Tele-communications Here aren't quite up to scratch

UPDATE 1

The petition in February resulted in a response from Telecom that plans were afoot to schedule an upgrade of the network in November.

Others in the valley added their names to the petition (63).

Telecom kept to their promise and made a significant investment and upgraded our local connections with some pretty good gear.

As of 17 November, we now have broadband via Telecom's ADSL service - up to 8Mb/s.

Outstanding. Most of the valley, especially the home based businesses are very happy.

Thank you Telecom.


UPDATE 2

In an astonishing turn, it appears that the upgrade can only accommodate 2 dozen connections.

These connections were taken in 13 days.

The original petition had 54 properties sign up with another 9 signing on afterwards.

Needless to say, most of the valley is not very happy now, after getting their hopes up and having them dashed (again).

What are you doing Telecom, this doesn't seem to make any sense - you spent a good amount of money on the upgrade, but have only half done the job?

Where, precisely, is "here"?

The Ararimu Valley is situated 30 minutes drive north-west of Auckland along the western edge of the Riverhead forest in the Kumeu-Waimauku wine growing district. It consists of about 91 mainly 1 to 4 hectare allotments. Some would call these "life-style" blocks, however, "work-style" is possibly a little more apt. The population has increased possibly 50% in the last decade. avgoogled_thumb

The urban sprawl is approaching though this is unlikely to directly reach the valley in the next few years. This has pushed property prices ever upward and over the last ten years and there has been quite a change in the demographic of the valley as the land-usage changed from rural activities. There remains one active dairy farm. Westbrook winery was established a few years ago and is a pleasant place to go and have a picnic mid-way through your winery tour of the district. The forest provides for many activities such as running, horse riding and mountain biking and the increase in population during the weekends and Wednesday evenings is noticable.

Some Tele-History

Telecommunications in the valley have always been somewhat patchy - historically due to low population density and therefore low investment and maintenance by the incumbent tel-co. The land lines have been of various quality and until early 2003 there were insufficient land-lines for the number of residences. Mobile communications fare little better, with the Telecom mobile network providing some service to some of the properties. Vodafone generally has no coverage in the area unless external aerials are installed. And don't even think about good internet connections. Many of the customers could barely achieve dial-up connection speeds of 14,400 bits per second. This is happening about ten years after 56kbs modems started appearing in New Zealand.

In 2003, Telecom ran a fibre-optic connection to Ararimu Valley Road from the newly upgraded Waimauku exchange which is, apparantly, a satellite of the Mt Albert exchange. Telecom customer services soothed upset customers who had either poor-quality, no phone line or less than the number of phone lines they wanted and promises of "exciting new services" were also made. Remember, this is only in 2003.

The fibre-optic meant Telecom could finally provide land-lines to those residents who didn't have any. Except they couldn't, as they quickly ran out of connections at the exchange!

A subsequent upgrade of the exchange solved that problem though the exciting new services were yet to appear. Unsurprisingly, some residents were initially excited at having a land-line for the first time, a few had waited for years.

Various ad-hoc communications failed to ascertain any coherent plan by Telecom for the area and certainly realised little action. In 2005, the first co-ordinated communication of 47 of the residents was made to Telecom Complaints. Telecom’s response to that missive was that a complete upgrade of the cabinet and electronics installed only two years earlier was required. They further went on to state: “demand in your area will be ranked with all projects nationally to be included in the budget for July 06 - June 07. The indicated demand (your signatures) will be taken into consideration with a final decision being made in January 2006 on what projects are included.”

Phone calls after January have elicited responses indicating that there are now no plans to upgrade the equipment. Quotes by Telecom Customer Services during these phone calls elicited responses such as “there is no demand in your area” or “we have no record of many people requesting the service”. Other communications (via telephone) have offered differing opinions with two outstanding calls stating that broadband services are, in-fact, in place and why are we connected? Clearly, Telecom did not have clear communications within the organisation.

Discussions within the valley now revealed that at least 66 residences have expressed a desire to use broadband.

A recent survey of 53 of these residences revealed that 33 of them have home based business activities and that these businesses are somewhat impacted by:

The mere fact that there is this much business activity in the valley is a little surprising, given the feel of the valley as you drive, cycle or walk through it. it really is a great place to live (strike that last bit, you might all be tempted to move here if we get high-speed internet).

Just for fun, the survey asked what the approximate telephone spend was per month. 53 residents reported a total of $16,000. That would have to rise a few thousand if the users could get broadband.

A follow up letter signed by 45 of the residents has been sent to Telecom, this time addressed to someone who could actually make some things happen (Ms Gattung) and copied to various government ministers (Minister for Telecommunications and the Minister for Economic Development), our local member of parliament (John Key) and a representative of the District Council responsible for a regional project to acquire broad-band services. You can read an extract of the letter (without the names of the signees) here or download a .pdf format of the letter here.

It remains to be seen if the various managers in Telecom have fully grasped the community situation and feeling.

The follow up letter also discusses the alternative broadband arrangements that might be available and is briefly summarised at the bottom.

The Telecom Line

The Weekend Herald of 1 April 2006 carried an interview by Chris Barton with Bruce Parkes of Telecom. Mr Parkes revealed, if I may paraphrase, that Telecom is full of energetic, bright and innovative technical people with motivation and desire to find solutions to New Zealand's unique tele-communications needs. It is clear that none of these people are onto the case in Waimauku - well, at least not in a way that this community has seen.

Interestingly, he also revealed that Telecom is doing a good job and that a real problem is that New Zealanders need to be re-educated about the services that they receive. Uh-huh! The interview contained some of the most wonderful double speak you will ever hear. Don't ever play poker with Bruce Parkes.

Mr Parkes chose not to mention how Telecom can hold entire communities to “ransom”, should they be so motivated. The evidence seems that they are so motivated. The motivation must be the shareholders.

Why would shareholders be happy about the levels of customer service?

Broadband services in New Zealand are considered by most outside of Telecom to be either too slow, too expensive or not distributed widely enough.

As Telecom owns nearly all of the connections from every home to the phone networks, Telecom is key to nearly everyone's experience of tele-communications.

Telecom has also decided not to play fair with respect to internet “peering” services - a co-operative technique for optimising delivery of internet traffic to maintain “best effort” services. Consequently, they have upset many of the New Zealand internet service providers, the businesses in competition to Xtra (and usually at very significant discounts to Xtra) who must use Telecom’s infra-structure to provide their services.

Shareholders appreciate the short term gains of these actions, as it means Telecom has virtually free reign to set the prices, levels of service (high or low) and return significant money to shareholders.

Of course, there is a tipping point. At some stage, governments will act to serve the people that elected them. Both sides of the political divide are somewhat uneasy at the current arrangements.

Any government action will affect Telecom's share price and the returns shareholders can expect and not in a positive way.

Shareholders cannot be happy that the Telecom Executive has allowed the situation to get to this far (and they must be positively delighted at the Telecom Executive's expensive misadventures in Australia). It will be interesting to see whether shareholders take action against the executive or lobby the government or both.

What have we now?

Dial-up of varying quality. Rather a pity when a relatively small investment on Telecom's part can bring services up to the minimal standards they are offering the rest of New Zealand.

The alternatives

Below is a quick summary of some of the options as presented in our letter to Ms Gattung, with any updates should they become available. The details are as the various sales people have presented them, well, the ones that can actually be sold.

Many believe that satellite is our saviour, though it appears not to individuals in this community. Have you ever seen those T.V. news reports from the Middle East where the reporter stares blankly at the screen with a silly grin on his or her face for a whole five seconds after a question has been asked by the local anchor? Well, that is a bit like what the internet is like via satellite. Imagine driving a car and you are approaching a corner so you turn the steering wheel and nothing happens for a few seconds (I had a car like that once).

If you are downloading information, there is a delay before anything happens and then the information starts flowing. Now if you are trying to connect to a customer's computer and operate that computer over the internet, i.e. remote control (a common task for businesses), imagine clicking the mouse and waiting two or three seconds for a response and then clicking again, and waiting another two or three seconds, and so on. Tasks that require two way interaction don't work that well at all. As an aside, it's not really that fast (the business plans that are fast you note are not included on the page linked above - sort of like Rolls Royce's old line “if you have to ask, then you can’t afford it”). Remote control is hardly better than dial-up and that is poor. Ignoring the very high cost of equipment installation ($3,000-$4,000 for satellite receiver and installer), most consumers are only offered transfer speeds of between 3 and 5 times that of dial-up (if you don’t count the aforementioned delay). That is roughly one twelfth the speed of Jetstream. When ADSL II comes in, then divide that one twelfth by four again.

If it rains heavily, forget about satellite connections.

And the monthly cost of satellite is not that competitive, either. You can mitigate the cost of satellite if you lock in to a long term contract. But imagine how happy you will be to have 256 kilobits per second in 3 years time. Do you think the internet might have moved on a little by then? Probably.

Telecom Wireless (via BCL) This service is not available in our part of North-West Auckland
Frame Relay and ISDN These services are not available at our exchange and seem not to be practical nor economical options any more.
Telecom 3G This involves connection, via Telecom’s mobile network using “AirCards”. Unfortunately, much of the community has “patchy” mobile coverage. Recent discussions with Telecom’s Business Solutions division reveal that network speeds where coverage is poor is approximately equivalent to dial-up networking, which is the experience of those who have tested it. Combined with the data caps, it makes this a high cost and possibly pointless exercise anyway.
Satellite In lieu of any action by Telecom, satellite networking appears to be the last option for the community. However, there are significant drawbacks with the scheme. Normal satellite options offer connections speeds only about three to eight times that of dial-up networking, significantly less than ADSL speeds. For residential customers, the initial cost of about $3,000-3,500 is clearly not practical. This can be mitigated somewhat by signing up to long term contracts, which lock the customer to an inferior service - even more so now that Telecom Jetstream has increased in speed by 50% and will be more so again when Telecom start rolling out ADSL II (up to 24 megabits) mid-way through this year (your words on national television). For the home business customers, particularly those that need to connect to other networks, satellite connections suffer from high latency and insufficient speed. Furthermore, lack of support for networking features such as "port forwarding" means this service also is not an option for the business customers who use this to connect remotely.
Vodafone Coverage of Vodafone is less effective than Telecom’s mobile network.
Wired Country Have no plans to offer any service in the region within the next three years. They have looked at the maps and discussed some options, but no firm indications.
Whoosh Have no plans to offer any service in the region
Telstra 802.11n Telstra have commenced trials in Northland of new wireless services. This technology looks promising for regions such as Ararimu Valley. It is in the early stages and there is no schedule of the introduction of the services more widely.
Our own 802.11g network

Consideration has also been given to building our own wireless network, connecting back to some point near the community that does have broadband. This has a significant set up cost, relies on finding and maintaining a suitably fast connection to the internet nearby, as well as the felling of trees to ensure line of sight throughout the valley (now won’t that make people happy). Were this simple, we are sure that other internet service providers would be offering to assist communities in this manner.

This idea is not dead.