Rural connectivity


24th June, 2020

Enabling SME clients to make the most of rural connectivity

In this article, Jason Sharp from rural broadband provider Farmside, powered by Vodafone, explains how business advisors can work with their rural clients to maximise their online connectivity and boost operations.

Small businesses play a vital role in New Zealand. They form the backbone of our communities, and they are essential to our country’s economic wellbeing. Primary sector industries of agriculture, forestry and fishing being the second largest by number of small businesses, meaning regional and rural New Zealand play a crucial role in our economy – now more than ever during the COVID-19 recovery.

Usually run from within homes and alongside farms, small rural businesses are often situated miles away from urban infrastructure, meaning the challenges they face differ greatly from their counterparts in the city when it comes to online connectivity.

With the rise of digital technology, and the recent unprecedented challenge of remote working during COVID-19, the way we do business has changed. This means the need for a reliable internet connection is now more important than ever before, and this shift to digital has changed life on farms around Aotearoa.

As one of many initiatives to respond, Farmside has partnered with MYOB to offer customers zero rated data while using the MYOB platform. This means any data consumed on the platform doesn’t count towards their data cap.

Read on to understand why this is so important, and how business advisors like you can work together to ensure small businesses not only survive, but thrive post-lockdown.

Internet use spiked as remote working become the norm

Gebbies Valley RBI2 Site
Gebbies Valley Rural Broadband Initiative 2 site is the 100th such site to go live. Image: Supplied.

Rural internet usage has skyrocketed as we were all asked to stay indoors and stick to our bubbles. We saw a massive increase in rural broadband (RBI) data usage, which was up 74 percent during COVID-19 alert levels 3 and 4, and satellite data use increase by 35 percent for Farmside rural customers.

Reflecting back on what was an incredibly busy period, it was also a turning point for rural communities forced to go online in ways never experienced before. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve – but I also see lots of opportunity for the future of the internet in the country.

We’ve seen stock auctions go online, our major agriculture exhibition become the Fieldays Online event and online discussion groups replace face to face gatherings. This comes with a broader reach in terms of markets – but also relies on good internet connectivity so that parts of the country aren’t left behind.

Connectivity is becoming more essential as digitisation changes the way rural businesses operate. With a trend towards on farm monitoring and cloud-based applications, data consumption is on the rise and with that comes challenges.

We live in a country that’s long and skinny with rugged and undulating terrain, which makes it challenging to build infrastructure. The economics for delivering fibre broadband to every New Zealand business and household simply do not stack up.

For business advisors to rural clients, understanding the connectivity options available in their location is critical to helping them make the most of their access. For advisors who live near their customers, this is straightforward, but for advisors seeking to deliver value to clients on the other side of the country, a little further research is required.

4G infrastructure is expanding access, but more work needed

The Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) has helped bring 4G wireless connectivity to thousands of rural Kiwis – with the industry-collective, Rural Connectivity Group (RCG), hitting a major milestone in June of switching on 100 cell sites around Aotearoa as part of the RBI2 program. Satellite connections have become even more important for those who aren’t within range of rural wireless broadband, but we need to do more to ensure rural Kiwis and businesses are not left behind.

As a country, we need to build more 4G cell towers, invest more in rural broadband, and identify the communities who most need better internet services – which requires ongoing industry collaboration via the RCG and more government investment.

As the demand for data increases, so does the demand on the network. With remote working now becoming the norm, and data streaming increasing exponentially particularly with the rise of online video apps, infrastructure can hit full capacity and cause congestion. While the Government’s recent announcement to allocate $15 million into improving rural broadband capacity will help address some of these issues, we need to continue to invest as a country to stay ahead of the curve.

Pro data usage tips for rural clients

Consumers can also play a role. We encourage our rural customers to actively manage their data so that everyone can have a better user experience – because rural wireless broadband is essentially a shared pool of data, meaning if one household is an extremely heavy user of data then the neighbours may experience a reduced service.

Farmside implemented solutions during the pandemic where we offered our customers more data while still protecting the network and protecting our customers’ user experience. For our RBI customers, this was unlimited data from midnight to 9am to try to shift patterns of use and encourage heavy data downloads during off-peak periods.

We did receive some feedback that this period wasn’t when people needed the data most, but once people learned how to utilise the off-peak period, it was appreciated – and meant we could keep households connected around the clock.

As a result of this successful trial, we are exploring how we can better utilise our lower usage periods and offer our customers more data.

With continued education, you can help your clients get the most from their internet. Here are some of our recommendations:

  • Schedule software upgrades to take place during the off-peak period.
  • If internet data is being shared between business and home, entertainment can be downloaded during the off-peak period so that during the day, data can be used for the things that matter most. Content can then be enjoyed without impacting data caps.
  • Reduce definition to SD (standard definition) when streaming.
  • Turn off automatic app updates on cellphones.
  • Close down phone apps, so they don’t use data in the background.
  • Regularly review all electronic devices that are connected via Wi-Fi to ensure there are no unnecessary background applications using data.

More data saving tips and tutorials can be found on Farmside’s website.

Working with MYOB to help rural SMEs thrive

Small businesses are the lifeblood of our rural communities, and their success is crucial for sector growth and community sustainability. As advisors to small businesses, accountants and bookkeepers can also help guide these businesses through the ongoing process of digitisation.

And we’ve been pleased by the initial reaction to our partnership with MYOB, to offer MYOB customers zero rated data while using the MYOB platform, meaning any data consumed on the MYOB platform doesn’t count towards their data cap.

Rural data is precious, and we want to allow our customers to take their time when making their financial management decisions without the worry of data constraints.

It’s more important, now than ever, that Kiwis have access to reliable connectivity – and the needs of rural New Zealanders are no different.

We’re committed to advocating for our rural communities – and bridging the rural-urban divide.