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Photo: Shanti Mathias, additional design: Archi Banal
Photo: Shanti Mathias, additional design: Archi Banal

InternetJune 10, 2022

Connecting the Chathams

Photo: Shanti Mathias, additional design: Archi Banal
Photo: Shanti Mathias, additional design: Archi Banal

After decades with only rudimentary internet, Chatham Islanders now have high-speed access and 4G cellphone services. For IRL, Shanti Mathias travelled to the remote location to discover how new connections are shaping everyday life. 

Kerry Rodgers is having a bad day. “I think there’s a virus in my laptop,” he grumbles to Celine Gregory-Hunt, proprietor of the River Onion Gallery, one of the few places in the Chatham Islands where you can buy coffee.

“He says all sorts of things about his laptop,” says Gregory-Hunt to me, passing a mug to Rodgers. “Lots of the words he uses for it he isn’t allowed to say in public.” But Rodgers’ screen anxieties are particularly prominent now. In December 2021 the Chatham Islands got cell phone towers and 4G for the first time. With eight times the previous internet capacity, islanders are getting used to messaging each other, not calling landlines, entertaining their children with YouTube, and remembering to bring their cellphones everywhere – habits already firmly established on the well-connected mainland.

Since the installation of looming satellite dishes across the island, it’s become easier for Hannah Noble’s kids to talk to their Canterbury-based grandmother, for Keri Day to order products from the mainland, and for school principal Philip Graydon to ask Siri when his students posit the unanswerable. In these mundane – albeit convenient – interactions with the internet, the islands are catching up to much of the rest of the world, where constant digital connection has become the norm over the last decade. But beyond the impressive technical feat of getting internet infrastructure to the Chathams, both the awkwardness and utility of connection here is a reminder of how the digital world has reshaped the real one – and the implications that has for the billions who remain unconnected.

Fishing boats decorate the water outside Waitangi, the biggest town in the Chatham Islands. (Photo: Celine Gregory-Hunt)

For many people in New Zealand, the Chatham Islands are just the end of the weather forecast, a vague dot somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Eight hundred kilometres east of Christchurch, the Chathams have a long history; they are known as Rēkohu to the indigenous Moriori people, the only inhabitants of the islands for hundreds of years. Europeans arrived in the late 18th century, and the islands became part of New Zealand in 1841. Often misty, the waters busy with crayfish and glossy blue cod, the Chathams are home to several species of endangered birds, many 4WDs, and 663 people at the 2018 census. As easy as it is to idealise the Chathams as remote and untroubled, for the people who live there, this is just home: far away from any other landmass, but ordinary in the rhythms of seasons and tourists and school years.

According to Kerry Rodgers, suddenly ubiquitous connection on the islands isn’t a good thing. “We’ve lost our community,” he says, looking weary in olive green fleece as he sips his tea. “It started with TV, videos – people stopped visiting each other. Now they sit at the coffee table and text.” Rodgers, a farmer in his seventies, moved to the island years ago, because he liked the isolation. In that isolation, close community can be forged, which Rodgers sees as distinguishing the Chathams from New Zealand. “If you want the islands to be like New Zealand with this fancy computer crap, then you should pack your fucking bags and leave,” he says. Rodger’s concern is that enthusiastic adoption of the internet by most has left some islanders behind.

That community news is now found on a Facebook page and not a printed newsletter, for instance, makes accessing social life on the island much harder for people like him who are uncomfortable with the platform. Banking, too, is difficult: the lone bank on the island is open only on Tuesdays. Rodgers hates having to rely on other people’s honesty as they help him pay bills online.

As chair of the Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri, Gail Amaru is deeply aware of how digital connection affects islanders. (Photo: Celine Gregory-Hunt)

To others, though, the islands retain a close-knit community, and the internet is merely a useful tool, not a societal disruptor. Gail Amaru is intimately connected to the two thirds of the island who identify as Māori as the “chief tea towel holder” – better known as CEO – of Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri, the Māori iwi who claimed mana whenua over the islands they call Wharekauri in 1835. In her small office in the tiny town of Te One, Amaru shows me how her internet speed has increased nearly tenfold; she can run Zoom calls for far-flung iwi members with barely a hitch. Yes, she says, the internet is vital for her work, but when it comes to communicating “the more favoured approach is still a cuppa around the kitchen table”.

Connection is transformative, however, when it comes to communicating with people off the island, connecting the dots with the rest of the world. Hannah Noble, who moved to the islands two and a half years ago, didn’t realise what internet connection in the Chathams would be like. She’d promised her mainland-based mother, who has a cochlear implant and relies on lipreading, that it would still be possible to video call the grandkids after they moved to the islands. Instead, they endured months of clumsy, frustrating landline calls – until the internet upgrade last year. “It’s been so life changing,” she says.

That communication off-island is particularly vital for parents, given that all high school-age kids have to go to boarding schools off-island. “Anything that makes it easier to communicate is great, being able to call [my kids] and just catch up is huge,” says Katrina Graydon, whose five older children live on the mainland. Even grouchy Rodgers says he appreciates video calls with his children living in Australia and the UK. When you live on the Chathams, and people you love don’t, the distance between the islands and everywhere else is omnipresent, but fast internet can ease the separation.

A vast lagoon and remote, uninhabited land make establishing connection across the Chathams particularly difficult. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Just how far away are the Chatham Islands? Start by picturing the ocean. Picture the drive between Auckland and Wellington except it all is ocean. Picture Tirau, submerged, picture Palmerston North salty, picture Fielding among the tide. More ocean than that. Ocean from Invercargill to Picton. Ocean from Cape Reinga to New Plymouth.

How do you bridge this distance? Eight hundred kilometres of ocean takes days to cross on a boat burdened by groceries, timber, and new trucks. Eight hundred kilometres of ocean takes two hours to cross in the humming body of a small plane, propellers whirring above acres of cloud. Eight hundred kilometres of ocean takes seconds to cross on a cell phone, even circuitously. To make a call, your voice becomes a radio signal travelling up to a satellite, back down to land, connecting to the exchange in Wellington. To hear a reply from the other side of the ocean, someone else’s voice goes back up again to the satellite and down to the island, like a small cursor nestled at the end of the long drenched finger of the Chatham Rise. Press the cellphone against your cheek, the glass greasy, and your loved one’s distant words rest against you like ruffled black swans rest against the dark water of Te Whanga Lagoon.

But this immediacy comes at a cost.

Caitlin Metz, head of communications at the Rural Connectivity Group, has spent a lot of time negotiating the distance to the Chathams. To install the satellite system that enables connection on the islands, she and her team have travelled back and forth repeatedly, building relationships with the people who live on the islands. The $11.5 million that it’s cost to set up what islanders call “the new internet” has been carefully budgeted for, part of a grant from Crown Infrastructure Partners – in collaboration with Spark, 2 Degrees, and Vodafone – to install phase two of the Rural Broadband Initiative.

To Metz, getting internet to the Chathams, an effort of which she is enormously proud, is part of a bigger picture about why the internet matters to rural areas, where the RCG has installed 3G and 4G everywhere from Puketapu to Milford Sound. “Rural New Zealanders have welcomed us with open arms because they know better than anyone else how difficult it is to live without connectivity. In this day and age where everything is being pushed more and more online, they feel really vulnerable,” she says.

“It’s a big divide if you’re not part of [the internet],” the organisation’s CEO, John Proctor, agrees. After working in the Cook Islands, he feels sharply aware of how much isolated communities are shaped by their access to the rest of the world. “I love what we do, because we’re giving people a choice about how they connect,” he says.

The infrastructure that enables internet on the Chathams looks out over farms, hills and lakes. (Photo: Celine Gregory-Hunt)

But even with millions of dollars of public and private funding, making the internet available to people in remote areas is a technical feat. The RCG develops a custom solution for each location where they install connections. On the Chathams, five steel cell towers, as well as satellite dishes, had to be carried across the ocean and set up around the island. The structures look a little absurd, massive smooth discs perched above paddocks piled with craypots and dark, shallow lakes caked by tussocks.

But the important thing is that this infrastructure works. It’s all wireless: if you’re making a video call from the Chathams to mainland New Zealand for instance, your phone connects to the nearest cellphone tower, where the linked satellite dish sends the signal 36,000 kilometres into space, connecting with the EUTELSAT 172B satellite, which sends the signal to the exchange in Wellington, where the signal is then transmitted through the internet service provider, relayed through wires and cables until it connects to the other person’s phone.

On the well-connected mainland, by contrast, once the signal from your device reaches the cellphone tower or wifi router, the signal moves through the internet’s physical infrastructure: cables running on land and under the ocean, making binary pulses of electricity appear in a dynamic arrangement of pixels on a screen.

The invisibility of this infrastructure means that when it works well, nobody has to think about the internet at all. In urban Aotearoa, internet speed is rarely a factor when deciding whether to set up a Zoom call or watch YouTube. For many, anxiety about the internet centres around its omnipresence. Should children have less screentime? Will Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover result in unbridled hate speech? Is social media destroying social bonds?

But the internet looks different outside of our major cities: what counts as “reliable, high-speed internet” in the Chatham Islands, even post-upgrade, would be unfathomably slow and unpredictable to a central Aucklander with a fibre connection. Here, the questions are different: the problems rural residents face are less about having too much internet, and more about having too little.

To Chatham Islanders, for example, the details of Elon Musk’s possible Twitter takeover are immaterial. But Musk’s Starlink service, which uses low-orbit satellites to provide fast internet, is definitely of interest. When I ask islanders about Starlink, rumours echo: some denied any knowledge of the service, while others told me that the Chathams had been left out of an early Starlink trial, but the service could be available soon. (Starlink did not respond to The Spinoff’s request for comment).

In New Zealand, regardless of where you live, the internet is embedded in everyday life, now the default for filing taxes, accessing educational resources and using Manage My Health. These services are predicated on the expectation that everyone has ready access to the internet, and while this is true for the majority of New Zealanders, it is not true for everyone. For some, such as communities in South Auckland – disproportionately Māori and Pacific people – the digital divide is caused by an inability to access internet connections, with the cost of broadband or devices being prohibitive for many. A lack of digital literacy is also a barrier to access. Digital inequality is a global issue: many places around the world simply don’t have the electrical and telecommunications infrastructure that enable the internet. Compared to the nearly three billion people estimated to have no connectivity whatsoever, worrying about a crypto crash or Elon Musk seems trivial.

Sally Lanauze, the general manager at the island’s hospital in Waitangi, wants people on the islands to be able to access healthcare and internet more widely. (Photo: Celine Gregory-Hunt)

But for the most part, those who put services online have easy access to the internet, so they assume everyone else does too. This creates a tension for those who depend on older systems of phone lines and paper forms in a world where digital access is prioritised.

This contrast is clear at the island’s hospital, a long wooden building bracketed by trees and parked utes. I talk to hospital manager, nurse, and seventh generation islander Sally Lanauze, a tall woman with steely grey hair, who tells me what they use the internet for: sending x-rays, consultations with specialists, coordinating prescriptions and Covid response with the rest of the Canterbury DHB. She gestures at the hulking grey fax machine, which works through copper landline phone lines. While the fax machine is an essential back-up if digital systems don’t work, it’s now rare to find places on the mainland you can send faxes to.

Reckoning with the island’s uniquely unpredictable geographies – on the day we speak, Lanazue has had to cancel blood tests scheduled for the afternoon, as the flight that takes the samples to a Christchurch lab has been cancelled due to fog – requires resilient information systems. The new internet at the hospital isn’t as fast as they’d hoped, but  as a DHB employee, Lanauze is reluctant to complain about it.

Eventually, the Chathams will need an upgrade to their internet system. For many islanders,  the ultimate fast connection can only come from an undersea cable snaking solidly along the ocean floor. But cables are staggeringly expensive – each kilometre costs tens of thousands of dollars – and the cables themselves are vulnerable to damage from rodents and volcanoes in a way that satellite systems are not.

For now, Chatham Islanders have to work with what they’ve got, which is a satellite network that covers 65% of the islands and could be interrupted by bad weather – not full coverage, but vastly better than before. That means getting creative. “You have to be prepared,” says Jenny, a beautician who also works as a receptionist at Hotel Chatham. She moved to the island recently, and it’s important to her to be able to stay in touch with friends in Wellington. She opens her handbag and pulls out a white router, balancing it on her fingers. “I carry my modem everywhere and people laugh at me,” she says; nonetheless, wifi is much more reliable than mobile data, which makes teasing worth it.

Issues with the new internet mean that islander Jenny takes her wifi router everywhere, just in case. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

“God bless The Warehouse, they deserve a medal,” says Keri Day, who runs Waitangi Cafe on Chatham Island. It’s early afternoon, overcast grey light filtering onto the lino floor, and the cafe has just closed. Day, wearing a flowy floral shirt, is scrubbing the countertops with Barman’s Friend. Behind her, her mother – who is also a JP – is sweeping, while her 14 year old son, Wiremu, puts things away, three generations moving in an easy choreography.

For islanders like Day, the distance that makes communication from the Chathams difficult has another, more pressing effect: everything is expensive. The Chatham supply ship arrived a few days ago, and Wiremu has just picked up their mail, which includes an order from The Warehouse. Online shopping at low-cost providers like the big box store is critical for making life on the island more affordable, Day says. She gestures to the board behind her, offering fish, chips, ice cream and coffee. Prices – $15 for a burger – have just been revised in tell-tale fresh tape. “We hate doing it,” Day says, “but the cost of electricity has just gone up. We can only afford to open four days a week.”

With limited selection in the two island stores, Chatham residents find that the cost of groceries can be lowered with online ordering. (Photo: Celine Gregory-Hunt)

While the main store at Waitangi, as well as a dairy called Dough n Go, offer basic groceries, online shopping is the default on the island for non-perishable goods. The cost of shipping means that prices in the island’s stores are tremendously elevated; when I visit, a single serve packet of instant noodles costs $4, and diesel (the main fuel on the island) is more than $3 per litre. Perishable goods are even more expensive: Sally Lanauze, the general manager at the hospital, grows all her own veges out of necessity. “Did you see how much milk costs?” Lanauze asks me. I haven’t. “They don’t write it in,” she says, “but it’s $12.”

It’s not just food, either. “I’ve been told we have the most expensive electricity in the world,” says Gail Amaru; the week I visit, electricity costs $1.14 per kWh unit, nearly four times as expensive as in mainland New Zealand. “We want to embrace technology, but we want there to be a sliding scale – for vulnerable kaumatua [receiving superannuation], where’s the balance?” On icy mornings, Amaru has walked into homes where people huddle with all their layers, refusing to run the heatpump. With high food costs, many islanders rely on pāua and homekill for nourishment, but a bad season or tourists taking from the pāua beds – not to mention climate change – can also make those food sources out of reach too.

While the internet cannot solve the structural issues that elevate prices in the Chathams, online delivery from the Warehouse and major supermarkets can help make cheaper goods available. Islanders can order their groceries to be delivered to the port in Timaru or Napier, where the supply ship leaves from, paying a freight charge for each banana box stuffed with cereal and canned vegetables. Online shopping has some challenges – shopping software Shopify, for instance, doesn’t recognise Chatham addresses – but most residents are grateful that it makes getting goods from the mainland easier and cheaper.

Without public transport, Chatham’s residents depend on their private vehicles, but fuel can cost more than $3.50 a litre. (Photo: Celine Gregory-Hunt)

The internet upgrade has also made the cost of broadband in line with prices in the rest of New Zealand, removing one financial burden from islanders. Before the internet upgrade, Hannah Noble, who runs the Keto New Zealand Facebook group, had to pay $160 a month for internet whether she used wireless satellite providers Farmside or Wireless Nation – the only two choices.  She didn’t have a choice about paying: she couldn’t work without a connection. The internet upgrade means that she now pays less for better service; on top of that, access to the cell phone network means she can go camping with friends by the lagoon without worrying that she’ll miss posts on the page, or fall behind in moderating comments.

For some, having cell service is a source of daily relief. Katrina Graydon works at the museum in Waitangi, a room that is home to cut-outs of a New Zealand Geographic article about dinosaur fossils the island; the skin of a fur seal, once a major industry here; and a cabinet with relics from Te Kooti’s exile on the island.

It’s an hour’s drive over empty gravel roads to her home in Kaingaroa, a tiny fishing village in the far north of the island. Before cell service was available, Graydon would message her husband Philip as she was leaving work. “He had to know when to expect me, so that if I broke down, got a flat tire, he’d come looking for me.” Vehicle breakdowns are a common concern on the isolated island. With cellphone service – the network covers 119 kilometres of island roads – she no longer has to worry; if anything goes wrong, help is just a text message or call away. Connection on the Chathams makes life there safer.

Previously, people whose vehicles broke down could wait hours for a rescue. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

The cellphone network can also facilitate other important functions, says the Rural Connectivity Group. Metz tells me that Civil Defence has now been able to trial sending alerts to Chathams residents’ phones, a service that could be vital in the only part of New Zealand that has had a deadly tsunami.  People working on fishing boats – a key industry on the island – can more easily report their catches, as required by MPI. “If you’d like to be out of contact, I’m a big believer in this thing called the off button,” says John Proctor, when I ask him about the downsides of the internet. “But when there’s an emergency, or something comes up, it’s good that there’s the ability to be in touch.”

The Chatham Islands may be 800 kilometres away from any other landmass, but islanders are still deeply reliant on the digital worlds forged on other shores. Locals love it here, love the deep twinkling darkness of a sky without light pollution and clear silence solidified in the often-present mist. But finding a sustainable future for this remote place means changes on the islands, and the internet will be crucial.

“I’m always hopeful that we can grow our economy,” says Monique Croon, mayor of the islands. As the proprietor of the island’s only hardware store, she’s familiar with the trials of the distance from the mainland – she calls it “800 kilometres of difficulty” – herself: remembering to order products that might not come for months, having to raise prices, again and again, just to make her business viable.

What eases that difficulty? Zoom calls uninterrupted by freezing pictures and distorted audio. Internet fast enough to send big PDFs without messages getting stuck in an outbox, the ability to make phone calls wherever you are. When Croon meditates on the islands’ future, the internet is there, facilitating business and making it easier for people who move from the mainland. Infrastructure on the island is improving: if they can make more housing available, if renewable generation decreases the cost of electricity, if the new airport runway brings more tourists, and if the internet is there for it all, many possibilities beckon.

An akeake tree leans over the acres of grass and peat a farm overlooking the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Many islanders hope that better internet can make it easier for young people to live on the island.

Parents and kids I talked to across the island are enthusiastic about the potential of the internet to entertain the younger generation. Digital education is promising too, with young islanders taking advantage of the plethora of resources that teach children to code and let high school students study remotely during lockdowns. School principal Philip Graydon – father to Gretha and husband to Katrina – is particularly optimistic about the role of the internet for children on the island. I talk to him at a farm and nature reserve where he’s taken the five children of Kaingaroa School for a field trip. “I’m a Google certified educator – it just seemed important,” he says, flipping through his iPhone to show me the digital interface of the weather station installed by the school.

All the kids – who are currently running around, pestering the farmer to tell them the story of how a farm bike got stuck in a bog – have Chromebooks, and when questions he can’t answer come up in class, he asks Siri, or teaches his students to research their interests by themselves. Graydon thinks that it’s essential that children on the island are equipped for a digital age and the realities of life on the mainland.

His words seem a little at odds with our surroundings, our shoes muddy from traversing puddles (the kids have given me a very hard time for not having gumboots), a patch of restored bush behind us where the children have just met baby taiko and ranguru chicks, encountering them with equal fear (they’re bitey) and fascination.

But to Graydon, the internet can make the inevitable transition to high school on the mainland easier, as well as helping kids to know more about the place they already live. “Parents want kids to know what the mainland is like,” he says. At the same time, the specialised resources of the internet, like monitoring island weather or contacting scientists who are experts in island ecology or geology will give kids a relationship to the place they live. The internet, as well as the island community, can facilitate the confidence and consideration towards the Chathams that could determine whether these children want to live here long-term.

It’s tempting to romanticise the Chathams, these nearly empty islands nestled close to the International Date Line, a manifestation of a past where communication was much slower. But despite their remoteness, global issues of natural disasters, digital equality, economic insecurity and so much more reach the shores of the Chathams. And so does the internet. “We’re here at the edge,” says Philip Graydon, watching the children he teaches, watching light shift against the sea. It’s 2022, and edges can be connected.

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