Wifi Connect – A WISP Profile by Ernie Newman
Few businesses choose to service a disparate range of small, far-flung markets such as Wairoa, Tolaga Bay, Haast, Minginui and Murupara. But then, WiFi Connect is not a conventional business.
Along with sister WISPs Toko Net and Wairoa Wireless, supported by wholesaler Gisborne.net, and motivated by a passion for getting under-privileged kids aboard the digital era, founder Ivan Lomax relishes the tough challenge of bringing the most remote corners of the country online.
Its not easy. Most WISPs focus on a natural region that they can easily service – usually with all customers within an hour or two’s drive of the base.
Born in the education sector, and specialising in low income communities, WiFi Connect’s background is steeped in low decile schools and a desire to give their deprived rural kids a digitally-based education comparable with their city peers.
Ivan Lomax was Principal of Te Puia Springs School, an isolated rural community of around 350 people 100km north of Gisborne, when chance made him an early convert to digital education. Schools up the East Cape were plagued with poor ERO reports, so the Ministry of Education partnered with local runanga, Te Runanga o Ngati Porou and called in the 2020 Trust to see whether its Computers in Homes programme could help.
Ivan’s home area of Tokomaru Bay got involved – the community wanted decent broadband so they could use the gifted computers. Seed money was contributed by the 2020 Trust, and WISP Gisborne.net provided connectivity.
Soon after, the community trust that had been established to manage the Tokomaru Bay project collapsed. “I ended up facing 12 Toko customers to whom I’d promised Internet access,” Ivan recalls. So he took them on and quickly expanded to 60 customers. Now Tokomaru Bay has a stand alone, low cost WISP with 300 customers wholesaling services from Gisborne.net.
The Wairoa Story
At the same time 200km south in Wairoa, colleague Leon Syme was walking a similar path.
“I’ve been a school technician since university,” Leon recalls. “I got a Masters in Business Administration, undergraduate degree in Arts, and spent a year in Japan.
“Then I taught myself about computers, starting on a Commodore 64. I became a technician and learning facilitator for several local schools. Ronald Brice (of Gisborne.net) had just established a couple of towers in Wairoa, and I became his man at the southern end of the network. So about 2008, working with Ivan, Ronald, and Laurence Zwimpfer of the 2020 Trust, we started out – then got funding from a remote schools broadband fund under Gisborne.net’s name to expand the network even more.”
Fast forward to 2019. Wairoa Wireless in its own right is still small, but the combination of a friendly commercial relationship with Ivan and Ronald, and a day job as school technician, keep Leon fully occupied. Customers are mostly farmers and businesses. A few are way out at the back on the edge of Te Urewera country. Others are halfway down state highway 2 towards Napier, and in remote Putere south of Lake Waikaremoana. The Maungataniwha Forest kiwi restoration project, on a series of ridges between the Te Urewera National Park and the Whirinaki Conservation Forest, is a customer of Wairoa.net. Little chance of fibre there any time soon!
Leon describes Wairoa.net as a hobby that hangs off the “serious businesses” of WiFi Connect and Gisborne.net. “Ivan’s the figurehead – I’m the visionary who does the work,” he quips.
The Minginui Story
With WiFi Connect and Wairoa.net well established, a call came from Chris Eketone who Ivan and Ronald had worked with many years earlier on the “Tuhoe on Line” project. “Tuhoe want to know you as a person before doing business,” says Ivan. That led to a project in the township of Minginui, midway between Murupara and Ruatahuna, then famous for endemic multi-generational unemployment, damp homes, and real poverty.
The local school Te Kura o Te Whaiti-nui-a-Toi, was an early recipient of Fibre to the School. So supported by the school’s Board, the group arranged to build 3 towers to connect the remote valleys where the student lived. The broadband is not free to households, but there is a low cost service with high data allowances. Students now access broadband Internet 24/7 like their Auckland peers.
But the impact goes far wider than just online learning and homework. After decades with zero employment growth, a serious number of jobs has been created as a direct result of connectivity – 80 at a native plant nursery, and eight at a dairy farm among them.
The school curriculum has also developed with programmes around local fauna and the natural environment.
Chris Eketone recently told the Education Gazette “Like us, with the right support and determination the world is your oyster – its transforming our childrens’ learning opportunities and the benefits are spreading across the community.”
Haast, and the West Coast
While the Computers in Homes programme was at its peak, it had the West Coast REAP (Rural Enterprise Assistance Project) as a strong partner. Discussions among a range of parties, including WiFi Connect, resulted in building a 45km, 5 tower network. It ran from Fox Glacier south to Bruce Bay, linked to an existing WiFi Connect presence in Hokitika, enabling locals to migrate off satellite and use the Internet much more affordably. It was a very collaborative project – WiFi Connect provided travel, intellectual property and time, the Te Runanga o Ngati Makaawhio provided marae accommodation and helicopter support, and InternetNZ provided funding.
That led to a successful major bid to build the RBI2 (Rural Broadband Initiative) project in South Westland, a project that will keep Ivan and team very busy the next two years.
That’s not all. There are Wifi Connect services in Ruatoki, Murupara, Kawerau, Te Urewera and other places at various stages of development.
The Man in the Centre of This
Its an idyllic mid summer morning when I meet Ivan Lomax by the iconic Tolaga Bay wharf to see WiFi Connect’s heartland for myself. Mount Titirangi – one of a confusing number of similarly-named places – dominates the landscape just to the south. It looks alluring as a site for a WISP tower and it proves to be just that as we drive the near vertical slope in a trusty 4wd. There’s no room for error – a slight mis-judgement would have us back at the highway in a nanosecond – but a magnificent view of Cooks Cove where Cook moored in 1769 is a welcome distraction from the precipitous slope.
The summit of Titirangi is home to an impressive array of wireless sites with antennas that reflect the distances to the next hilltop in the chain. But unlike most WISPs who can go to their highest site and see most of their coverage area, only a tiny fraction of the far flung WiFi Connect network is visible from here.
“Is fragmentation an issue,” I ask Ivan.
“Not at all. The good thing is we only go where we are asked to go. So we already have key people on the ground. We get sub-contractors locally. We hire keen people who were unemployed,” he says.
“Our core clientele is low-income – but we need some high-income customers to pay the bills. The logistics are challenging – in some places there is not even a courier service.
“We’re not into flashy marketing – it will happen but we’re not quite ready. And we’re lucky that both Leon and I have other income streams so we can afford to do this.
The scattered but needy customer base WiFi Connect services must count itself lucky too. The lives of many needy young New Zealanders are being transformed by the extraordinary work of WiFi Connect to close the digital divide, drawing on the willingness of visionaries in isolated communities to help themselves.
An unconventional business indeed!