Marae trusts have been studying digital technology as part of a $24 million plan to connect hundreds of marae around the country with broadband.
The Marae Digital Connectivity Programme to improve digital access in provincial and rural Aotearoa is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and other Crown agencies and administered by Te Puni Kōkiri.
Spark New Zealand is installing the hardware with a range of partners including wireless internet service and satellite internet providers.
Spark corporate relations partner Anaru Tuhi said about 550 marae around the country were signed up to the programme, and the 400th digital marae was connected this month.
Marae are fitted out with Wifi as well as Cel-Fi mobile signal boosters in areas of low mobile service, allowing calls and texts to be sent from marae. The installation includes security cameras to upgrade marae security and audio-visual technology to enable virtual communication. Connectivity services are provided free to the marae for five years.
Tuhi said installations began at the end of 2019 and were expected to be completed early next year.
Ōpaea Marae, just north of Taihape, has been experiencing the benefits of digital enablement.
Marae trustee Mel Maniapoto said connectivity was helping to bridge the digital divide by giving hapū Ngāti Tamakopiri and its community better access to reliable internet, quality technology and technology support services.
One of the immediate benefits had been enabling whānau who lived elsewhere to stay connected to their hapū and join hui or wānanga virtually.
"Many of our whānau don't live at home, most of our trustees don't live at home. Connecting whānau who don't live within the Taihape region - it's a way for us to connect through Zoom," Maniapoto said.
Having access to the digital world is particularly important for the community's rangatahi, Maniapoto said. The technology will enable the marae community to work with their young people to support new pathways in skills development, innovation and planning for the future.
"Succession is an important focus for us. Rangatahi are our future... but not just our future - they're here now and we want to get them involved in potential opportunities. It's a place for rangatahi - to bring them home."
The marae is also looking at business opportunities that have been enhanced by the recent digital enablement, such as hosting wānanga or conferences and collaborating virtually.
"Our marae can provide virtual connection to anywhere in the world, as well as the facilities needed for conferences such as connecting with the internet, power-point presentations and screen and document sharing."
Comprehensive training on how to use the technology is being rolled out around the country by Te Wānanga o Aotearoa as part of the initiative.
Lee Timutimu, chief executive and founder of training delivery partner Arataki Systems, said it had been a privilege to see the barriers to digital capability dissolve as marae became "inspired and activated" by the new technology.
At the most recent training session, about 25 representatives from marae in the Rangitīkei, Ruapehu, Manawatū, Horowhenua and Whanganui districts spent two and half days at Whangaehu Marae learning how to make the most of the technology.
"We're up to our sixth noho now here in Whanganui, so we have touched base with a large number of marae and marae trustees. The feedback is that the kōrero and the mātauranga shared here is very much needed.
"They get the tools and the knowledge to be able to use this really cool, high-quality technology.
"It really opens up the possibilities and opportunities for our marae in terms of connectivity to their wider hapū, whānau, hapori - and it opens up economic development potential as well."
Whangaehu Marae has been using the new technology for about seven months. Trustee Kiri Thompson said the training had shown the marae how it can use the technology to operate more efficiently. The Marae Trust and its community could now share or collaborate on plans, documents, hui minutes, pānui "and even the lawn mowing roster" more quickly, easily and widely.
Secure cloud-storage options for archiving and storing digital documents would also be invaluable.
"The whole system is just bringing us to the now," Thompson said.
"We have used it for zoom hui - zui. We've also used it for one of our tangihanga during Covid-19 restrictions, where we were limited as to the number of people who could come, and therefore we used it for the service.
"It is bringing benefits to our marae. Our kids love it, and it's definitely a way of connecting with whānau who can't get back home for certain hui."
Marae can apply for the connectivity programme through Te Puni Kōkiri until the end of June.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.