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Auckland-based IT consultant Robyn Kamira (Te Rarawa) had long wanted a telecommunications infrastructure at her home marae at Mitimiti in the Far North, as one way to stop the population drain and start revitalising the settlement. In late February 2015 it happened: Mitimiti was “on the grid”.

I WAS BORN in Auckland and my business, Paua Interface Ltd, is there, but Matihetihe Marae in Mitimiti is my marae and there are many of us who call it home, whether or not we live there. It’s very remote, on the west coast on the northern side of the Hokianga Harbour, a five-hour drive from Auckland, including a car ferry crossing, and a three-hour return trip on metal roads to the nearest doctor or IT technician. Like many settlements in the Far North, it used to be a hub of activity; thousands of people lived along the inner harbour coastal settlements and it was a destination for trading ships. But it’s been hard hit since the 1950s by urbanisation. People needed to leave for jobs and education and most never came back. Now there are only about 100 permanent inhabitants, although the numbers swell to hundreds when families return “home” for the holidays. The community struggled to figure out how it was going to survive as a settlement with such depleting numbers and how it would continue to participate in an increasingly connected world.

I first started thinking about getting cell coverage and fast broadband to Mitimiti nearly a decade ago and began lobbying through various technology groups I was involved in. However, the Government and telecommunications companies were not focused on such remote places and it appeared Mitimiti would become a permanent “black spot”. Then, late in 2014, when the Rural Broadband Initiative fibre was laid on the road that passed the marae on its way to the school, we approached Chorus to find out whether the marae could also connect to the fibre. Coincidentally, Matihetihe Marae had been selected to be part of TV3’s AIA Marae DIY programme and it made sense for the telecommunications project to be part of the marae renovation.

I talked to Antony Royal, then Chair of Nga Pu Waea, and he introduced me to key telecommuncations people I could engage with. For example, Chorus supplied the fibre connection and oversaw the work, MyRepublic provided a fibre broadband internet service, Vodafone set up a 2km-range femtocell for local cellphone coverage, and a team of voluntary technicians provided the overall technical design and installed Wi-Fi access points around the marae complex. They continue to provide remote technical assistance and training to locals. We got funding support from the Far North District Council and InternetNZ, and there was also huge local support – from the Marae Trust, and local people. For example, the cost to dig the 320-metre trench along the access road to the wharekai building was prohibitive, so that was all done by volunteers.

At a wild guess, I estimate that we had $150,000-worth of donated goods, services, labour and expertise leading up to the DIY Marae weekend and beyond. We called the project “Mitimiti on the Grid”.

The marae provides fibre broadband internet and Wi-Fi for free for anyone who goes there – and people can access mobile coverage using their existing plan. Most families in Mitimiti have a laptop or device and Mitimiti on the Grid allows them to try out the new fast speed broadband to reconnect with whanau and to explore income earning possibilities.

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Fast broadband makes it possible for people to set up small online businesses, allows visitors to stay longer, enables online working, gives access to online education, provides tourism opportunities, and much more.

Video, accessed through Mitimiti on the Grid is changing the way people do things, and opening Mitimiti up to the outside world. One important activity has been the live streaming of hui and other events (using a simple iPhone set up on a tripod). The first live streamed hui resulted in around 20 whanau watching remotely from around the world, and we expect over time this will grow. Watchers can make comments or ask questions via the marae Facebook page or through the live stream service which is monitored by a local in attendance.

“I would like to see those who have been disconnected over generations return to reconnect and strengthen the inter-generational ties that we value and that hold us together as whanau, hapu and iwi.”

Robyn Kamira

Some of the whanau who are overseas have experienced intergenerational disconnection with “home”. Some are the children of families that moved away before they were born. The live streaming helps people to reconnect in their own time and to get to know their relations, the place, the tikanga (cultural protocols) and marae processes.  Some have said that as a result of watching the live streaming, they are now considering bringing their families “home” to reconnect in person. This is one of the marae community’s most exciting outcomes.

Another unexpected result of the livestreaming occurred when the TV3 Marae DIY programme went to air last year. The marae live streamed the programme so whanau overseas could watch. And at the same time, they had a fundraiser event at Mitimiti. During the ad breaks they had a video camera and encouraged locals to talk to the remote viewers about the fundraising and its aims. Following the programme, some of the watchers sent in donations. I believe people want to participate in their marae, no matter where they live in the world, and the experience of live streaming is bringing that possibility closer.

The marae has also live-streamed Te Reo Wananga (language workshops) and an online income-earning project is under way with our sponsor MyRepublic. We are also planning to set up a basic telehealth project for non-urgent consultations with a GP or nurse - saving people a three-hour round trip to Kaitaia.

We’re also discussing options for a drone with a camera for environmental monitoring, disaster recovery, and search and rescue. However, Mitimiti is located in an exposed coastal environment, and so drone technology would need to function in potentially challenging conditions.

Research, mostly from the US, shows that small towns that are “fibred up” can measure the positive impact on their economy. My greatest hope is that fast broadband and video will be part of the solution to see Mitimiti once again become prosperous and populous, with a strong economic base, and a thriving and vibrant community. I would like to see those who have been disconnected over generations return to reconnect and strengthen the inter-generational ties that we value and that hold us together as whanau, hapu and iwi.