The wi-fi project connecting the people of Taranaki – Stuff

Adam Ellis recalls the moment he saw a free wi-fi project making a difference to the lives of young people.
“I remember driving into Matatā (near Whakatane) one day and, at one of the hotspots, tamariki and youth were lying outside on the grass with iPads because they knew they could get free wi-fi there. That’s success for me.”
Now Ellis and business partner Katherine Cross, from MB3 in Rotorua, are working with Toi Foundation to provide free internet to places of need in Taranaki by erecting towers at schools and dishes on marae and homes.
The households will receive free and safe wi-fi, approved by the Ministry of Education.
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On top of this, those in need will be able to lease or buy devices interest free, paying as little as $4 per week, thanks to relationships with big businesses, like Apple, Noel Leeming and The Warehouse.
MB3 stands for “mountain biking 3”. While it’s unlikely the pair will be paid for leading intrepid off-road tours, the name is apt because they aim for great heights and often have wild rides to reach their goals.
“We find innovative ways for a child to pick up a device and for it to inspire their learning, creativity and imagination,” says Ellis, who is dedicated to working for the community because of a death-bed promise he made to his mother.
Cross moved from real estate into the area of social enterprise after “my business died”.
The good mates are now “dedicated to ensuring technology is used to inspire learners”.
In their home area, they learnt that not having the internet was keenly felt during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“As Covid dragged on, our students were disenfranchised from their learning,” he says.
When the 2020 Level 3 and 4 lockdowns ended, 23 percent of high school students failed to return to school.
“They were disconnected, not only from their learning, but their peers.”
In Taranaki, there are a few thousand households without the internet.
This is outlined in The Taranaki 2021 Report commissioned by Toi Foundation showing that in the 2018 Census, 82% of Taranaki households reported they had access to the internet – lower than the national average of 86%.
In 2018, South Taranaki had the lowest regional internet access rate, with just 76.9%.
Other areas of Taranaki with low connection rates were Marfell in New Plymouth (73.8%, 135 without), Stratford Central (74.9%, 207 without), Manaia-Kapuni (73.2%, 144 without), Waitara West (70.0%, 420 without), Hawera Central (73.1%, 261 without) Eltham (72.3%, 201 without) Manutahi-Waitōtora (69.6%, 219 without) Ōpunake (68.6%, 165 without) Pātea (62.1%, 165 without).
“Having reliable internet access at home is now at the point that it’s the building block of social and economic inclusion,” says senior economist Olivia Wills, from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research.
“As more and more services come online it’s even more essential everyone has access to the internet.
“Obviously, with Covid, it’s become more important than ever.”
When students are isolating at home, if they can get online, they won’t miss valuable education opportunities.
“We know that student absenteeism is associated with poor outcomes.
In terms of education outcomes, there is evidence that home internet access has positive outcomes for skills, attitudes and motivation building, rather than the direct academic gains.
“For households without the internet, the divide in the outcomes for the haves and the have-nots is just going to get bigger as more and more things go online,” Wills says.
“There’s a real demand for digital skills in the workplace and those jobs are going to go to people who have the internet and we don’t want to see people without the internet being left behind.”
Rob Haveswood, Toi philanthropic strategy leader, says the total amount granted for the project to date is $1,398,000.
This includes building wi-fi towers for stage 1 (Waverley to Ōpunake) and 2 (Waitara).
The collaboration between Toi Foundation and MB3 happened by chance.
Haveswood was visiting Auroa School principal Jarrad Chittenden to discuss upcoming foundation grants when the latter had a Zoom call with MB3 to talk about a wi-fi feasibility study.
“I was in the right place at the right time, and it’s developed into a really awesome partnership between Toi and MB3.”
Chittenden says his school will be helping to feed internet to the community at a time people throughout New Zealand have found tough because of the pandemic.
“But it’s a really exciting time to be in education because necessity breeds invention,” he says.
“I think the curriculum has now become dependent on families having suitable internet at home.”
He believes it will become even more so.
“In our rural community just under 50 percent have access to broadband. A lot are hotspotting of phones or using satellite technology.”
Being part of the wi-fi project will link the school fibre with tower technology on Taranaki Maunga, which can then beam out to homes and marae throughout the farming district.
Toi Foundation CEO Maria Ramsay says providing wi-fi access may seem minor but for some families it was a major move.
“It’s all about levelling the playing field and giving everyone the same opportunities.”
The foundation’s mission is to create a thriving, inclusive and equitable Taranaki, so the free wi-fi project clearly looks at the gaps and areas in need of support to boost internet connections for households and marae.
Mawhaturia White from Manukorihi Hapū says many people in Waitara don’t have the internet, so having safe, free wi-fi will make a huge difference to tamariki, taiohi, rangatahi and their whānau.
“This is one of our dreams, to level out the playing field. They talk about the digital divide and in time becoming a chasm. This great opportunity is about digital inclusion and connections for our children and so avoiding the chasm.”
White shares a whakatauākī (proverb): “Mā te huruhuru ka rere te manu,” which translates to, “Adorn the bird with feathers so it can fly.”
“It’s about enabling our smart, clever children to achieve their dreams, aspirations and goals. We should always focus on the next generation coming, the rangatira (leaders) of tomorrow.”
The wi-fi tower will be fitted to an existing lamppost at the lookout by Manukorihi Intermediate School.
Donna Eriwata of Otaraua Hapū, Tikorangi, says the free wi-fi project will make a huge difference in the lives of Te Ātiawa children.
“It’s been one of the big gaps that’s becoming more evident as time goes by – this is a necessity. It will open up a whole new world for them.”
They will also be on an equal par with their peers, who already have the internet at home.
Eriwata says that during the two Covid-19 lockdowns, in 2020 and 2021, the children without wi-fi couldn’t make use of their school’s digital devices for work at home.
“You’ll see them sitting outside the library at night trying to get a free signal. Now our kids won’t have to be out in the cold; they will have it at home.”
Tertiary students will also be able come home in the holidays and continue their studies in their own houses, rather than go to the library for wi-fi.
“They will be able to show their parents the stuff they do at university… they will be able to do outpost training where they couldn’t before.”
Being online will help young people to do their homework and keep up to date with events and competitions happening in Taranaki.
“In our town, we have disadvantaged children because of a lack of access to free wi-fi,” Eriwata says.
“Anything that will benefit our tamariki, our mokopuna, will benefit our community in the long run.
This content was produced in partnership with the Taranaki Daily News and Toi Foundation, a philanthropic trust.
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