First World Country, Third World Internet

This is how I referred to the Internet access in New Zealand when I began traveling three years ago.  In fact, it was the first country on my first round-the-world trip, and one that set off my pattern of intermittent travel blogging.

A few years on, and New Zealand is still far behind the rest of the western world when it comes to cheap and plentiful Internet access.  In fact, I often compare it to the leading reigning champion of horrible Internet: Myanmar (Burma) which we’ve also covered.

Below, we’ll dive into why the Internet access is so poor in New Zealand.  We’ll go back in time to see how far they have come, see what it’s like today, and what you can expect as a traveler in the future.  Finally, we’ll cover how to get the most out of what little Internet you’ll get in New Zealand and how to find that elusive free New Zealand WiFi.



The Past (2009/2010)

Nearly three years ago, I wrote about the struggles of finding Internet access in New Zealand.  Free WiFi?  Only at the few municipal libraries, and even then, capped at slow speeds and overloaded by other travelers and locals.

The most common option available for a traveler at the time?  Pay-per-megabyte services such as Zenbu offering 10MB for $1 NZD (~$0.80).  I wrote about how I accidentally blew through $15NZD in credit when my podcasts began downloading in the background.

Hourly rates for WiFi were around the $5/hr, with cheaper rates available for longer terms (week/month).  Unfortunately, to use them over the longer term, you would have to follow the hotspots the company had put up around the country.

Mobile service (3G) was too cost prohibitive to even mention.

In a word, horrible.

 

The Present (2013)

There have been some serious strides made in the quality of service and the options available, but still doesn’t come close to what the rest of the world has to offer.

 

Free WiFi in New Zealand

The best source of free WiFi is to be had at the libraries and government facilities around the country.  From the Te Papa Museum in Wellington, to the smaller libraries in places such as Akaroa, this is the place to catch up on your online backups and to sync your Dropbox.

Telecom, a local telecommunications provider, has set up “Free Telecom WiFi Zones” in tourist areas around the country. Oddly enough, they’ve done this by outfitting payphones with WiFi antennas.

You’ll need a mobile phone number to sign up (any provider) for the service which then allows you to connect up to five devices and download up to 1GB / day for each. You can find these on their map, or just keep an eye out for a bunch of people surrounding the local phone booth.  I found the connections fairly flaky.

The odd accommodation here and there will offer free WiFi, but this is the exception rather than the rule.  In towns where one place offers free wifi, the chances are much greater that a few others will as well.

The trouble with free WiFi at the moment is that since you have to pay for internet in so many places, people tend to use all that they can while they are there.  Approximately 10% (3 of roughly 30) of the places we stayed at in the past two months offered free WiFi.

Free Wifi can also be had in some cafes & restaurants, but it really depends on the city or town that you are in.  Finding one that’s unsecured will be very tricky, so you’ll likely have to stay for a while with a drink or meal to see if it’s any good.

 

Paid WiFi in New Zealand

Services such as Global Gossip which operate in many “Backpackers” (New Zealand’s name for hostels / guesthouses) has gone from charging $5NZD / hr in 2010 to charging $5NZD (or less) per day now.  Lines are often capped at about 100Kb / sec down, but Skype calls were possible without issue.

YHA New Zealand, which is a member of this network, offered free WiFi to their members this summer.  I suspect that this will just become free after the trial finishes at the end of April 2013.

IAC offers wireless mostly through campgrounds such as the Holiday Parks throughout the country, and is much more competitive than it was three years ago.  They also have nearly unlimited access, with the 30 day plan offering up to 5TB of transfer.  Good luck getting 1% of that with the speeds you’ll be getting (we got 50Kb/sec).

IAC Wifi Prices in New Zealand
And it’s all downhill from here…
If you thought that $5 a day was a push, it only gets worse.

The aforementioned Zenbu, which somehow is still in business, continues to charge a criminal $1 for 10MB.  To put that in perspective, renting a movie on Google Play will cost you about $5.  Downloading the 2.2GB file with Zenbu will cost you another $220.  Too rich for your taste?  Watching a Youtube video will only run about $1/min. Better make that a short video of cats playing the piano.

As it is in many parts of the world, the more expensive your accommodation, the more expensive (and worse) your Internet access will be.  New Zealand is no different.  Motels and hotels we stayed at were typically worse than guesthouses.  One place charged $2 for 10 minutes, which makes the place that charges $18 for 6 hours seem like a bargain.

Manapouri WiFi Prices Mt Maunganui Internet Prices

 

The worst offender of them all goes to HQ WiFi who charges $5 for 15MB at Milford Sound.

HQ Wifi Milford Sound

 

Mobile Internet

Mobile has made huge strides in the past few years.  Telecom and Vodafone both offer prepaid plans with 500MB of data for $20/month.  Heavy users can opt for a data-only SIM from Vodafone giving you 2GB for $50.

You can read our guide about buying a SIM card in New Zealand for more information.

We’ve also been using XCOM Global mobile hotspots while on our travels here in New Zealand.  They roam on the Vodafone network, and allow up to 5 devices to connect to the MiFi device at once.  At $15/day for “unlimited” (actually about 400MB / two days), they are a good value for someone coming to the country for a week or two who doesn’t want to deal with the hassles of WiFi or unlocked phones.





Making the Most Out of the Internet in New Zealand

One huge drawback with paying for WiFi, besides the obvious paying part, is that you are typically only allowed to connect one device.  The easiest way to get around this is by using Connectify to share your Internet connection.  Connectify is available for Windows (free) and we have the complete lowdown on how to set it up.

You can make the most out of your limited bandwidth by turning off Dropbox syncing, online backups, and automated podcast downloads.  Also consider setting your computer updates to download only when you ask.

 

Why is the Internet in New Zealand So Bad?

There are a few things that are keeping the internet down in New Zealand.

New Zealand is an island in the middle of nowhere.

The arteries of the internet run through undersea cables through the world’s oceans. New Zealand, being an under populated country far from the larger continents, gets most of its Internet from Australia, who gets its Internet via Asia. Essentially, New Zealand is the end of the Internet line.
The Internet
The Internet’s Undersea World infographic

 

 

Small Companies & Lack of Competition

This is the most interesting to me. A few smaller companies seem to be holding on to the fact that the internet in New Zealand is a scarce resource, and charging exorbitant rates for usage.  These appear to be small companies working the local angle by setting up hotels, guesthouses and restaurants in the area with their customized routers.

These companies have been able to survive because of little competition, and hotel owners who don’t know any better.  The good news is that I see this changing rapidly in the next few months, and most of these companies who are gouging customers will go out of business in the next year or two.

chillifire-wifi-prices-tma interislander-wifi-prices-tma

 

The Future

The wholesale price of Internet access is far lower than it was three years ago, and we’re seeing those savings being passed along to travelers slowly.  These small companies who continue to gouge their customers instead of changing their business strategies will quickly disappear.

More free WiFi availability will make the other coffee shops / accommodations do likewise.  We have already seen this in places such as Queenstown and Picton.

Service companies are no different.  Bluebridge Ferry currently offers free WiFi, while Interislander charges a cool $7 for 40MB.

 

Conclusion

So the future is looking bright(er) for travelers to New Zealand, but for the meantime, be prepared to pay for your Internet access while keeping your patience level high and your expectations low.

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14 Responses

  1. Steven

    Great article! Well researched and written. I am originally from NZ but have been living abroad for 20 years, now in Germany, where superfast unlimited internet is ubiquitous.

    It always amazes me how bad and expensive the internet service is back home when I visit. NZ has always had a monopoly problem with fixed line and mobile services. A new entrant in the mobile space, 2 degrees, offering cheaper services and greatly improved customer service, has thrown the cat among the pigeons.

    Another contributing factor has been regulation. The authorities were for many years slow to encourage competition by unbundling the local loop. Let’s hope that some more new competitors can enter the local market and shake things up a bit.

    Reply
    • Dustin Main

      Thanks Steven.

      Just checked out Zenbu’s website, and somehow it seems like they are still in business. Who would have thought??

      I have another digital nomad friend who has spent the last couple of months there, and the country is still trailing behind the rest of the world. Let’s hope that all changes by the time Dave sets up his tiny house and mini alpaca farm there in 2016.

      Reply
      • Dave Dean

        I’m actually planning on training the alpacas to deliver my emails in printed form. It’ll be faster, cheaper and easier than relying on the local Internet connections.

  2. Chris

    Great article and analysis! Was looking for info on why the Internet sucks here, and you answered that question.

    I think your estimate of prices dropping and capacity increasing was a *little* optimistic (though not entirely). Here’s my data as of now, the beginning of November 2014 (a year and a half after this article was written):

    -AKL airport: 30min free, no data cap AFAIK
    -Spark (formerly Telecom NZ) SIM: $49 for 2GB+100min+100sms+1GB/day at payphone hotspots or $55 for 3GB (no payphone hotspot data included)
    -Poenamo Hotel, Northcote: free and unlimited; a wobbly 2mbps down and 0.3mbps up but sometimes slower
    -Castle Court Motel, Wellsford: free; 1GB; speeds decent (forgot to measure)
    -Starbucks, Sylvia Park shopping centre, Auckland: wasn’t a customer so didn’t log in, but there was a voucher paywall (odd for a Starbucks!)
    -Quality Hotel Ambassador, Hamilton: free; 500MB; 13mbps up AND down (FTTH)–too bad it’s so limited, as I was looking forward to taking care of some backups on this
    -Supposedly McDonalds have free Internet; unsure of the quality and limits, if any

    So it looks better than it was when you wrote the article, but there’s still a long way to go.

    3 weeks to go. I’ll have to use your tips of looking for wifi at libraries and government buildings…

    Quite a shock coming from South Korea, where my hotel had a 100mbps/100mbps unlimited connection (I suspect it was higher but for a 100mbps switch somewhere in the connection path)!

    Reply
      • Chris

        One more update:

        Comfort Hotel, Wellington: free and (apparently) unlimited; approximately 2-3mbps down and up but a bit variable. I gave up trying to do some work this morning when it slowed down and tethered to my phone (I was able to get a 4G signal with Spark in the room). I also just bought another 3GB of data for $49 with Spark… :O

        The real reason I stopped back by, though, was to make another observation: I realize that NZ’s a long way and subsea cables are expensive, but that really can’t be a valid excuse.

        I’m originally from Anchorage, Alaska, which is just about the same distance from Seattle as Sydney is from Auckland. We’ve got about 15% of the population in our state as NZ has (and spread out over six and a half times the area of NZ, too!), and yet we’ve got (to my knowledge) three separate subsea cables stretching the approximately 1,500 miles from the Last Frontier to the upper-left corner of the “Lower 48” US states with a total aggregate capacity of about 4.2Tbps. And while Alaskans complain about expensive and slow Internet, a reasonably decent Internet connection in Anchorage of 15Mbps down and 1.5Mbps up with 100GB of data transfer a month runs about $50 with the local cable company, and their top-tier plan (certainly sufficient for a motel/hotel of decent size) of 250Mbps down and 10Mbps up with 550GB of usage is $250/month. Even at the top end of the stable business-class connections, the company I used to work for up there had a 10Mbps/10Mbps (symmetric) G.SHDSL connection with truly unlimited data (and I’m sure we transferred at least a terabyte a month, if not more) was about $700/month.

        All that translates to plenty of free wifi at hotels and at many businesses in the larger cities of Alaska (it’s obviously more of a challenge to provide Internet to rural communities, many of whom rely on satellite connections).

        What I’m saying there is that Alaska’s in a similar situation of distance from the U.S. as NZ is from Australia, and even with a far smaller population to amortize the infrastructure over, we seem to get better prices and more free wifi availability there than you do here.

        From reading I’ve done, the wholesale cost of 1 GB of data across the Southern Cross cable is about 2 cents. So if Zenbu is charging 10 cents a MB (and they still are, according to their splash screen) or $100 per GB, that’s simply criminal.

        I think the telcos’ arguments that it’s limited/costly international capacity is mostly debunked now. I suspect it comes down to the providers in NZ just needing some competition and/or regulation to spur passing lower wholesale prices along to the local population.

  3. Brandon Share

    Hey guys,

    I just got to Wellington last week and was also surprised by the lack of free wifi at the hostel and also the data rate on most of the cell providers here but I have a few updates.

    The Global Gossip rates are $4 per day and $12 per week at the Base Backpackers and the speed doesn’t seem to be capped any more, my current speedtest.net results were 5.28 Mbps down and 2.89 Mbps up.

    Also for mobile data check out Skinny – currently $26 a month for 1GB + 300 min + unlimited texts (NZ & Aus) with a $4 sim card.

    Cheers,
    B

    Reply
  4. spike

    Hi,

    Spike here from HQWiFi

    Thanks for pointing out our WiFi prices in Milford Sound. Milford sound is serviced by a Satellite connection ($89 for 3GB 3Mbps down, 512kbps up at cost) is about 5 hours travel from our base in Queeenstown and very very hard to service, requiring a full 10 – 16 hour day to replace anything if it breaks. I personally think having internet in Milford (all be it costing such) is a pretty awesome thing.

    We have 120 sites and are slowly converting them to UFB (NZ Ultra Fast Broadband) and free where the owners of accommodation and properties are willing to pay for providing the service to their guests. Where they are not willing to pay for the expertise, service and management of the service we recover the cost of installation and operation via user pays (yes, you traveler) and share the revenue generated (that’s right, Internets costs monies and we’re a business which need monies to survive and staff who have cats who like to eat more than birds and mice)

    So despite all this our other access rates in locations which are not remote and stunningly beautiful (hope you got off the internet long enough to kayak around the sound or gaze in wonder at Mitre Peak) or serviced by satellite in remote areas that are closed off and require such long visits are

    Plan Speed Down/Up Time/Limit Price
    250 MB 8Mb / 512Kb* 7 Days $2.00
    1 GB 8Mb / 512Kb* 7 Days $5.00
    2 GB 8Mb / 512Kb* 7 Days $10.00
    5 GB 8Mb / 512Kb* 7 Days $20.00
    10 GB 8Mb / 512Kb* 7 Days $30.00
    20 GB 8Mb / 512Kb* 7 Days $40.00

    Which I think is pretty reasonable. The sites that are taking free we’re pushing them to 5GB per day with 10 devices. When running on UFB we try and dish out 20Mbps/5Mbps

    Hotels tend to have wireless contracts (5 years approx) provided by their international headoffices and can range from 30 min or 8MB free with up to $60 dollars a day for a minimal amount of data.

    Backpackers tend to put it out for free… which is ok if you sleep in backpackers.

    Anyways, Fiber is coming out fast (irony and pun intended) which is nice. Motels are moving towards free as a service. These things do need to be managed and cats need to be fed… so I guess.. on we go.

    We in the Hotspot industry and working hard with the tools we have to give the best service we can whilst feeding as many cats as possible. Happy, safe and fast travels readers 😉

    Reply
  5. wasabi

    you know, if 50,000 locals are not happy enough with the price. why not try an attempt to KICKSTART a new undersea cable connection?

    it is only a KICKSTART. it may never succeed, but it will measure the temperature of how unhappy are people generally with telcos. and that may force telcos to drop price and offer better service.

    we all know, a large portion of what we are paying for does not go to infrastructure, in todays telco operation.

    Reply
  6. Renee

    It doesnt look like much has changed since your post. The internet is still being drip fed and at exorbitant prices here in NZ. Its so disappointing that NZ has to pay such expensive prices to be connected to the rest of the world.

    Reply

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