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All hands to the data-pump

20 March 2008

Telecom is boasting that it will deliver broadband to any town or village with at least 500 phone lines.

That's got to be good news for rural New Zealand who, until recently, have been largely stuck with a choice between noisy and unreliable dial-up access or expensive and cumbersome satellite-based systems.

But what does this mean to our more sparsely populated rural areas?

Will "Farmer Brown" still be left waiting and wanting for a decent connection to what has become an essential tool of business and education?

Well I suspect that Telecom won't be too interested in trying to deliver DSL to this small but important subset of our population and, despite the recent unbundling of the loop, nor will anyone else.

At a time when (dairy) farmers represent the camel on whose back the entire nation is largely reliant for its prosperity, it seems outrageous that these people have to make-do or even do-without internet access.

But maybe there is a way...

Back in the days when we only had a choice of a few TV channels and the idea of using a satellite to broadcast those channels direct to viewers was completely unheard of, many rural Kiwis faced exactly the same problem we're now seeing with broadband.

Thanks to the tricky geography of NZ, lots of small settlements and regions simply couldn't get a watchable signal so were left with just the wireless or HiFi to keep them company of an evening.

Then an enterprising group of "techos" got the idea of building small TV transmitters that could be placed at a suitably elevated location and relay to the houses below, the TV signal that could be received from that point.

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To avoid feedback issues, these relay stations received the signal on one channel and rebroadcast it on another. As a result they were called translators.

Once it was realised that a few thousand dollars worth of electronics could bring the wonderful world of TV to all but the most remote households, a profitable business grew out of the demand for these translators and (if I recall correctly) a company in New Plymouth was one of the leading players.

Back in 1977 or so I spent some time out at Lochinvar Station near Taupo, installing and setting up just such a translator to provide TV signals for the small village the station owners had created.

So what's this all got to do with broadband?

Well I'm wondering if parts of NZ might benefit from this same community-based approach to distributing broadband internet into otherwise uneconomic areas.

Some more remote parts of the country (Northland and Southland) are already serviced by wireless broadband systems, most of which have been subsidised by the taxpayer - but what about the rest?

This story from Ars Technica got me wondering if some of this long-range WiFi technology might not be applied to the NZ rural situation.

With a range of 100Kms, it would not be that expensive to create the equivalent of a wireless broadband backbone that spanned the length of both islands and branched off to serve small rural communities along the way.

At US$500 (NZ$650) per node (plus support infrastructure), the creation of such an network would not (in telco terms) be an expensive undertaking. When you consider that one of those small TV translators cost around $5K back in 1977 (when $5K was a *lot* of money), the "value for money" of such a WiFi solution is looking good.

Of course just 6.5Mbps might start to become a bit of a bottleneck at peak times if you've got more than a dozen or so people doing simultaneous downloads but the "always on" availability, freeing up of the POTS line and freedom from dropped carriers and other issues might make it worthwhile.

Are you in one of those internet black-spots where dial-up is your only option?

How much would you spend to buy into a community WiFi node that would serve you and your neighbours with a better service than dial-up?

Isn't it a shame that IndraNet seems to have dropped the ball with its promises of building an intelligent mesh-network system that would be another ideal solution to this problem.

Maybe their air-powered cars will at least allow farmers to drive into town and use a cyber-cafe.

Have your say on this...

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