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Rural Connectivity Group Awarded Chatham Islands Contract

New $11.5M Telecommunications Network Confirmed for Chatham Islands

Crown Infrastructure Partners (CIP) have confirmed that the Chatham Islands will receive a new 4G wireless telecommunications network under the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative Phase 2 (RBI2) and Provincial Growth Fund.

An upgraded telecommunications network is a strategic goal in the Chatham Islands Investment Strategy along with another government funded project announced in August 2020, to lengthen and strengthen the runway at Tuuta Airport.

The Rural Connectivity Group has been working since June 2020 with CIP, Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust, Kaingaroa Trust, Hokotehi Moriori Trust, Chatham Islands Electricity, Ngati Mutunga o Wharekauri, local landowners and Chatham Islands Council to scope and design the new telecommunications network. CIP have confirmed $11.5M funding to build the new network including contributions from the Provincial Growth Fund, RBI2 and the three mobile network operators Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees.

The investment will allow the build of a new satellite dish and satellite link, providing four times the capacity of the current satellite link serving the island. This is fundamental to improving broadband speeds for residents and allows 4G wireless broadband for almost all households and businesses on the island. The new satellite link will provide the backhaul telecommunications link back to New Zealand for five cell sites positioned around the island to maximise broadband coverage to residents on both Chatham Island and Pitt Island, whilst also bringing 4G mobile coverage across the majority of the island’s roads.

The project priority is to deliver reliable fast broadband, and as that is delivered over the cellular network, mobile phone services will also be available to the Island for the first time. The mobile coverage will also extend into the marine territory providing support for farming, tourism and the fishing industry, the islands main source of employment and income.

“The Chatham Islands rely on the fishing industry and the safety of our people at sea is paramount. The fishing workers are at sea for days at a time and having broadband and mobile coverage will enable them to keep in touch with their families, the fish market, as well as achieve MPI compliance by being able to submit their daily catch reports” says George Ririnui, MPI Fisheries Officer on Chatham Islands.

Mayor Monique Croon is excited by the new RCG network, knowing that the addition of mobile coverage to the islands roading network will provide peace of mind for residents. “Locals will no longer have to sleep overnight in their car in the case of a breakdown or accident and wait for daylight to seek help. Help will be just a phone call away at any time of day or night.”

New Zealanders are flocking to the island to enjoy the unique landscape and way of life, especially since the NZ borders have been shut since 2020. “Being able to keep track of our tourist operations and keeping people safe as they travel the island is going to be a huge advantage, saving time, resource, improving efficiency and ultimately enhancing the visitor experience. Our whole health and safety approach on the island will be enhanced as a result of the new network, along with vastly improving access to our health services” says the Mayor.

The Rural Connectivity Group has been working closely with locals to understand the challenging environment the new network will operate in. Chatham Islands is positioned in the “roaring forties” latitude and is a windswept, harsh, coastal environment, no matter where you are on the island. Designing the network has had to consider the tremendous wind load on each RCG facility, as well as the footings required due to the unique ground conditions, such as the peat fields encountered around the island.

“We created a dedicated team to work on the Chatham Islands project to ensure we understood the unique challenges, developed clever solutions to them and can build the entire network within a short timeframe”, says John Proctor, CEO of the Rural Connectivity Group. “Our team have got close to the local people and are really grateful for their support in bringing the project to fruition so quickly. We are building this network to improve life for the locals, so it is wonderful to have had their input from the beginning.”

John Proctor explains “Build of the new network is scheduled to commence in April and it has been a major logistical exercise to ensure all components required for the new network are freighted to the island ahead of the build commencement. We expect the first connectivity to be available in late August, with the network completed and optimised by the end of the year.”

Eutelsat are providing the satellite link to the island and RCG are also working with Downer NZ Ltd to deliver the satellite station and five mobile cell sites. The steel poles have been designed and manufactured by CSP Pacific taking into account the wind-swept environment on the Island. To ensure a robust network on the island the five cell sites are linked with diverse paths, so any fault on a particular site can be isolated and still allow the other sites to operate. The internal linking is being delivered by UBB- Ultimate Broadband, a Wireless Internet Service Provider based in Canterbury.

“Our team are keen to get started on the build programme to deliver these much-needed services to the island and hope the weather is kind to us during the construction phase. We have enjoyed full support from locals and know this new network will have a huge impact on their daily lives” says John.

Reliable broadband and mobile services are essential for emergency management, such as in the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown that the Chatham Islands were also affected by. “We need these services to connect our people who are isolated and need our support” reports Owen Pickles, Council CEO and long-term Civil Defence stalwart. “The new network is important for our families to contact emergency services in the case of an accident, fire or other emergencies. Our residents will be better informed of potential hazards related to events, such as earthquakes, tsunamis or Civil Defence warnings and have immediate ability to report any criminal activity.”

The new RCG sites are the result of an industry leading collaboration between the three mobile network operators and Crown Infrastructure Partners to build over 500 cell sites across rural New Zealand delivering essential broadband and mobile services.

The RCG is a joint venture between Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees, and has been contracted by CIP to deliver the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative Phase 2 (RBI2) and Mobile Black Spots Fund (MBSF) programmes. The RCG is responsible for building, operating, and maintaining this essential rural network infrastructure.

The RCG cell sites are running the latest 4G technology and services will be available to customers of Spark, Vodafone, 2degrees and their wholesale resellers. Customers may need to upgrade their mobile phones to enable 4G voice calling. Information is available on the websites for each company and anyone unsure if their device can receive and make calls over the 4G network should contact their service provider.

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