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Many of the regions targeted in the programme are beyond the beaten track in the extreme

Rural Connectivity Group breaks down the digital divide

Five hundred new mobile cell towers around rural New Zealand are in the works with the second phase of the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI2) now well underway. The five-year programme will increase the country’s mobile land coverage by 25% and is set for completion in 2023.

When the build programme is finished, 33,000 more rural Kiwi households and businesses will be able to access mobile services offered by New Zealand’s three mobile network operators – Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees – for the very first time. In addition, the initiative has been broadened to include the need to address roughly 1400 km of state highways with ‘mobile black spots’ which will soon be within calling reach of emergency services and the AA, and 160 off-the-beaten-track tourist hotspots.

In an unusual partnership that is understood to be a world-first, the network build programme is being led by the Rural Connectivity Group (RCG). The RCG is a non-profit startup, funded and overseen as a joint venture between the commercial mobile network operators who will deliver their services across the new network, and government body Crown Infrastructure Partners.

While construction of each new site is heralded by trucks and high-vis-clad workers, the work to get these sites prepared for construction starts many months before, with scoping and design shared and signed off by a variety of different parties. And with work scaling up during the country’s wettest winter of record last year, the ability for the team to learn fast and pivot to the next site(s) at speed proved to be a test of teamwork in delivering the ambitious build programme.

The Stephens whanau at Pawarenga in the Far North – a new tower now serves their valley, local residents and three marae

Wildest winter on record

With the first RBI2 sites having gone ‘live’ (mobile service switched on to the public) in July last year, the arrival of wild weather at that time was almost certainly going to have an effect on the build schedule.

Many early sites were Government prioritised for the notorious West Coast, where weather dictated how the build teams could approach the site build, with each site having its own weather-related obstacles. The elements threw everything at the RCG build teams, including high winds, torrential rain and unforecast snowfall.

For areas of the South Island where the geography and the weather proved particularly challenging during a tough winter, replacing cumbersome cherry pickers with easily transportable and widely available drones with built-in cameras gave the surveying crews eye-in-the-sky superpowers. These gave the added benefit of a bird’s-eye view of some of New Zealand’s most picturesque spots.

John Proctor, RCG chief executive officer, says: “The first year of any multi-year infrastructure rollout is always going to have an element of ‘trial and error’. It would be wrong of me to suggest that the build so far has been done with flawless execution. But we are cognisant that if this was an easy job, it would have been easily done before.

“For example, we recently livened service for the Western Bay of Plenty’s TECT Park which had been in scope for mobile service for near on a decade. We are going to places previously in the ‘too hard basket’,” he adds.

“What’s really encouraging is seeing the team and RCG partners come together and problem-solve to streamline and expedite what is under our control – planning and design, logistics, onsite efficiencies and of course, above all else, health and safety of the working crews.”

Innovative project management

Connect 8, a leading national, Kiwi-owned telecommunications construction and network management specialist, was engaged as one of three core build providers for the programme (alongside Broadspectrum and Downer). They quickly understood that the complexity of the RBI2 build programme would require innovation at even their most standard of processes.

By the second quarter of delivery, they had developed and begun piloting a proprietary tool for speeding up the planning and design of sites to get them into implementation phase sooner – a project management tool in their kit called ‘Rapid RAN’.

Rapid RAN in action – the initiative draws on Connect 8’s lean structure and methodology for complex project management to create a framework for trouble-shooting across delivery phases

The approach draws on Connect 8’s lean structure and methodology for complex project management to create a framework for trouble-shooting across delivery phases. By getting a range of technical experts from design specialists through to completion leads into a shared project management process, then identifying, mapping and actioning potential blockages prior to technical design approval, the group ensured a much smoother approach to build.

A predetermined sub-set of 21 regionally grouped sites entered the trial in December last year in the first instance, and 14 sites have now been expedited to implementation stage and are set to be completed in the first quarter of this year.

While the trial is ongoing, early signs show that Rapid RAN cell sites are being delivered much faster than those not in scope of the pilot programme. Twenty-one site designs were completed in 21 days for those within scope of the pilot (even with allowance for geotech engineering), rapidly increasing the number of sites processed without requiring a wholesale change in resource.

Connect 8’s general manager of partnerships Jonathan Berry says: “We couldn’t shake up the process like this without a focus on outcomes and genuine willingness from the wider RCG group. It’s fantastic to be working in an environment where innovation is encouraged and quickly adopted.”

Powering into the digital divide

Perhaps not surprisingly, given these sites had not previously been easily reached by the country’s technology networks, many of the regions targeted in the programme are beyond the beaten track in the extreme. These very small towns and rural hubs are often textbook cases of the ‘digital divide’, and this is a serious concern for residents worried that their social, educational and economic prosperity is at risk due to their physical and digital isolation.

The team have worked very closely with Ngati Kuri and the Department of Conservation (DOC) to bring coverage to the top of the Far North. Sites were scoped for Cape Reinga, Te Paki and Waitiki Landing to provide coverage to the rural residents of those areas, the many tourist spots, and to support the long-term tourism goals of Ngati Kuri across their rohe (area). Waitiki Landing was switched on in October 2019 with the Te Paki site built and switched on in record time to allow coverage for the busy holiday season in the Far North.

Te Paki is a heritage site on DOC land. Downer worked with DOC, Ngati Kuri representatives and a Heritage NZ archaeologist before excavating the land, as there were a number of cultural and ecological features, including historic kumara pits, and a native protected snail to watch for. All construction equipment and vehicles were disinfected for each visit, with technicians scrubbing boots to ensure no foreign species or disease were introduced to the important local ecology.

To meet these challenges head-on while delivering to the Christmas deadline, the team opted for helicopter access to the site, as due to unseasonal rain the tracks were too wet to support heavy vehicles, such as concrete trucks, to complete the tower build.

Additionally, no mains power was available to the site, meaning an off-grid solution was installed, incorporating a 30 panel solar array supported by eight Redflow batteries that are designed for high cycle rate, long time-base stationary energy storage. Additionally, to proactively address heightened fire risk in the area, Downer devised an alternative mechanical process that wouldn’t create sparks during the earthworks.

While construction of each new site, like this one on the Kaipara Coast Highway, is heralded by trucks and high-vis-clad workers, the preparatory work starts many months before

Says Peter McComish, Downer’s general manager of mobile, ISP and engineering services: “We built this tower in record time: it was started and finished in only nine days (the average time is four weeks). We achieved this with additional project management resource, and we doubled the number of riggers we used onsite.

“We like to think we demonstrated in this one site build our commitment to the project, the wide range of partners, and the community and environment. It gives us a great sense of momentum and excitement to meet the challenges head-on for the RCG programme.”

Cultural considerations

The Te Paki site was a huge collective success in getting the service readied and running in such a quick turnaround. Ngati Kuri Tourism is now taking payment at the Spirits Bay campsite via mobile eftpos, and a coffee cart is operating where the iwi are also offering scenic helicopter flights over the tip of New Zealand.

“With this site being livened, we very quickly saw how this network can open up a whole world of entrepreneurship, social development and education for future generations of local people,” says Caitlin Metz, RCG’s head of engagement.

Ms Metz is no stranger to bringing industry and community together to pull in the same direction in the interests of the local region. A long-time advocate for iwi to take advantage of what connectivity has to offer their marae, hapu and whanau, she notes that in the case of the RBI2 rollout, most rural Maori communities are now keenly aware of the benefits improved connectivity will bring to local people and businesses.

“Building great relationships and gaining local knowledge from residents during our site acquisition process are crucial components of the overall programme of work. This is especially true given that we are reaching into remote communities who have a long-term history with the land in which they and their tupuna have lived, worked and been kaitiaki (carers) for many hundreds of years,” Ms Metz says.

“It’s built into our DNA to engage with care, respect the history of the area, make sure our work is understood, and overcome challenges together to deliver a service we know the communities want and need.”



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