Times are changing in our holiday spots. The often-costly Christmas morning landline call to friends and whānau has been replaced by free Zoom or FaceTime video chat. The arguments over the family Christmas night broadcast movie are resolved by Netflix and YouTube.

Nowadays, more than 80 percent of New Zealanders have a smartphone we take everywhere. Many of us have another device such as a tablet or laptop. All of these devices are fuelling a mind-blowing growth in demand for data.

This Christmas and Boxing Day, Vodafone NZ customers streamed 1,178 terabytes of data in just two days. That is equivalent to more than a million hours of video – and 52 percent more data than we used the previous Christmas.

New Year’s Eve celebrations saw 80 percent more data used by Vodafone customers, compared to 2019/2020. Throughout December as a whole, we saw a 74 percent year-on-year growth in data use on our 4G network.

There has been a tenfold growth in 5G in the last three months.

Kiwis are moving to the beach

Of course a lot of that massive data usage was in our big cities.

But much of it wasn’t.

Whangamata experiences huge holiday data traffic spikes. Photo: Tim Murphy

Each year, holiday hotspots experience data traffic spikes, but the growth isn’t evenly distributed. The 10 busiest hotspots for Vodafone over the Christmas holiday season, in terms of the greatest spikes in internet traffic were, in order: Matarangi, Whitianga Central, Whangamata South, Orewa, Motueka, Paeroa Range, Mangawhai, Morrinsville, Marsden Point and Hahei.

Every year Vodafone plans and prepares for an influx of additional people in regional areas to avoid beachside congestion – either by upgrading permanent infrastructure or by installing temporary cell sites.

But for an internet provider, it’s like country roads suddenly having to carry motorway traffic.

The two maps below offer a view into how Kiwis – and their data usage – moved around the country this holiday season. The red dots show particularly busy areas.

In previous years, this traffic returned more or less to normal after offices and schools reopened. The real question in 2021 and beyond is: will remote working permanently change our living and working habits?

At Vodafone, we believe some of these changes are here for good.

Which raises another important question: what will be the impact for our regional data infrastructure?

With more businesses enabling their staff to embrace free-range working – connecting from the bach or a regional town – New Zealand needs to plan ahead to ensure we have adequate data infrastructure to cope.

A high priority for our industry and our country for 2021 must be to make sure the gap between the digital have nots (often in rural areas) and the haves does not get bigger, and that everyone has access to the digital infrastructure necessary to carry all this data, as well as the means to use it.

Getting the regulation right

Part of that picture is making sure regulation reflects the growing importance of digital infrastructure. The reality is that over-the-top digital services – Netflix, YouTube, WhatsApp, Messenger, Spotify and the rest – barely contribute to the cost of building the digital infrastructure upon which their profits are gained. Instead those profits are taken out of the country.

That doesn’t seem right.

Rural infrastructure isn’t cheap, but international players like Netflix and YouTube barely contribute. Photo supplied

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been outspoken on the issue, and it’ll be interesting to see how the New Zealand Government responds in turn.

Investing regionally to enable more growth

The move to people spending more time in regional New Zealand isn’t just about holidays. It’s about lifestyle. The Covid-19 pandemic, the ever-worsening traffic congestion and sky-rocketing house prices in our big cities, plus the easy availability of technologies which make ‘work from (almost) anywhere’ a reality, are starting to change the way we think about where we live.

The challenge is that someone visiting or relocating to the Coromandel or the like, now expects to have the same digital connectivity as they have in the city – as well as the likes of Uber Eats to call on when they feel peckish. 

At Vodafone, we’re seeing more team members apply to work outside the traditional city hubs – be it Nelson, Mangawhai or Mt Maunganui – and commute to the office periodically, instead of daily. This trend is showing up in many other organisations, as the upsides of remote and virtual working, enabled by digital infrastructure, blur the lines between rural and urban.

Not all cafes in rural areas have the same connectivity as their city cousins. Photo supplied

The challenge is that someone visiting or relocating to the Coromandel or the like, now expects to have the same digital connectivity as they have in the city – as well as the likes of Uber Eats to call on when they feel peckish. To deliver on these rapidly changing consumer preferences, New Zealand is going to need significant additional digital infrastructure investment.

At Vodafone, we’re gearing up to start investing heavily into regional Aotearoa in 2021 and beyond. This includes building hundreds of new cell sites, and upgrading many more existing sites.

Vodafone cell site at Pungarehu, Taranaki. Photo supplied

As part of the process, we are pumping millions of dollars into regional economies, allowing more communities to participate in the digital economy.

Smaller towns can offer people not just a better lifestyle, but digital educational and entertainment opportunities, and a viable workspace. Businesses get a lower cost place to operate.

All in this together

Building this new digital infrastructure needs council, Government and, importantly, community support. We sometimes hear customer complaints about a mobile black spot in a town, or coverage that hasn’t kept up with a growth in population, and we want to fix this wherever possible.

But it’s also not uncommon to receive opposition to installing a new or temporary cell site.

Digital infrastructure isn’t cheap. A new cell site can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, which in areas with small populations makes the economics challenging. One of the ways we can make the numbers work better is through the use of newer, more efficient technologies, and the retirement of older, end-of-life technologies as we go. Another is through sensible infrastructure sharing.

Future-proofing our digital infrastructure

As well as building new Vodafone infrastructure, we’re proud to play a role with the Rural Connectivity Group (RCG), contributing expertise and knowledge to a joint industry and government programme. The 450 additional 4G-only cell sites we’re collectively building nationwide as part of the Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI2) will make a massive difference to many Kiwis living in some of the more remote parts of the country.

Cell site at Okiwi Bay, Marlborough Sounds. Photo supplied

To future-proof investments, most new cell sites include 4G (and often 5G) technology. This means New Zealanders need to ensure their phones are 4G / VoLTE- [high-speed wireless communication standard Voice over Long-Term Evolution] capable so they can continue to connect.

Just as New Zealand television became a digital-only zone after the analogue signal was switched off in December 2013 and Kiwis needed to upgrade their old TV sets, so people using older technology 3G handsets will need to do the same.

It’ll be worth it.

Vodafone is a foundation supporter of Newsroom.co.nz. This contributed article is part of a content partnership.

Sharina Nisha is head of platforms at Vodafone NZ.

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