Fibre to the country

On Friday I spent the day in Whangarei, visiting NorthPower and having a look at the UFB rollout in the city.

It's nearly done.

When I say that, I mean the entire city will soon be completely fibred up. Every home and office, school and hospital, everything.

This is an extraordinary achievement, particularly when I look at the Chorus map for my home and see I'm not slated to even see a fibre network for two years or more. It really does mean Whangarei and other regional centres will have stolen a march on the big cities and, as Northpower FIbre CEO Darren Mason says, it gives people a reason to move out of the main centres.

Mason believes Whangarei can become an exemplar of what a fibre-rich city can truly be. Not just an offshoot of the big city but an alternative.

He says families will move to the regions if they can find work, can be assured of good schooling and that employers will find staff more willing to stay for the long term because they have what they need locally.

Whangarei is bustling along if my brief visit is anything to go by. The region's attractiveness will only increase once the motorway goes through (you can forget the "holiday highway" nonsense - it's a vital road link that should have been upgraded years ago) and as a place to do business you'd be hard pressed to better it.

This is one of the major advantages of a fibre deployment that runs faster in the regions than it does in the two main centres. Uptake is higher than in Auckland or Wellington (Enable in Christchurch is pushing 6%, Northpower close to 7% and Mason expects to see that hit double figures before too much longer) as residential and business customers feed off each other's experiences.

We went out on a site visit to see a team in action. Northpower has pioneered a new approach to connecting properties to the network. Instead of digging a trench and putting all the equipment under ground, they put everything in a box on the pole outside the customer's house. Overhead fibre lines are impossible to tell apart from the power lines and Northpower has designed and built a splitter box that sits on the pole making it both quick to deploy and easy to revisit should the need arise.

Each box serves four households (with another four splitters in place for any future unbundling move) and as a plug and play unit is so simple even I could connect each house, although I'm happy to say I wasn't allowed to have a go.

The time to connect each property is reduced - on average it takes a couple of hours but the record is just over an hour from the time the team of two arrived on site to fully connected to the house. Mason says the advantage is twofold - a faster deployment and a cheaper one. Much cheaper than digging trenches and laying cable and much less invasive.

I wonder why Chorus doesn't do this where it's able - given its cost blowout (the last news story I saw quoted a figure close to $300m) surely this is a viable alternative?

Northpower does trench where it needs to but where it doesn't the savings are tremendous.

So what's next for Whangarei and Northpower? Mason would like to see the company deploy fibre further into the surrounding areas, but one thing is holding them up - access.

Access is the 900lb gorilla in the room when it comes to fibre deployment. Costs balloon out of all proportion when the lawyers get involved and working out access rights to drive ways, right of ways and multi-dwelling units makes it almost uneconomic to deploy fibre without a government level investment.

Much better to change the rules to allow fibre deployments along existing utility corridors and to give the network companies the right to connect customers up by default. Opt out if you must but most people adopt the line of least resistance and we would see a much faster, cheaper deployment if we turned the rules around.

Mason has volunteered Whangarei as a test bed. Try it out in Northland, he suggests, and if it works roll it out nationwide. If not, no harm done.

I like that idea. I think we should change the rules and make it easier to deploy networks without having to pay lawyers a fortune to say it's all OK, and if it works in Northland we should move swiftly to do it for the rest of New Zealand because that would mean phase two of the UFB could be really quite powerful - fibre to the country.

Northpower sees no reason why a combination of cost savings through using overhead lines and having access to properties guaranteed shouldn't lead to us become a Giga-country, and that's something TUANZ wholeheartedly supports.

Imagine that - every home and property in the land connected to a fibre network in much the way they are connected today via the power lines.

Now that's something worth changing the law for.

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