Internet connectivity transforms employment and education in isolated Eastern Bay of Plenty communities

The introduction of internet connectivity in isolated and underprivileged communities across the Eastern Bay of Plenty has boosted employment and provided free access to education and health services for whānau.

Connectivity for the whole community

Seven years ago, the Ministry of Education had notified Te Whaiti School in Minginui that there was to be a fibre link installed to the school to provide high speed internet access.  Josie Gage, Principal at the school, and her husband Chris Eketone, could see the benefits internet connectivity would bring to the whole community.

“We had one year to get organised before the fibre was installed and so we had a community meeting to determine the needs and wants,” says Chris Eketone.

“During that meeting it was clear there were four community needs which would benefit from internet access and those were employment, education, health and the local iwi, Ngati Whare.”

A year of preparation

During that year prior to the fibre install, the Minginui community got themselves prepared.  A local farm was in the process of converting to dairying and would require workers, so the Taratahi Trust was approached to provide training in dairy farming.  The community also needed to upskill in terms of computer literacy and so computing courses were offered at the school.  One year later when the fibre was installed, the community was in a better position to leverage all the benefits internet connectivity could bring.

Chris had a long relationship working with WiFi Connect, a rural broadband provider, and asked them to come take a look at what was possible in terms of providing widespread connectivity (beyond the school) into the communities around Minginui. The cost to provide wireless internet infrastructure to three communities was $38,000.  Given the positive economic impact connectivity could bring, Chris realized there would be organisations who might be willing to invest in the infrastructure.  He approached the local iwi, Ngati Whare, who were building a plant nursery and were willing to fund the first $18,000 and then a local farm trust agreed to pay the balance.

Impressive transformation

Six years on and the transformation has been vast.

“When we started this journey, we had 97% unemployment and it had been that way for 30 years since the forestry industry here had closed down,” says Chris.

“Now we are at 98% employment with our people employed in the plant nursery, as healthcare workers, on the dairy farm and in carrying out installations of the internet infrastructure.  We have also resurrected a fire service with 16 trained volunteers from the community.”

Chris also notes that high levels of unemployment brings a reliance on government but can also bring issues with drugs and gangs. With a community supporting the kaupapa of this connectivity project, however, it has become clear that it is possible to fully overhaul a community if you have a shared vision driving actions.

Te Aka Toitū champions internet in homes

Championing the positive impact that can come from internet connectivity also lies at the heart of the work carried out by Te Aka Toitū, a trust set up by six School Principals in the Eastern Bay of Plenty in 2016.  Te Aka Toitū’s mission is to provide easy community access to the excess bandwidth available in the fibre which the Ministry of Education had brought into schools in the area.

“The government already has fast broadband fibre coming into school communities and it was clear that not all of it was required for the school’s purposes.  The founders of Te Aka Toitū wanted to leverage off that free fibre to connect to the surrounding homes so that the whole community could benefit from connectivity to other services and to each other,” says Lesley Immink, Chair of the Te Aka Toitū Trust.

In order to utilize the free fibre, infrastructure was required in the form of towers and satellite dishes on the homes, referred to Commercial Premise Equipment (CPE), as well as via Chromebooks for the families to use at school and at home.  Funding was secured for the main infrastructure and the Te Aka Toitū Trust set up an equity fund and partnered with First Credit Union for loans to cover the purchase of the Chromebooks with the family paying it back at $5 per month.

Initially, there had been concerns that the Chromebooks would get stolen or broken but the Trust’s experience over the last six years has shown the opposite.

“We have found the families really look after the Chromebooks as they are vital for connectivity and education.  The biggest risk is in pets chewing the cords – not in the Chromebooks getting broken or lost!” says Lesley.

“Furthermore, in six years, we have only had one default on the loan due to a significant change in that particular family’s circumstances, so the fears that our equity fund would diminish were unfounded.”

Connected communities are healthy communities

As noted in Minginui, access to the internet via the school’s fibre goes beyond just improving access to education for the tamariki. Connectivity using internet-based messaging has been instrumental for communities to check in on each other after natural disasters and weather events. In addition, the internet is also used for healthcare services and virtual doctor’s appointments – a huge benefit for isolated communities who may need to travel long distances to the nearest medical centre.

“I always pull up policymakers with a request to not put our communities in the “rural box”. Rural areas have retail and other services but the communities we are trying to support are fully isolated without even a shop and a long drive on metal roads to get to any health services,” says Chris.

With the introduction of reliable internet, the medical centre in Murupara can now hold telehealth doctor’s consultations with a nurse at the local end to check vital signs such as blood pressure and temperature.  The doctor involved services four isolated communities in this fashion – an option that only exists as a result of high-speed internet connectivity being brought into these areas.

Looking towards greater connectivity

“After seven years, you look back and go “wow”, says Chris.

“But to be honest, we don’t have too much time to spend in the “wow” as we need to continue to build capability for our people.”

The community of Minginui now has five people going through specialist training to learn how to manage the wireless network themselves so that the community can become even more self-sufficient when it comes to their internet connectivity.

For Te Aka Toitū, while the organisation celebrates their successes to this point in getting WiFi access into homes across the district including Kawerau, the focus now is to lobby for even better connectivity for people living in isolated communities.

“In 2022 and after two Covid-19 lockdowns, we think the Ministry of Education should be providing every child with a device and every family with access to free or affordable WiFi,” says Lesley.

“The value of connectivity to remote and isolated communities cannot be understated. A trust like ours shouldn’t even need to exist as the government should provide Universal Basic Internet (UBI) to bridge the digital inequity gap and raise the productivity and social outcomes for communities.”

To find out more about the work carried out by the Te Aka Toitū trust, visit