The Rural Connectivity Group aims to see those in even the remotest corners of New Zealand enjoy a quality broadband service for work and play. Sarah Putt reports

Many organisations aim to be first in the world but few can legitimately claim the title. The Rural Connectivity Group (RCG) is among those rare organisations that can. It is currently building a network that involves all three of New Zealand’s mobile network operators (MNOs) working together and which will provide both 3G and 4G connectivity to even the remotest corners of New Zealand.

RCG executive programme director Andrew Button says the organisation’s technology partner, Nokia, is supplying the technology that allows the three carriers (2degrees, Spark, Vodafone) involved to share a single radio access network. It gives them maximum use of the radio spectrum and infrastructure. 

“It’s our understanding that we are the first in the world to be working on a network that can facilitate not only three telcos but also 3G and 4G services,” says Button.

RCG is jointly owned by the three telcos and was formed in response to the Government’s decision to create a second phase of the Rural Broadband Initiative. This project, known as RBI2, will see the construction of up to 600 sites by 2023 (it also involves a significant contribution from 17 Wireless Internet Service Providers or WISPs).

The RBI2 deployment, which stretches the length of the country, will provide high-speed wireless broadband and mobile coverage to around 84,000 rural homes and businesses, as well as mobile coverage to a further 1400kms of state highway that aren’t presently covered and provide connectivity to at least 168 tourist destinations.

For the RBI2 roll-out, the carriers are pooling their spectrum. Initially, the RCG network programme will use 700MHz as this is best suited to rural New Zealand. It will then move up to 1800MHz and  2100MHz. It will deploy a quad-band antenna and use carrier aggregation.

Nokia’s head of Oceania, Zoltan Losteiner, says it is deploying its Multi-Operator Core Network (MOCN) along with its Multi-Operator Radio Access Network (MORAN) technology for the RBI2.

“Network sharing opens up new and exciting opportunities, and this ground-breaking initiative will enable operators to bring emerging technologies to rural communities much faster.” 

Nokia is not the only RCG supplier, however. The community nature of the network being built means the RCG has a mandate to seek the most cost-effective solutions available. Button compares the construction of each cell-site to solving the Rubik’s Cube. Energy providers also need to be sourced.

The questions are: “Where are the people who need the service located? Where is the most cost-effective power source? How can we connect back to the main network at the lowest cost?

“These are the questions we are working through on a location-by-location basis,” says Button.

Backhaul [moving data from a local node to a central hub] is being done using technology from the carriers themselves and from Chorus but also using local WISPs’ technology and the infrastructure  of local lines’ companies. The result is a mix of broadband fibre, microwave radio and even – in the case of one small site on the West Coast of the South Island – Wi-Fi. This is being enabled by the local WISP,  WiFi Connect. 

FINDING SMART LOCAL PARTNERS

In addition to working with the RCG to provide backhaul to some sites, WISPs are also beginning to co-locate their equipment. There is room for at least one other provider’s equipment at each site because of the way the RCG has designed the network.

“It’s all about smart partnering to find the best possible supplier for the location. Rural New Zealand can be a challenging place in which to build a mobile network – the terrain, weather and sheer remoteness of some locations means we have to think creatively. Fortunately, there are a number of organisations that have come up with some innovative solutions and we’re nicely set up to take advantage of these,” says Button. 

The RCG often needs to go off grid and look for alternative power supply solutions. One company it is working with is Soul Energy. This provides local energy solutions using sustainable Redflow zinc-bromine batteries in its modular power systems. These environmentally friendly batteries offer significant benefits over traditional battery technologies like lead-acid or lithium. 

The benefits include robustness, a significantly longer life – over 10 years – easily recycled materials and 100 percent energy discharge every day. Flow battery technology is ideal for telco and other off-grid applications, and can scale from 10kWh (10-kilowatt-hour) to MWh.

Button says the variety of technologies used and the various site locations are matched with help from the different rural communities they work with. Whether these are dairy farmers in Manawatu, owners of lifestyle blocks in Uruti, in North Taranaki, or operators in out-of-the-way tourist locations such as Taieri Mouth in South Otago, liaison with these rural residents and suppliers can’t be done from RCG’s head office.

Our people actively engage with locals on the ground so we can get the best outcome for the communities involved, says Button.

“When you are talking to the local lines’ companies, councils, resident groups or iwi, you can’t always do that from Auckland. You have to put on your gumboots and get out and talk to people. It’s actually one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job.”

While construction of each new site is heralded by a team from either Downer, Broadspectrum or Connect 8 arriving, it isn’t the sight of these construction crews that alerts people the new broadband service has arrived. It is the ping on their phone that tells them that 4G data services are available. And it is informal community networks that spread the word. Actual construction takes about four weeks but is preceded by scoping and design work by the contractor’s team.

“What is really helpful is when the landowner on whose property we may place a site lets us know who to chat to or introduces us to his or her neighbours. It means we can let people know ahead of time what’s going on. Communities are generally very pleased to learn that they are set to benefit from better broadband services,” says Button.

Once people are ‘pinging’ each other, RCG’s role is largely complete. The retail side of the equation is taken care of by the telcos. This is when RCG’s three telco shareholders switch from collaborating with each other to competing.

In August, RCG announced the first 20 permanent sites were now operational. But, despite having operated for several weeks, Button wasn’t able to provide any insight about end-users’ experience. There are very clear rules about what can be discussed. Also, no retail company wants to give its competitors a heads-up on what sites might be more popular than others.

“From what we can see at our end, I’m very pleased with the sites’ performance, but I respect that the carriers  have to keep that information to themselves. It’s one of the peculiarities of the job,” says Button.