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Worldwide Mac: getting online in New Zealand


Last year, after years of planning, my wife and I left the United States and moved to New Zealand. Moving to the other side of the world has meant adjusting to an entirely different geography and culture. Driving on the left, the "reversed" seasons, the completely unfamiliar constellations and upside-down face of the moon, and having everything expressed in metric are ever-present reminders of just how much life has changed for us since leaving the U.S.

Another thing that's changed is our internet situation, and some of the changes have been big enough that it's profoundly affected our computing habits.

In the U.S. we had a fairly decent internet connection, especially for the Cleveland market: a 5 Mbps download speed, 768 Kbps upload, all delivered over the same cable line that delivered our television service. That internet connection, plus basic cable and a DVR, cost us a little over US$100 per month.

In New Zealand, the broadband landscape is completely different, and it's forced us to completely adjust our usage patterns.

According to a recent Norton Online Living Report (links to NZ Herald) commissioned by Symantec, New Zealanders spend an average of only 12.7 hours online per week, compared to a global average of 23.6 hours. Analysts are unsure why New Zealand lags so much in internet usage compared to the rest of the developed world, but after nearly a year of sampling the best they have to offer down here, I'm not at all surprised.

For a little over NZ$100 (about US$60) a month, we have a home phone line paired with DSL (cable isn't even an option down here, and forget about fiber). Our download speed generally hovers between 750 Kbps and 1 Mbps, and upload speed is usually about 250 Kbps. The speed isn't great, but it seems decent for what we pay. About the only negative effect such low speed has on our online experience is poor streaming video performance; usually, it's not even worth trying to watch anything that streams.

Far more onerous than the low bandwidth speed, however, are the download caps. Something barely touched by ISPs in the U.S. due to the howls of derision such ideas met with from the consumer base, download caps are a very much entrenched reality in New Zealand - and the limits are not incredibly high, either. We pay for the highest download cap offered, and it still tops out at 20 GB per month. That figure counts both downloaded and uploaded data. If we go over that 20 GB limit, we have two options: shell out an additional NZ$30 for another 20 GB of data, or surf at dialup speeds until our rollover date.

As a fairly heavy internet use household, between three people our daily surfing uses up about 250 - 300 MB of data per day, depending largely on how much online video we watch and how much time my my wife or our roommate spend Skype chatting with family back in the U.S. Just from nominal daily usage, then, we're using anywhere from 35 to 45 percent of our 20 GB monthly data cap; for comparison, the next lowest pricing tier tops out at 5 GB per month, well below what would be adequate for just our daily use.

Comcast isn't looking so bad now, is it?

The remaining data capacity has to be rationed out between Apple software updates, Sony updates for my PlayStation 3, uploads to my MobileMe site, the occasional purchase from iTunes, and downloaded TV shows. With almost all entertainment sites blocking access to free video from outside the U.S., and with New Zealand TV channels being anywhere from two months to a year behind in television seasons, assuming they even show the shows we want to watch, our only (economical) way to keep current with our favorite U.S. shows is through torrents. Fortunately New Zealand ISPs don't throttle P2P traffic at all, and a recent "three strikes" initiative failed to get backing from the ISPs and died before it could be implemented. Torrenting U.S. shows is actually quite common here, even among native Kiwis, precisely because of the licensing issues that cause terrestrial TV to be so far behind the U.S. schedule.

Through careful rationing, we're usually able to time it so we hit our download cap for the month on the day before the rollover date; the ISP is usually forgiving if it's only a day or so away from rolling over, in which case they won't throttle us back. All this rationing of the internet usage was definitely an experience that took some getting used to, and considering this has been the status quo for New Zealanders for quite some time, it's not at all surprising that they use the internet far less down here.

This means many of the core experiences of using the Mac that we used to take for granted, like dead-simple software updating, purchasing or renting content from iTunes, easy uploading of pictures and video to MobileMe, and even video chatting over iChat all have an extra layer of complexity we didn't have to worry about in the U.S. Whenever the latest 500 MB OS X dot-update comes along, I have to check first and make sure we have enough space left over that month for us to download it; quite a few times I've had to delay software updates on one or both of our Macs because we were too close to hitting our cap. As for my MobileMe site, I've barely scratched the surface of my online capacity with uploaded photos and videos, not only because of the download cap but also because of the excruciatingly slow upload speeds we have here. I've given up on using iDisk for regular backups of my documents folder like I did in the U.S., because iDisk is pretty much unusably slow here. Thankfully, push services still work quite quickly, so syncing e-mail, calendar, and other data to my iPhone is largely pain-free.

Using the iPhone in New Zealand is another topic entirely, one I'll touch on in a followup post, and one that demonstrates even better how completely different New Zealand's telecommunications landscape is from that in the U.S.

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