23 Jul 2015

'Priority' hospital still waiting for UFB

9:40 am on 23 July 2015

The promise of ultra-fast broadband has not arrived at one of New Zealand's most remote hospitals.

Three years after the Government-funded network was rolled out to the door of the Dunstan Hospital in Clyde, Central Otago, it is not connected.

That is despite Government updates since 2013 on the ultra-fast broadband project listing the hospital as a priority user with access to rural fibre.

Chorus has said the price ruling could jeopardise its ultra fast broadband programme.

Photo: CHORUS

There is disagreement between the parties involved about whether the problem is cost, a lack of network exchange capacity or being tied in to the Southern District Health Board's computer system.

The Government's rural broadband initiative included the installation of dedicated fibre cables and cabinets to all schools and health facilities to provide high speed internet of at least 100 megabits per second.

Network provider Chorus has confirmed it installed the high-speed cables and cabinets for ultra-fast broadband in 2012.

Karyn Penno, general manager of Central Otago Health Services, which runs Dunstan hospital, said its internet was at only 20 megabits per second and that was starting to hold back patient services and training with partners like the University of Otago.

Ms Penno said the reasons why the hospital was not connected kept changing.

'Dunstan should be top of the list'

Dunstan Hospital is small, with 31 beds, but it serves a land area as big as Auckland and Northland combined.

One of its doctors, Garry Nixon, also a senior lecturer in rural health at Otago University, said the lack of high speed internet had become an urgent problem which was holding back the hospital.

Dr Nixon said it was hampering the use of new imaging technology and communication tools like video-conferencing needed to train the rural health workforce.

He said there seemed to be a big gap between the Government's broadband rhetoric and the reality, and Dunstan should have been on top of the list because of its remoteness.

'Frustrating'

Karyn Penno, of Central Otago Health Services, said she had been told the Alexandra network exchange did not have enough capacity to give the hospital ultra-fast broadband.

But Chorus denied there was any problem with capacity at the Alexandra exchange, saying the hospital should be able to connect as soon as it signed up with a retailer.

When Ms Penno got a quote two years ago for connecting to fibre, Spark Digital said it would cost $9000 a month, though Spark says that was for a private fibre line before the Government roll-out.

"[The rollout] is slow and expensive, I understand that, but it is really frustrating when we are out here trying to deliver a really good service and we can't do as good as we could," said Ms Penno.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment said it did not know Dunstan was not connected, but the point of its rollout was to provide fast internet at the same price as for an urban hospital, costing about $400 to $600 a month.

It turns out the real barrier might be the Southern District Health Board, which provides internet for every hospital in Otago and Southland, partly to keep its patient record system secure.

Karyn Penno said there must be away around that.

"Information we transfer between ourselves is fine. But everytime we want to go external to that or set up something different, like with the University of Otago, like with GPs in Wanaka, it is just not possible."

Since being contacted for this story, Spark Digital said it had begun working with Dunstan Hospital to upgrade its internet to at least 100 megabits per second, though it said that would still not be using the Government's ultra-fast broadband network.

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