second by 2025. The ministers says the remaining one percent will get downloads of at least 10 mbps. Bridges says planning has started on the second stage of Rural Broadband Initiative. This involves $150 million of funds pulled from the Telecommunications Development Levy2. In effect, this is an extra tax imposed on the big telecommunications companies. Tenders closed last month. Crown Fibre Holdings is now assessing the responses. Bridges says the goal of the second stage is to extend fast broadband to the greatest number of homes possible.
Dealing with mobile blackspot
RBI2 includes $50 million set aside to improve mobile coverage in rural areas.
This means reducing the coverage blackspots on state highways and increasing coverage in remote tourist locations.
Bridges says: “I’m pleased with the strong engagement and response to the tender process”. The minister says he encouraged regional operators to take part in RBI2. While technologies have not been specified, he says there is a preference for open access. He says based on what he has seen so far, it looks like the proposals submitted mean the government will be able to “do far more than we anticipated”. In other words, the RBI2 funds will stretch further into the bush. After it is done, there won’t be many New Zealanders left behind. Bridges hinted that decisions would be made soon. He told the Wellington audience they won’t have to wait long to find out what happens. Officially an announcement is due in August.
Rural Connectivity Group
Three bidders for RBI2 funds laid out their pitches at the symposium.
2degrees CEO Stewart Sherriff represented the Rural Connectivity Group. This is a joint venture between 2degrees, Vodafone and Spark.
The RCG argues that fixed wireless broadband is the best way of connecting rural New Zealanders. It says it will invest many more millions of its own money should it win the RBI2 tender. Sherriff says: “We’re certainly not going to make a lot of money out of it. But we believe this is the best option to get the best bang for the buck. We also think we can do some good for New Zealand.”
He stresses that the RCG bid is both a mobile and a wireless broadband infrastructure play. “Mobile is becoming more critical than broadband in our opinion. Farmers need access beyond the home. They need it in the cow shed, they need it on the quad bike”, he says.
Competition between the three mobile carriers is often intense, so having all three come together bid has raised a few eyebrows.
Sherriff says that despite co-operating to build a rural network, the three carriers will all continue to compete. “We’ll compete on retail and we’ll compete on the wholesale level”, he says.
“The plan is to set up an independent joint venture to run the network. That means one set of towers, one set of antenna, one power system and one backhaul. These will all be shared. This business case doesn’t stack up with one operator. It barely stacks up with three”. In effect the three will operate a mobile virtual network.
Sherriff says it will be an open access infrastructure so that other services such as wisps (wireless internet service providers) and emergency services can also use the network. While the towers are designed for co-location, the focus, for now, is on wholesale fixed wireless broadband.
4G now, 5G later
The RCG plan is to build a 4G network now, but make it upgradable to 5G later. Sherriff says the project will also include narrowband IoT. This will give an additional network for the Internet of Things.
Sherriff says the group plans to deploy 520 cell sites. He says: “This gives us 20 percent more coverage in New Zealand. It takes the coverage from around 50 percent to 62 percent in terms of the geography. That’s 20 percent more mobile, 20 percent more IoT and 36,000 more connected households. More than 1200 extra kilometres of state highway will be covered. It will cover 67 percent of mobile blackspots”.
Independent regional ISPs were shut out of the original RBI project.
This time they could play a central role. Many small operators run strings of antenna on hill tops and poles to deliver fixed wireless broadband up valleys and in other rural areas.
Their fixed wireless service is not the same as the fixed wireless broadband based on the Spark and Vodafone mobile networks. Each of the wireless ISPs is making its own tender to CFH for the funding. Many will ask for less than $2 million. This is a cut off point. A condition of the tender is that to receive more than $2 million, you have to build an open access network. That’s asking a lot of small operators.
Lightwire founder, Murray Pearson at Rural Connectivity Symposium 2017 Lightwire founder Murray Pearson made the case for local wireless ISPs to win CFH funding for RBI2. He spoke as a Wispa representative, not as Lightwire, a Waikato based ISP.
Pearson says a reason to choose wisps for the RBI2 project is that they are innovative and show technology leadership. “Most wisps have been born out of a need to solve a problem. They’ve grown from there into businesses that have evolved to serve their community.
“They focus on appropriate technologies. What you need to service a valley with five users is different to what you need to serve somewhere like the Hauraki Plains where you can see 5000 house from one high site. Most wisps use a variety of tower types to cover a broad range of requirements”. Wisps have been around now for 10 years. Pearson says they have shown they are both reliable and resilient. “During that time they have demonstrated some very reliable networks. Most build in redundancy so if one site goes down, it’s the only one affected”, he says.
Low-power wireless tech
The equipment used by wisps tends to be low-power. He says this makes it practical for Wispa members to build solar sites. The operators tend to be nimble and able to respond fast when needed. He says this adds up to a cost effective solution.
Local customer focus is important.
Pearson says wisps have tended to grow out of the communities they serve. Many of the people working in wisps grew up in the communities they serve. This focus means that the people involved have very good knowledge of local geography. Pearson says wisps are good at working with others. Some work with lines companies to string cables, others work with organisations like Chorus to use fibre backhaul. Wisps have some great stories to tell about how they have delivered in difficult conditions. Pearson gives the example of Canterbury-based Amuri Networks which was able to make a huge difference after the Kaikoura earthquake. Not only was it able to respond quickly, but its equipment proved resilient. The weakness in the wisps case is that many of the businesses are so small they have little support depth.
Some may rely on one or two key people to handle the technical work and installations. Who takes over if they get sick or incapacitated? It’s a version of the single-point-of-failure problem. This can be fixed from a business point of view with insurance policies. But there may not be enough skilled engineers to plug the gaps even if there is money available to pay them. Having the wisps band together in
Chorus brings fibre
Chorus network strategy manager Kurt Rodgers says: “No one technology can do everything in rural. Rural New Zealand is challenging, the trick is picking the right recipe”.
Kurt Rodgers, Chorus In RBI1 Chorus built the fibre part of the network. It ran fibre to schools, hospitals and connected 110,000 homes and businesses in rural New Zealand. That meant building 1,000km of fibre and upgrading 1200 cabinets.
It also ran fibre to 157 cellphone towers.
Rodgers says 80 percent of the 110,000 cabinet connections can get VDSL, but only 20 percent do at the moment.
Either way, there is a lot of suitable infrastructure already in place in rural areas. All of it is suitable to extend the broadband network. The copper telephone network reaches all but the last one percent most remote homes. And there is plenty of fibre.
He says fixed broadband works best where there is “a modicum of population density. The other places are where the other technologies fit in set”. Rodgers says: “It’s all about taking fibre closer to people. Because Chorus is a wholesale-only business, it’s fibre-to-the-bush strategy dovetails with other rural broadband approaches. It would, for example, be able to provide the Wisps with fibre backhaul.
While there’s no public RBI2 bid from the company, Phil Cross, the Australia-based sales director of IPStar made the case for satellites to reach the most remote users.
Phil Cross, IPStar “Satellite often doesn’t get a good rap, but the economics of delivering broadband to remote areas doesn’t give you much choice”.
Cross says fibre and microwave technology will always be preferable, but they are not always practical. He says one benefit of satellite technology is rapid deployment. He says: “It takes less than a day to get a connection. Often a lot less than a day.” IPStar has a good New Zealand case study to draw on. It has provided affordable broadband to the Chatham Islands since 2012.
How do they scrub up?
Chorus’s fibre-to-the-bush plan means extending the UFB network or something similar much further into rural New Zealand. In the panel session following the presentations, the speakers all agreed that fibre is an important part of rural connectivity
Some homes and farms will get the same fibre connections as people in urban New Zealand. It’s not clear if they’ll get the same prices, but they will get the same services. However, fibre won’t reach all the way. It means Chorus will need to use copper to reach a lot of people. There’s not much wrong with copper in itself. It can be fast, VDSL2 is capable of fibre-like speeds when connections are within a kilometre or so of a cabinet.
Wisps fill in the gaps
If anything the wisps’ proposal dovetails neatly into Chorus’s fibre-to-the-bush plan. Wireless is a great way to fill the gaps, especially when extending broadband further up valleys to farms and remote businesses or homes. The idea of wisps using fibre backhaul has appeal too.
The idea of Chorus taking land-based broadband up to say, 90 percent or thereabouts of the population, wisps extending that to 99 percent and satellites serving the last one percent makes a lot of sense. Although wisps and even satellites could, in theory, help fill the mobile blackspot, that job is best left to the mobile phone companies.
Rural fixed wireless broadband
Vodafone built 157 rural towers for RBI1. In the first years these towers delivers fixed wireless internet connections using 3G phone technology. You really could not describe it as broadband. It was slow and unreliable. Only a fraction of the target audience took it up.
It worked better when Vodafone upgrade the towers to 4G. On a good day, in the right conditions, users can get fibre-like speeds.
The downside is that wireless bandwidth is shared, so there’s a huge congestion penalty at busy times. Peak hour speeds are slower than quiet times. The Rural Connectivity Group’s plan will work well for some of users.
Spending the CFH money
If RBI2 funds were unlimited, the RCG would get money to fill in the mobile blackspots with towers that could also serve wireless broadband. Chorus could extend fibre to wherever the population density makes sense. More RCG fixed wireless could be used in less dense areas, wisps could run their fixed wireless out to farms and up valleys. Satellite could fill the gaps.
IPStar’s Phil Cross nailed the problem when discussing satellite broadband delivery. He talks of the choices you have when delivering broadband to remote areas. Crown Fibre Holdings has $150 million to spend. Private investors will tip in more money, at least as much again as CFH.
We could fix New Zealand’s rural broadband with a world class network. It’s within our grasp. At first sight, the best option would be to use a mix of the technologies discussed above. All have a role to play. Yet there is a fishhook. The RCG says it is not interested in building towers for the mobile blackspot unless it gets the whole rural deal. That leaves CFH in a tricky position. Caving in to the RCG means great mobile blackspot coverage, less than ideal rural connectivity and a slap in the face to local wireless ISPs who were officially encouraged to tender. Turning down RCG will leave those mobile blackspots.
Presumably one of the cellular firms will pick up the $50 million and fill some of the gaps.
Gubernatorial candidate Sen. Frank Wagner1 voiced support for broadband internet development and career and technical training during an interview at the Review’s office Friday in West Point. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) is running against Ed Gillespie and Corey Stewart in the Republican primary. Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello vie to be the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. The primary elections will be held June 13. The following is edited for clarity.
You’re the first major party gubernatorial candidate to visit the Tidewater area. What made you decide to stop by?
This is manufacturing. This is the manufacturing center. And I’ve chaired the manufacturing and development commission in the General Assembly2 since its inception 14 years ago. This is what drives Virginia’s economy. This is what we want to grow. We’d love to see the paper mill expand here. We want to see a thriving manufacturing industry. And it’s important I stop by and talk to the citizens of West Point.
Local governments have made pushes toward establishing or expanding broadband internet in our area, with officials calling broadband an important economic and quality of life asset.
As governor, what could you do to help those efforts?
Broadband has gone from a “nice to have” to a utility. You can’t attract any new major companies or expect expansion without access to broadband. Broadband has become important in the individual household for education purposes and shopping. There were bills in the last General Assembly session to restrict running broadband around the commonwealth by those that are in the business already. I led the charge to kill those bills because we should be doing everything we possibly can to advance broadband through every neck of the commonwealth. There are private entrepreneurs out there. I had dinner with a gentleman from Giles County who’s running broadband in Giles County and making a profit.
I asked him “what’s the number one problem you have?” and he said “I need eight more technicians to run cable.” So business is good. We need to look at what our electric co-ops were first put into place for. They were put into place because for-profit utilities would not run electricity to rural areas. Now we’re in that same posture here in 2017 with broadband. I believe most of the co-ops want to participate in the broadband industry. That is what they do and I think its natural extension of why they were chartered to begin with. I think we need to facilitate and work with our co-ops to bring broadband to every place they are bringing electricity to.
Local school districts are invested in providing local avenues to career success.
West Point schools coordinated a career day event last year with WestRock Paper Mill. King & Queen allocated money to the school district to start up a vocational training program as part of the fiscal year 2018 budget.
While providing a path to higher education remains a priority, providing a path to technical careers is gaining importance in the minds of officials. Local officials want opportunities at home to maintain localities’ populations, as well. What could you do as governor to support these initiatives?
I’m the only candidate in either party who has made career technical education a major plank of his education reform package. I’ve worked in shipyards and worn a hard hat and safety glasses my whole life. I’ve come to experience we’re not getting young people interested in that. These are high paying jobs and with full benefits. We need to retool our education system.
Two paths to accreditation for a school system, two paths to accreditation for a school. Now we need to bring career technical education to the importance I believe it needs to be. As early as middle school, as early as sixth grade, we need to expose students and their parents to the great opportunities available in the career and technical field. That’s why I’m pushing another path to accreditation for a school system. They can either go down the traditional SOL accreditation path or the career and technical field path where you receive industry credentials. These are where the jobs are in Virginia. Everywhere I go, every business I talk to, “what’s your biggest problem?” “I cannot find skilled labor.” It is holding Virginia economy back today.
And if we expect to grow and diversify the economy of Virginia, we’re going to need more of these students. Now, right here in West Point it’s important. Obviously, the paper mill experiences the same problems that every other business in Virginia does. They want good, young talent that are going to keep that company rolling for the next 20, 30, 40 years to come. Once we have this program set up, then we can look for ways to expand on manufacturing and attract more.
West Point’s greatest single source of local income is the machinery and tools tax, which is anticipated to provide $2.8 million of the town’s overall expected $7.1 million in local revenue for fiscal year 2018. Gillespie has pitched elimination of the machinery and tools tax as part of his tax plan. What’re your thoughts on his idea?
That either shows a lack of experience or a total unfamiliarity with Virginia and manufacturing towns like West Point. If you were to abolish those taxes one of two things would have to happen in West Point. Either tremendously reduced services, perhaps loss of the school system, or a tremendous rise in property taxes for the citizens of West Point. While it might sound good in a campaign it doesn’t reflect the reality of what’s going on in Virginia. Your governor needs to have the experience to understand what the implications are when you make a statement or drive down a road toward that policy.
The area’s natural resources are seen as a tourism booster, and several localities are in the midst of exploring how to expand on their natural resource assets to bring in tourist dollars.
Is there anything you could do as governor to support tourism in the Tidewater?
It’s obviously a very beautiful part of the world that hasn’t fully exploited the tourism opportunities and the ecotourism up and down the rivers here. We have a wine industry in the region. I want to emphasis the state and the governor needs to be a facilitator based on the locale’s needs and what the local population wants. West Point and New Kent and Charles City are drive-by points right now on the way back and forth to Hampton Roads or back and forth to Richmond with so much to offer. I think we could do a lot better in promoting those areas.
The opioid epidemic hasn’t hit this area as hard as other parts of the state, but local officials are still worried about the issue. What steps as governor would you take to address the opioid epidemic?
It’s a multi-pronged problem and it’s a multi-pronged solution. First and foremost it’s education among our people about the dangers. Prevention and education is key to stop the cycle. We’ve done significant reforms in terms of physicians’ ability to prescribe these particular painkillers.
There’s a law enforcement aspect. Those that are dealing heroin we need to deal with even more harshly than we have in the past. We need to recognize those who are already addicted. We need to ensure we have the detoxification facilities.
It would be our goal to want to get every addict back to being a productive member of society.
Jacobs can be reached by phone at 757-298-6007.