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The Digital Divide Knows No Borders

20190324 154512 E1555517558202 225x300 A tower meant to boost broadband signals sits in Whangarei on Mount Parihaka in New Zealand

Lexington, Ky. (April 17, 2019) – What do you picture when you think of New Zealand? Perhaps you see a lush and green countryside? Or, unspoiled coastlines? Or, maybe you imagine waterfalls in valleys?

All are true, but among those picturesque images is something often unnoticed—rural communities left without access to the same opportunities and resources many of us take for granted.

Much like rural communities in the United States – where the images are instead of farms stretching to the horizon or a town’s sleepy main street— families in New Zealand are finding themselves on the wrong side of the Digital Divide. Wherever you live, the challenges and the solutions related to expanding rural broadband access are similar around the world.

Connected Nation’s Vice President for Development and Planning, Chris Pedersen, recently learned just how similar. He took part in a week-long exchanged program dubbed “Getting Connected in New Zealand Outbound.”

“Rural areas, whether in New Zealand or the United States or elsewhere, are going to lag behind urban areas in getting advanced broadband services,” said Pedersen. “How each community, state, OR country goes about closing this Digital Divide may vary but it’s clear there’s a growing awareness that broadband offers tremendous opportunities to everyone.”

The New Zealand Outbound program was organized by World Learning and sponsored by the U.S. Department of State Office of Citizen Exchanges.  Pedersen along with Robyn Krock, Valley Vision’s project leader for Food and Ag Economy, crisscrossed the country sharing best practices for expanding broadband access, leveraging public-private partnerships, and improving farm and rural connectivity.

Day 2 Dargaville 300x225 Chris Pedersen presenting data on best practices for expanding broadband access during a session in Dargaville, New Zealand

“To foster innovation and development in these rural areas is so important to preserving the rural way of life – no matter where we are,” Pedersen said. “It means giving families and communities opportunities to improve access to health information and care, to participate and excel in an evolving workforce, to tap into educational resources, to connect and collaborate with others to tackle big problems and create new solutions, and the list goes on and on. All of this can be leveraged to empower those living in rural areas.”

A perfect example of this can be found in Far North, New Zealand. It’s where Pedersen and Krock met with avocado growers and Kauri woodworkers. The Kauri* wood is among the most ancient in the world with some trees measuring at more than 45,000 years old. But, it’s a much more modern addition that’s providing promise for families in the area.

“They are excited to have three new towers going up in the next three months,” said Pedersen. “It’s part-two of their Rural Broadband Initiative. Part one was connecting institutions like schools and government buildings.  Now, they’re onto this next phase.  Part two is the covering what we call the “last mile.” It’s that final stretch of broadband and internet connectivity that reaches into the most rural communities.”

New Zealand’s leaders have recognized the importance of expanding broadband. According to ZDNet, the government has fast tracked phase two of the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI), announced in 2016. It will now be complete by the end of 2021 rather than 2022.

"New Zealanders must have access to technology as a right, regardless of income or geography," Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Clare Curran said. "We have to close the gap between the digital 'haves' and 'have nots' to ensure people and communities benefit from the jobs, access, and participation that a digital future brings."

Under the RBI, the goal is to enable more than 70,000 households in rural areas to gain access to high-speed broadband networks. It’s being funded via a levy on telcos, as well as private funding from its mobile carriers Vodafone NZ, Spark, and 2degrees.

Embassy Reception 300x225 The Deputy Chief of Mission for the U.S. Embassy in Wellington, Susan Niblock, is pictured far right in red. Photo also includes alumni from U.S. Government exchange programs and technology/policy experts as well as current team members for the Getting Connected New Zealand Outbound Program.

In addition, according to the Honest Businessman, the Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) program will provide fiber-to-the-premises internet connections with speeds of up to 1,000mbps to 87% of households.  The goal is a big one because the government plans to do that in more than 390 cities and towns.

In comparison, the White House has announced multiple funding programs in recent months aimed at expanding broadband access specifically for rural communities in the U.S. That includes the ReConnect Program, which will dole out $600 million in loans and grants this year alone, and the recently announced Rural Digital Opportunity Fund.  At the same time, many state senators and governors are taking action on a more local level—choosing to tackle the problem with state-funded programs rather than wait on federal monies.

“More than 600,000 New Zealanders and nearly 60 million Americans live in rural areas. Without accurate broadband data and effective planning to advance broadband access, adoption, and use, our rural residents will be left in the Digital Divide,” said Pedersen. “Not only will rural residents be cut off from significant health, education and economic opportunities, but urban and suburban counterparts will be cut off from the talent, innovation, and fortitude that have long been the backbone of rural living. With the rapid changes occurring globally, increasing opportunity for everyone through connectivity is critical and something each of us should take part in for the good of all communities and families.”

*The wood used from kauri trees has basically been buried and preserved in peat up to 50,000 years ago in New Zealand's North Island.

Click on the below slideshow of Chris Pedersen's trip to New Zealand:

Related Links:
March 29, 2019The Promise of Broadband in Far North, New Zealand
March 28, 2019 – Northern New Zealand Provides a Time for Learning 
March 27, 2019 – Let’s Get Digital: Connected Nation Takes Part in Skill Conference
March 26, 2019 – Having the Digital Revolution for Breakfast
March 25, 2019 – Greetings from New Zealand
March 12, 2019 – Connected Nation Taking its Mission of Digital Inclusion International