Throughout rural New Zealand around 70,000 businesses and homes currently receive reliable, affordable broadband through Wireless Internet Service Providers, or WISPs. This number is increasing daily.
WISPs connect these users to the world at city speeds and prices. The regions and individuals benefit hugely through more efficient businesses, new technology, kids doing homework online, and full social inclusion.
Their broadband is enabled by radio spectrum allocated for this purpose. That spectrum is now under threat. There’s a real risk of the government reallocating some of the spectrum that WISPs are currently using efficiently for our rural customers, so the big mobile phone companies can use it for 5G – a next generation technology still under development. And despite all the hype, 5G might not come to rural areas for a decade. If ever.
New Zealand’s mobile phone companies are campaigning massively to hype up the potential of 5G. We see hundreds of TV advertisements and media articles promoting it – way before it is ready for market.
Why? Because the mobile companies want to persuade the government that spectrum that was previously allocated for rural WISP services, should now be handed over for their use. Yet they will use it predominantly, if not exclusively, for urban customers.
The mobile companies are big businesses and have immense resources which they are not hesitant to use. WISPs are tiny by comparison. Our interests, and those of our 70,000 mainly rural customers are at risk of being bowled over in the spectrum rush.
For sure, 5G will be a step forward – just as 2G, 3G and 4G have been in their day. But as history shows in New Zealand and globally, mobile phone companies focus on densely populated big cities. Rural areas come a very poor second. And the time from the talking up until the arrival of the technology in rural areas has always been way longer than the companies predict. Don’t expect to see fleets of 5G-connected driverless cars in Fairlie or Hawera any time soon.
WISPs have shown that they can, and do, connect rural areas rapidly, efficiently and affordably. Spectrum is critical to our continuing to operate.
We need your support to make sure we retain use of it.
Mike Smith President, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association of NZ (WISPA.NZ)
The Issue And The Trade-offs
Radio frequency allocation is a complex business. Different frequencies are used for a wide range of purposes – aeronautical and marine communications, public broadcasting, garage door openers, radio telephone systems, telecommunications, meteorology, astronomy, GPS, and your home TV remote to name a few.
The high-level decisions about what frequency is assigned for what purpose are made globally by the International Telecommunications Union of which New Zealand is a member. Equipment manufacturers and users also have a say in the umbrella global decisions.
The day to day details are the responsibility of individual countries. In our case the Minister of Communications has the final say. The detailed work is done by the Radio Spectrum Management branch of MBIE, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
There are several categories of spectrum available to WISPs – both licensed spectrum and unlicensed or “General User” spectrum which is shared with a range of users and largely self-managed under a general set of rules. The current system works very well – in connecting our base of 70,000 customers and growing, spectrum availability has seldom been a constraint.
But the prospect of significant parts of the spectrum being transferred from WISP and related users to mobile companies is a serious threat. A threat to WISPs and also to our customers.
Every radio user – cellular, WISPs or otherwise – would like more spectrum. That’s human nature and business sense. In general, more spectrum means there is less potential for interference, so engineers have greater flexibility in how the network is planned. Less spectrum requires that networks be more tightly engineered. Sometimes a shortage of spectrum limits the number of users that can be serviced from a specific tower.
For WISPs less spectrum could mean having to either incur the cost of a whole lot of additional towers to service the current customer base, or discontinue service to some customers completely.
That’s why WISPA.NZ is calling for a lot more thought and public debate before any existing spectrum is removed from WISPs and handed, or auctioned, to cellular companies. Rural Internet is at risk.
Whose Spectrum Is It?
Many stakeholders claim a degree of ownership of radio spectrum – service providers who rely on it to deliver a service, end customers who receive a service, and the government which administers the allocation and often receives payment through licence fees or auction.
In the end spectrum is like air – a community asset. Its allocation should not be determined by the bidder with the most money to command an auction process, nor with the loudest voice to talk up services that may never come to many potential users.
It’s also crucial that spectrum is assigned with the use of the community as the prime consideration. It should not be available as a speculative asset to be traded, nor as a competitive tactic to close out smaller suppliers. In the past we have seen major companies pay large sums for blocks of spectrum which they have never used – wasting spectrum in the extreme.
WISPs stand by our track record of using spectrum responsibly, intelligently, and in the interests of the communities we serve.
A specific concern for WISPs is retention of the GURL – General User Radio Licence – which is used effectively and efficiently by most of our members. We especially call on the government to make sure there is full, well-publicised consultation before any changes are made to the GURL regulations to fit a proposed 5G rollout – that is all frequencies from 0 – 300GHz
Rural users in New Zealand have become well-served with broadband compared to many similar countries. That is giving a competitive advantage to our farmers and rural businesses, reducing the “homework divide” so that rural kids can do their homework online, and removing the disadvantage of digital isolation from tens of thousands of rural homes.
WISPA’s message to the government is that this must not be put at risk. WISPs have brought rural New Zealand out of the broadband doldrums. We are connecting hundreds more customers every week. We hope and expect to continue leading rural connectivity for many years ahead.
PLEASE DON’T STOP US IN OUR TRACKS. DON’T WASTE OUR SPECTRUM.
What Can You Do?
Talk to influencers in your region – your MP, regional/district Council, farming organisation leaders and others to make sure they are aware of this issue.
Make sure this debate takes place in the open, not behind closed doors.
Check out our campaign Facebook page “Don’t Waste Our Spectrum”. Comment, share and like.
Check back here at wispa.nz for updated information and use the contact form to ask any questions.
Dawn’s barely broken as Mark Kersten drives me through the Buller Gorge. Across the river an impossibly long empty coal train rumbles northeast towards Inangahua. The scenery is wild and spectacular. There’s almost no traffic.
I count down the distance to Reefton where Mark assures me the morning’s caffeine drought will be broken. So it proves, with a couple of generous sausage rolls thrown in.
The early start was essential. Zelan, Mark’s WISP, covers a large footprint – a triangle bounded by Westport, Reefton and Greymouth with spurs to Hokitika and Karamea. It will take us most of the day to get around just some of that.
Mark Kersten was a dairy farmer on the Culverdon-Reefton Road in 2001 when he took the unlikely step into wireless communications. Typical of WISPs he first organised a connection as a way to get his farm online. Friends and neighbours got hooked in, he took on some isolated customers from a Nelson-based WISP, and he suddenly had a business. At the outset he had access only to 3 ADSL connections from Snap Internet, but the growth quickly justified way more sophisticated backhaul.
Getting access to radio sites on the West Coast has unique challenges. The population density is the lowest in the country and declining, meaning the ratio of sites required to paying customers is very high. The topography is unkind. A huge proportion of the hilltops are part of the conservation estate administered by DoC who, compared to local farmers, have often been seen as voraciously greedy and challenging landlords when it comes to allowing a tower on their land.
Mark quickly realised that to get a viable business functioning his first step was to get access to several crucial high sites. These were already occupied by the local radio station, Coast FM, and because FM radio requires mains power they already had that luxury installed.
So he bought Coast FM. Just like that.
“The station’s not profitable,” he tells me, “but the losses are manageable, and the sites are invaluable.”
As I learn this history we are approaching the Haupiri-Amuri Road, a dairy area nestled under the Southern Alps. This was once the main route for people and stock between Canterbury and the West Coast before the construction of the route through Arthurs Pass. We roll up for our 9.30am appointment with Murray and Gaye Coates, with daughter Emma, to be greeted with stunning hospitality and an incredible story about persistence in getting, losing, and re-getting connectivity.
Broadband – now you see it, now you don’t
Early on, government funding was given to the Gloriavale Christian Community through their subsidiary Haupiri Net to develop broadband that would service themselves, their businesses and the surrounding district.
Most households adopted it with enthusiasm. The Coates family were among them. They’re technology savvy and very engaged in current and future uses of technology on the farm.
But the history of connectivity in the Haupiri Valley is complex and several years later, for whatever reason, the broadband disappeared.
I’ve listened to many farmers complain about not getting broadband, but this is the first time I’ve dealt with one who has had it, embraced it fully, then had it taken away! The frustration is massive.
Worse, with the local school fibred through the Rural Schools Project the Haupiri residents were down to a decrepit landline system with a radio link incapable of use for any kind of data traffic.
The Coates’ – Gaye especially – embarked on a lengthy political campaign to restore a service that had become essential. “For a year she worked almost full time trying to get the broadband back,” Murray recalls.
They asked numerous government agencies – “is there a way we can pay to hook into the taxpayer-funded line into Gloriavale School?” Local MP Damien O’Connor and then Communications Minister Amy Adams were involved, but nobody offered a solution.
They approached Chorus with a view to sharing the cost of some infrastructure. The cost was prohibitive – $3000 a month to hook the farm infrastructure to theirs. They looked at fibre to Kopara Village with wireless the rest of the way, but the costing came out in 6 digits. Fibre over power poles was impracticable at that time.
Meanwhile the Coates’s were regularly driving an hour each way to do their basic online bookwork in the Greymouth public library.
Then the miracle occurred. With the help of MBIE official Robert Clarke they found Mark Kersten and Zelan. In a short time they had their wireless connection. The quality is excellent. They even have voice services across the Zelan network, although this is on a “best efforts” basis and the quality sometimes falls off at peak times.
So the Coates farm is now back at full speed using Internet-based on-farm systems. They’re using precision application of fertiliser, reducing wastage and environmental damage with the potential to report direct to the regional council. Their herd management system and technology in the milking shed requires them regularly to connect via Internet to Israel and Australia for support. Murray’s keen now on further automation including an Israeli application that monitors mating cow by cow and gives the farm workers a lot more leisure time in the mating season, which will require solar repeaters across the farm connecting to the Internet of Things.
Back on the road
We could have spent the rest of the day with the hospitable Coates family learning about their farm. But we retrace our steps towards Greymouth, detouring at Stillwater for a dizzying climb up an impressively asphalted road to the summit of Sewell Peak.
The site Zelan shares with Coast Radio and others is robustly engineered to withstand huge winds coming straight off the Tasman – fierce enough to strip the galvanising off the metal components. There are close to 20 dishes, one bringing the signal in from Greymouth and the rest disseminating it all over Westland. Straight below Greymouth, appears briefly through gaps in the swirling cloud.
I lean back into the gale to take photos, aware that if it suddenly stops I’m likely to do an 830 metre backflip all the way to the ocean.
Then we head back down the 5km access road towards Stillwater, turn north, and head back towards Westport via the wild and stunning coastline, including spectacular Punakaiki where a zillion tourists are admiring the pancake rocks.
Zelan has successfully tendered to install rural broadband to 380 new end users – many of them along this coast. That will about double the size of the business. Mark points out to me the places where he is contractually required to connect, and an even greater number that seem to have escaped the tender process but clearly have a need. Its going to be a challenge with homes jammed between a sheer mountain range to the east and the coastline to the west. “The best places to put sites would be on rocks out to sea but I don’t think DoC would allow that,” he jokes wryly. “I’ve had to budget a huge amount for helicopters!” But I take his point about the challenge.
As we near Westport I realise the day is not quite over. Mark has saved the most spectacular climb until last – a drive to another key site on the summit of 1040m Mount Rochfort.
The climb up the gravel road seems endless – at one point it rises 400m in 5 kilometres. But Westlanders are known to be hardy – we overtake a local policewoman on her daily run to the summit. There we find another super-sturdy tower, again complete with mains power, solid and secure battery backup, and coverage across a vast but lightly populated area.
So Zelan stands alone among WISPs. A couple of key sites so crucial that getting access involved buying a radio station. The added advantage of mains power on these. Around 50 end users on each. Everywhere else a very high ratio of repeaters to serve scattered customers making the economics challenging.
But in the end, key users like the Coates family are the winners.
Zelan has been a low-profile WISP. It was one of the last to join WISPA. But its role on the rugged Coast is critical. With a substantial RBI2 contract ahead and the credibility that gives, you’d expect it to be around as a key element of the Coast infrastructure for many years ahead.
Normally in working hours I’d say no, but this morning feels different. I’m in the middle of hearing the most fascinating WISP customer story ever; its 11.01am which feels like an omen; Chris Mayer from Kiwi WiFi seems to be sending me subliminal “just do it” signals; and here in the isolated Aniseed Valley the legendary Nelson sunshine is beating down.
Our host Timoti is a greenstone carver. He lives in a cluster of around 10 rural buildings including motor homes. The market for his carving used to be local but suddenly went global when
WISP Kiwi WiFi came along three years ago and gave him the bandwidth to establish an awesome Web site – check out http://www.timoti.nz
Going on line was a game changer, Tim tells me. Before that there was copper – way past its use-by date and no way capable of supporting a Web site.
“I’m a recluse,” Tim says – “the Internet’s great because I can deal with people without having to meet them.” Yet he seems most unlike a recluse – he’s overloaded with personality and engaging to talk to on a range of topics. He just doesn’t like going to town – he’ll make a trip to Brightwater for groceries when he must but gets out again as fast as he can. Nelson is way outside his comfort zone.
Despite being hidden away in an isolated valley few Kiwis, let alone global pounamu-seekers, have heard of, Tim has a fast growing business carving greenstone, dealing at the very top of the market and mostly making to order. Suddenly, thanks to the Web, his market is global.
Tim tells us of an Alaskan couple who looked on line and fell in love with his work. They ordered two wedding rings. Then they flew into Nelson and came to the Aniseed Valley to pick them up. Then they got married down the road.
But the benefits of city-grade connectivity in the Aniseed didn’t end with the Web site. Tim and his team cut the copper and now rely solely on Voice Over IP through Kiwi WiFi. They’ve spent up large to convert everything to Apple. a wonderful merging of an ancient indigenous skillset with the best of 21st century technology. They plan to produce a pounamu pendant for every child in state care. Several kids in the Valley are home schooled with a huge online content to their education.
It’s a huge success story embracing traditional culture, economic development, and a real future for kids who otherwise might get left behind.
But we must move on.
Reluctantly leaving the Aniseed Valley, Chris Mayer tells me about the beginnings of Kiwi WiFi. Chris started life as a fitter and welder, then went on to establish The Internet Kiosk, a successful business providing Wi-Fi hot spots in camping grounds throughout New Zealand. He found that bandwidth to a lot of places where camping grounds exist was problematic, so Chris branched into provisioning connections using WISP technology.
In 2015 Kiwi Wifi became involved with the Tasman District’s Digital Enablement Plan, the forerunner to the RBI2 programme. Seeing the opportunity to develop economic activity in the Aniseed, he leapt in and connected it. That was the start of Kiwi WiFi in the top of the South Island. One thing led to another, and he sold The Internet Kiosk to concentrate on Kiwi WiFi, recently moving from Canterbury to Nelson as part of the process.
For a business that’s already made such an impact in the Aniseed Valley, Kiwi WiFi is young by WISP standards. The current customer count is just 350 but its growing daily. Most significantly, Kiwi WiFi has a government Rural Broadband Initiative contract for at least 16 new sites to cover another 550 plus customers across numerous parts of the Nelson district down to Mount Murchison where it intersects with fellow WISP Zelan. There’s a good working relationship with Zelan’s Mark Kersten as well as neighbour Chris Roberts of Amuri.net on the Canterbury side.
Being later on the scene than most WISPs might well pay off.
Chris takes me to see four hilltop sites, starting with the Observatory Hill site practically in the suburbs of Nelson. From there we progress across a range of climbs from mildly thrilling 4 wheel driving to white knuckle. Customers on the Aniseed site include farms, an adventure centre and several sawmills as well as some residences in downtown Brightwater, but Chris explains he is much more focused on rural opportunities than urban even though urban fibre is relatively slow in coming to the region. Aniseed has already been upgraded as part of his Rural broadband Initiative funding. With many children in the Valley home schooled, reliable connectivity is crucial.
Our tour culminates at High Peak – a spectacular 1200-foot mountain with amazing views across the whole of Nelson, the Tasman district, Kaiteriteri, Mount Murchison, and Motueka
where Kiwi Wifi provides the bandwidth to a free hotspot in the main street. High Peak services 80 customers, growing fast, including Kiwi WiFi’s own new office and workshop. The summit is owned by a well-known local horse whisperer who is very happy to enjoy city grade connectivity on the rooftop of the province.
Forestry is the dominant industry. Trees present a significant challenge to any WISP, as the wireless services depend on line of sight. So the planning requires anticipation of the likely growth of trees and the cooperation of land owners sometimes to do some topping.
Heading back to base we come across another very happy Kiwi WiFi customer. Gavin Alborn’s tourist business runs 15 water taxis that carry an astonishing 125,000 passengers a year around the Tasman area, as well as a restaurant, camping ground and sea kayaks.
“We had hopeless telecommunications a couple of years ago, and we need perfect connectivity and redundancy to access our servers in Queenstown, so we approached Chris,” Gavin tells me. “Now we have an antenna on our roof pointing back to Marahau. Our business Internet is resilient and first class – and my home theatre works brilliantly!”
So Kiwi WiFi has a big future. But as Chris drives me back to Nelson Airport its Tim and his carving that made the big impression on me. How Kiwi Wifi transformed a business, a valley, and potentially a generation of kids. A great success story and an inspiration for many. I’ll keep watching them.
And I should add that the amazing Timoti very generously gave me a carved pendant – another story that you can read here.
Raglan’s unique. For generations its been the Waikato’s beach town – a summertime mecca for Waikato and Auckland beachgoers. Once it had an image problem, but today its very mainstream.
Its crowded in summer. On a Saturday you can wait in line 90 minutes for a hamburger. Its unspoilt and natural. The surf is sensational. According to “Lonely Planet” its New Zealand’s best-looking town. The population is an eclectic mix of international business people, hippies, and surfers.
On the downside, there’s not a lot of employment, certainly so in the off season. And the residents aren’t in a hurry to accelerate development with some having famously threatened to leave if KFC ever comes to town.
There isn’t much work in Raglan. Most people commute to Hamilton.
Despite all that, Raglan has fibre-grade broadband before the cities even got it. Its got Wanna Internet to thank for that.
Driving west from Wanna’s new premises in Frankton – a few metres from SH1 with oodles of room to expand – founder Jason Brand tells me how Wanna came about.
Jason spent many years overseas. He’s an electronic engineer by profession but a telecommunications guy by choice. He worked in London, South Africa and Australia. His career culminated as Group Chief Technical Architect of global financial services giant Investec.
But Jason had done his dash with big corporates and computers. Around 2011 he returned to his roots in Raglan. With nothing much to do over Christmas he set up a wireless hot spot. It actually made a small amount of money.
So Jason upgraded Wanna from a dalliance to a serious business. He organised backhaul from Snap Internet on a standard home plan and bought some access points to service a handful of customers. “It cost me a heap in data over-runs,” he confessed. Then he stumbled across Go Wireless, the doyen of and equipment supplier to Kiwi WISPs. From there it was game on.
Jason’s original goal was to WiFi-connect the whole of Raglan. He didn’t quite get there. But life moved on. The Snap bill got higher and higher as he connected multiple customers to what was essentially a single residential plan. So working with Waikato “Telco Guy” Shane Hobson he organised a professional backhaul deal through FX Networks, allowing him to sign up multiple customers in the far bigger market of Hamilton.
At that time Chorus was realising it no longer had the benefit of a monopoly. Suddenly its backhaul pricing dropped by 90%. The backhaul floodgates opened.
That made Wanna’s business model a whole lot more enticing. The company became nationwide but retained a Waikato focus. In no time they’d built a dozen wireless sites from Te Akau south to Kawhia and Whatawhata in the east.
He’s been telling me all this as we wind our way west through undulating country towards the coast. Now, we turn off the road and climb a steep farm track for 15 minutes to Wanna’s site at Mount Te Uku station, way up in the sky among the wind turbines.
As WISP sites go this is special. Its powered by both solar panels and wind turbines. Solar is king but wind kicks in for a couple of weeks each year when the sun disappears. The pristine concrete slab looks as if its been vacuumed that morning – everything is immaculate. It’s a site that’s benefited from a decade of trial and error. The concrete pad makes life easy – its safe to work on, convenient, meets the OSH goals, and avoids the cattle damaging the fence by sticking their heads through to eat the grass.
Jason claims proudly a site like this should go a decade without serious maintenance.
Every WISP’s area has individual climatic and topographical challenges. Wanna contends with wild westerly salt water gales which cause huge issues with rust. Powder coating helps resist this. They’ve seen wind turbines blown to pieces on a really bad day. It’s not just confined to WISP sites – Wanna Systems and Networks Manager Paul Willard tells me he has put special reinforced walls on the west side of his home so it won’t blow over. Issues with loose sand have seen the turbines literally blown off a site or two on bad days. Planting special grasses specific to the area helps to stabilise their equipment.
Wanna’s coverage has grown greatly over time. Today the network comprises over a dozen sites covering the coast from Te Akau (west of Taupiri) to Kawhia, and inland to the general area of Whatawhata. There’s constant expansion – a new site has just been commissioned at Aotea to strengthen the Kawhia footprint. All that’s taken Wanna’s customer count to around 1100 businesses and homes.
Back at the Frankton base I get a chance to talk more to Paul Willard. By his own description a “classic nerd” Paul spent time as Global Operations Manager for SMX email and has been in large corporates for most of his career. He’s got the tech skills as well as business credentials honed by an MBA.
“I knew nothing about WISPs when I came into this sector,” he tells me. He shifted from the corporate world into another local WISP several years ago, then moved to Wanna. “I went to the WISPA conference last week while Jason went up a hill to pour concrete for the next tower,” he quips. “That shows the way we each prefer to work.”
As for the future, who knows in such an evolving industry? Fibre to the premises is increasingly intruding into Wanna’s core territory. New settlements targeted now have small clusters of customers – maybe 20 compared to the 3500 on offer in Raglan. New wireless technologies, especially LTE (Long Term Evolution) are imminent and offer huge new efficiencies preceded by a lot of capital investment.
Jason sees local customer service as Wanna’s greatest strength. He speculates that WISPs might morph into RISPs – regional Internet Service Providers offering a selection of different access technologies of which wireless is just one, from a range of vendors, through a local interface. “Wanna is already in that transformation and preparing for the future,” he says. “They value the opportunity to talk to a real person. Our edge is customer service – but even that is under threat as artificial intelligence takes on the traditional human interface in contact centres.”
Happy Wanna Customers are easy to find
Alex Crane, Security Consultant – “Absolutely Exemplary service!”
Not many customers describe their telecommunications service as “Absolutely exemplary” but that’s the description from Wanna customer Alex Crane. Alex is a Raglan-based security consultant whose needs are quite special, including penetration testing. His 120 year-old copper line in a dead spot in Raglan was never going to meet his needs, and experiences with both Vodafone and Spark showed no interest in a customer whose needs didn’t fit their “cookie cutter” product.
“Wanna’s billing and reminder services, their automation levels and personal service, are the best customer service I’ve ever experienced from an ISP,” says Alex. It doesn’t get much better than that.
– “Some People Really Know What They’re Doing”
Across the opposite side of Wanna’s network I find another huge Wanna fan. Gordon Simmonds is the accountant at Crusader Meats on Highway 30, midway between Mangakino and Benneydale. With 170 staff Crusader is small by meat industry standards, but in Benneydale its massive.
“We had nothing here for connectivity,” Gordon tells me. “The copper was unusable – it couldn’t even do Internet banking. We’d had a go ourselves at getting a wireless connection, but it was going down most days.
“Then Jason from Wanna came into the picture. He started again with proper solar power and technology. Everything went perfectly. Soon we had enough confidence to add our voice services into the mix – which is really important in a place with no cell coverage – and to add our other sites also.”
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.
It’s in the corporate DNA of MATnet, and the blood of founders Gren Povall and Hoppie Joubert.
They’ve lived in the spectacular surroundings of the Mackenzie Basin for more than 20 years each, and breathed engineering since childhood. Almost everyone in Twizel seems to know them.
Gren has the British equivalent of the new National Diploma of Engineering in electronics and telecommunications, and is a qualified radio mechanic. Hoppie, after starting a career as a fingerprint specialist in the South African police, then qualified in Telecommunications through an adult apprenticeship. Both have supplemented their technical know-how with business management qualifications.
But its engineering that gets Gren and Hoppie of bed. You can tell that from the glint in the eye when the techie talk starts, the superbly-stocked and super-orderly workshop, and the solid technical base on which MATnet (Mackenzie Access Technologies Network) has been built.
And their home base, Twizel, has been engineering-focused since the days when the Ministry of Works built the massive Waitaki River hydro scheme which dominates the landscape.
G&H Comms – the parent company of MATnet – started in 2007. At the time Gren and Hoppie were both working locally for the giant Swiss/Swedish multinational ABB. The pair were donkey deep in electricity, installing and maintaining a range of SCADA and fibre infrastructure in power stations.
“A local fish hatchery wanted a way to monitor its pools and equipment,” Hoppie recalls. “Text was too unreliable, so they asked us about a SCADA solution to monitor the alarms over the Internet. A few years on and we had a network and the bones of a business.”
Today MATnet has about 500 users. Coverage starts near Burkes Pass in the north, runs east to Peak Valley near Benmore, west to Mount Cook Station, and south to the Lindis Pass. The topography is extraordinarily varied and the coverage map looks like a piece from an intricate jigsaw puzzle.
The Mackenzie country is no place to take shortcuts. Some of MATnet’s 27 wireless sites are subject to extreme weather, especially gale force winds. One cools to a constant minus 20 degrees in winter. Heat transfers are used during winter for de-icing. Most sites are monitored by high definition cameras. Visiting on an idyllic January afternoon, it was hard for me to believe that just 2 days earlier it had been snowing on the surrounding mountains. The MATnet team never go anywhere without winter gear. Snow, sheep damage, and wind damage are always risks so no shortcuts are taken in design. Wind gusts of 180km/h have been recorded on one site. Many sites include weather stations.
Customers are predominantly farms, but also include many accommodation places in this tourist Mecca – from luxury establishments charging up to $3000 a night, through to backpackers. But whether they pay $3000 or $30, modern day globe trotters all expect to play Netflix movies without buffering. That’s something MATnet cheerfully provides. One recent backpacker guest described its service as the fastest backpacker Internet they had discovered anywhere in the world. An AirBnB place told MATnet that after they signed up for high quality reliable Internet their occupancy rate doubled from about 35% to more than 70% – a huge return on a small investment. Yet another top end establishment scans MATnet’s live cameras before deciding whether to collect the guests by car or by plane.
Then there are salmon farms with retail outlets. Everything needs to be monitored – oxygen levels, water temperature, and processes. Security surveillance is huge. Meanwhile the shop needs EFTPOS.
That’s a lot of MATnet’s secret of success. Its connectivity business is supplemented by technical support in diverse ways through the parent company – SCADA systems, a lot of power station work including telemetry, innovative systems for the South Island rowing venue, new ways for shearers to record shearing and wool packing data in the merino industry, and security systems. When a customer wants something innovative Hoppie and Gren leap into action – that’s what drives them. “Industrial trouble shooters” is their self-description.
MATnet has never marketed itself extensively in a formal manner. It relies heavily on word of mouth. “The main driving force for demanding quality Internet is farmers’ wives,” Hoppie says. “They need connectivity so they can order tractor parts and do the banking, and their kids can do homework – these are decisions that are generally made by women.”
Gren gets excited about bringing connectivity to the country. “It’s satisfying giving country people something the city people take for granted,” he says.
Summer is an exciting time because of the district’s influx of tourists. There are numerous peak events – the Maadi Cup for rowing often crashes the cell phone networks. Then there are food and wine festivals. At Christmas the population of Twizel goes from about 1500 to 9000. MATnet doesn’t let its community down but gears up to meet the demand.
Meanwhile the business is heavily into community activities. Live camera coverage of rowing championships, a backbone for media coverage, PA services, search and rescue, and community security are all offered on a pro bono or cost recovery basis.
Is there scope for MATnet to grow? Geographically, perhaps not much other than some growth in burgeoning lifestyle blocks. But MATnet’s unique combination of skillsets and enthusiasm for telemetry and related technologies may drive innovation within the existing customer group for a long time.
Engineering innovation in the Mackenzie country certainly didn’t end when the last power station was commissioned. Look no further than MATnet for genuine, ongoing on-line entrepreneurship.
Accounting in the Backblocks
Susan (Sue) Allan runs a thriving accounting practice from the property where she was brought up – on the main highway near Burkes Pass, served by MATnet’s Mt Hay wireless site.
“No way could I work from here without reliable Internet,” she says. “For a while I struggled by with the old Farmside satellite. Farmside was great for a while but they didn’t upgrade. Over time I found I was constantly having to get in the car and drive to my parents’ place to send emails and access all the online services.”
“Then I met Hoppie and Gren. I was one of their first customers. The accounting business, the farm and our guest accommodation have all benefited.”
Being a professional accountant means there are a lot of software changes to contend with. There’s a daily download of IRD data into Sue’s system and a constant range of work in progress on the IRD site for various clients.
Sue’s son Josh is usually at boarding school in Timaru, but appreciates the high quality Internet when he comes home for holidays.
Art and Tourism – “No WiFi, no survive”
So says Julie Greig at Burkes Pass Accommodation and Gallery, another who was on “expensive and useless” satellite Internet until MATnet came along.
“We’re delighted. Its brilliant. Asian tourists use a huge amount of data and now we can provide it, >says Julie.”
In the satellite days the business couldn’t share Internet with the guests – there just wasn’t enough capacity. But now they love it and get regular reviews on the travel sites commenting favourably on the quality of the connectivity.
Retail Needs to be On Line
Claire Lawrence at Mackenzie Country Building Supplies “had a gutsful” when a big national phone company put new equipment in, “destroyed” her Internet, and showed no interest in her predicament with her business being taken off line. “They just wouldn’t talk to me,” she laments. We couldn’t do banking or anything – it was a networking issue. Big corporate arrogance.
But a few hours after talking to MATnet her store was on line again.
“Everything has worked perfectly since then – MATnet fixed my problem even though it wasn’t theirs,” says Claire. “The service is magnificent – if we have trouble I know they’ll be there.”
That’s how Wireless Nation Founder and CTO Tom Linn was described recently by the National Business Review. As I sit down with him for lunch in a Takapuna restaurant I have to agree that sums him up to perfection. He’s charismatic and personable, with a gentle but firm style.
It was in 2002 that Tom realised that he was never going to get a university education in his native Myanmar due to the military dictatorship having closed down the colleges. So having looked around for a country with a reputation for freedom, Tom chose New Zealand. Fast forward a few years and armed with a Masters in Engineering from Auckland university, specialising in Artificial Neuron Network, Tom started Wireless Nation.
There were two drivers. First, his frustration in not being able to get naked broadband (internet without also paying for a landline phone) in his Auckland apartment. “Telecom ruled the country in those days,” he says. Second, a friend farming in the Waikato could not get any broadband at all, leading Tom to realise that for many parts of rural New Zealand high quality satellite was a highly viable option.
So at the Waikato Home and Garden Show in 2006, Tom launched satellite broadband with the support of business partners and investors in Hamilton.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from day one. Gamers quickly made it known that latency was unacceptable in their world which ruled out satellite, so reselling Kordia Extend fixed wireless product was introduced as a successful alternative. But with that issue solved, Wireless Nation expanded quickly across rural New Zealand from a Waikato stronghold. The company later introduced 3G and 4G fixed wireless nationwide through the government-funded Vodafone RBI-1 network.
Meanwhile the apartment sector became the second market for the business. The company worked with apartment block Body Corporates to bring “fibre to the basement” years before the government introduced its Ultra Fast Broadband. Most owners were very keen. However, there’s always an exception – even today there is a minority of apartment complexes where fibre has been rejected for aesthetic reasons, mostly in top-end, student accommodation or heritage properties.
More recently, motor homes have entered the picture. The NZ Motor Homes Association has a whopping 80,000 plus members, many of whom spend most of the year living in their vehicles for a few weeks at each location and then moving on. Broadband can be a challenge – campers want to stream Netflix as much as anyone but existing service plans didn’t contemplate the possibility that users would be forever moving to a different town or rural site. So Wireless Nation became the Association’s official provider and offering an affordable wireless broadband service to thousands of happy campers .
Motor home people often cluster together for rallies or get-together events which can raise challenges with short term periods of heavy demand. Wireless Nation stays ahead by foreseeing these events and in conjunction with Vodafone, establishing extra capacity ahead of time. “When we can’t do this we tell the customers up front,” Tom says. “Our industry so often doesn’t communicate well with end users – we do – we are getting better at communicating than a lot of players and we find customers are very forgiving about capacity issues if they know ahead.” Motor home owners, he says, are great customers – they pay regularly, use the service responsibly, and generally don’t have lots of kids hogging the network during the evening peak.”
But it was the isolated Chathams that captured the interest of many WISPs when Wireless Nation got involved around 2013. With no undersea cable and little prospect of one, the best solution was satellite backhaul and a WISP last mile service. And it was there that I travelled to see the difference Wireless Nation is making.
Its my first trip to the Chathams. The 1950s Air Chathams Convair flight out of Wellington is pretty much full. About half the passengers appear to be locals returning. The rest are obviously visiting, mainly in relation to provision of infrastructure – IT people, engineers, DoC rangers, other government officials, and me.
Driving from the airport gives a first impression of the landscape. Flat, lots of scrub and tussock, few trees, unsealed but well-maintained roads, sparse habitation. The declining population, sinking through 600 on Chatham Island and 40 on Pitt, is a serious issue. In earlier times when kids reached secondary school age parents sent them to boarding schools In Christchurch, but these days they move the whole family across to the mainland. They don’t return.
Armed with a rental car (expensive, over 200,000 km on the clock but running well) I go exploring. This feels like a friendly community. Drivers wave cheerfully when you pass. Nobody seems to be in a rush. (One exception – I’m on a dirt road doing 85km/h and am overtaken by a maniac on a quad bike who a few minutes later skids to a halt, does a 180 turn, and charges back towards me before swerving off into a paddock!)
My Android phone is getting an unaccustomed 2 day rest – there’s zero cellular coverage in the Chathams. Those lucky enough to be on 2degrees can get voice over WiFi when they’re in range of a WiFi connection, but there is nothing for Spark nor Vodafone customers. The government has funded the Rural Connectivity Group to build some towers in the medium term future, but the backhaul will still be satellite.
The Internet is another matter. Since Wireless Nation “adopted” the Chathams many businesses have Internet almost at city standards, the speeds constrained only by the satellite backhaul. However, in my room at the popular Hotel Chathams I’m on Farmside satellite Internet. Speeds on some occasions are adequate, but then without warning go into freefall.
Hopefully as Wireless Nation roll out more extensively that will change.
The Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust
“Here on the Islands we’re 45 minutes ahead of the rest of New Zealand in time, but 20 years behind in connectivity,” says Iain Torrance, CEO of the Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust.
Sitting with Iain – a telecommunications veteran with history in the UK, internationally and TelstraClear in New Zealand – I get to understand the challenges, priorities and solutions surrounding development of the Chathams. We’re in his unpretentious office a few minutes out of Waitangi.
The Trust is one of four organisations working on development, he tells me. Central government formed it in 1991 after the Council went broke. Owned by all Chathams residents, the Trust is a public benefit entity that controls the airport, the new $50 million Waitangi wharf, electricity supply, fuel, some fishing quota that it leases out, and the shipping service. Beyond those overtly commercial interests its mandate is to work for the social and economic benefit of the Chathams. Ever since an initial government grant at the time of formation it has been self-funded.
The other three economic development stakeholders are the Chatham Islands Council, the Moriori iwi Hokotehi, and the Maori iwi Ngati Mutunga.
When it comes to the development priorities, the four agencies are in general agreement. Top priority is the airport – that seems to be on track with a 500m extension of the runway needed to accommodate Class 4 jets including the B737. Air Chathams have bought a B737 simulator from Air New Zealand ready for the phase out of the aged Convairs which have serious limited ability to support a thriving trade in live crays and other fish to Asia.
Second priority is renewable energy to replace the current diesel generators on which the electricity supply depends.
Third priority is 21st century telecommunications – Internet and cellular. Within the Islands the current copper network is way past its end of life, expensive to run, and far short of the needs of the Islands today. And connectivity between the mainland and the Islands is satellite only – way short of 21st century needs. I’m left wondering why, while New Zealand is investing $22.2 million to connect Tokelau’s atolls to the world with undersea fibre optic cables, our own Chathams are left with 20th century satellite with no improvement in sight.
Yet Iain Torrance concedes that its hard to justify an undersea cable for a community while it has a declining population.
Torrance pulls no punches about the state of connectivity. “We can’t use SaaS. The copper is aging. Everything is satellite which is expensive, atmosphere-sensitive and unreliable. Voice and Internet calls drop all the time. Most Islanders can’t access TeamTalk. Farmside is now part of Vodafone and isn’t compelled to accept new customers. The emergency services have very slow log-in times. The Ministry of Primary Industries will have issues with fishermen struggling to comply with reporting catches within the required time because of unreliable or non-existent connectivity. Some high-end farmstays and other tourist ventures turn off the Internet for guests because it’s too expensive. That’s why telecommunications connectivity is very much on the list.”
Quite an indictment.
“We need to stop talking about the technology and talk about outcomes,” he urges. “We need to get across that our people want to work, access information, be able to use Facebook, and do school homework on the Internet, like mainland New Zealand. Safety is a big factor too – the ability for workers on isolated sites to be in contact when they’re out on a job. Fundamentally it’s about the social and economic benefit to our remote community. Its quality of life.
“Within the Trust we’ve had a silo mentality when it comes to technology. There’s a server here that our electricity company can’t access. So we’ve brought in a consultancy to spec our IT needs and consolidate them.
He’s also hoping the islands will get a 4G mobile network in the next few years as part of RB2. “We’ve worked with MBIE and CIP in the past year and the announcement before Christmas of $6.3m investment in ‘the Islands’ to address mobile black spots and accelerate RB2 gives us a cautious optimism but it’s still an unknown as to what it may bring our community and when.”
Meanwhile Wireless Nation is filling a vital need. There’s a three-year window for Wireless Nation to consolidate and establish themselves as the preferred supplier, he says.
Key users on the Chathams underline the crucial importance of telecommunications. Rana Solomon heads the emergency management operation for the Chathams Council. She works a lot from home, monitoring a stream of tsunami or earthquake warnings and other alerts from GNS or NIWA that could pose a threat to the low-lying Islands. When the Council team are in isolated areas or off the Islands they need to be accessible remotely.
“In most places civil defence have teams rostered on to monitor alerts 24/7, but on the Chathams there’s just me.”
Luckily now she has Wireless Nation at home on an unlimited plan, but the big challenge is how to notify the Islands population if a big one is coming.
“We can’t rely on the basic phone system,” she explains, “because its only capable of handling 15 or 20 conversations at a time. So we rely heavily on Facebook – in an emergency, or the threat of one, we can easily have 10,000 people looking at our page. So I carry a mobile and use it to access people’s home WiFi systems when I’m passing a home or business. I don’t use it lightly because some people’s plans are very data-constrained.
The importance of telecommunications is also the focus in the health centre. Sally Lenauze manages the Chathams hospital. At first glance it looks like a typical rural health clinic until you realise the nearest specialist is many hours away. It falls within the Canterbury District Health Board
“We’re incredibly lucky to have telehealth services from Canterbury,” Sally tells me. “We use it about 6 times a month for a mix of patient consultations, follow up appointments with specialists, mental health consults, dental advice, shoulder reconstructions and clinical education. The drawback is that when we switch on the video it takes most of the Island’s telecommunications capacity so we have to be considerate. But when we use it, the value is huge.”
Down the road, Monique Hagedoorn is a recent arrival. As the first SPCA person on the Island she works with South Island inspectors dealing with animal welfare. She’s also a qualified veterinary nurse and practices as a volunteer in her spare time.
“I’ve got a 2degrees phone provided by MPI,” she tells me. “Luckily 2degrees allows voice calls across WiFi, though I have to be within a few metres of the office. But the broadband is awful – Skype is unsatisfactory and often goes down. And no way will the home TV get Netflix.
“So much of life today is Internet-dependent. I really want to stay in touch with my family in the Netherlands but its very hard. And there’s a safety issue where there’s no connectivity too.”
Over a beer at the Henga resort Jason Somerville, Commercial Solutions Manager for Wireless Nation, is optimistic about changes to come. “The lodge here at Henga now has unlimited broadband which will be great for guests,” he says. “Before now many tourist places didn’t offer Internet to guests because of the cost. There are lots of businesses waiting for affordable, unlimited Internet – at last we are bringing it here. The biggest hurdle is often the setup cost but its surmountable for most. And Jason should know – his current visit includes providing public WiFi at the airport among other jobs.
Jason’s a huge fan for his company. He enthuses about modern satellite. There’s almost literally nowhere, in any part of New Zealand, that the company can’t connect. He quotes town centres in the Waikato, a marina in Wellington and education applications as recent examples. “Otorohanga is a great example,” he says. Free community WiFi in the town centre is a reason for tour buses to stop. It enables CCTV in the town centre to reduce crime.
It’s the sheer diversity of markets that makes Wireless Nation a successful company. How big is it? Tom Linn wont quote the customer count – but he does let slip that the business is about to become liable for the Government’s Telecommunications Development Levy, which has a threshold of $10 million turnover. That’s certainly not small.
Tom is not about slowing down. He’s brought well-respected William H. Smale QSM, known as Bill, of Smales Farm Technology Park fame in as managing director. He’s spoken publicly of turning Wireless Nation into a multi national. Back in Myanmar he comes from a highly entrepreneurial family.
Finishing the coffee after an excellent lunch in Takapuna I have no doubt he will succeed. Tom has a very strong business ethic – “to me its not just about making money; its about pursuing our passion without limits.” He runs a happy and motivated team and encourages location-independent working. He’s a natural deal-maker, has a gentle footprint on the planet and comes across as a genuinely nice guy.
Rural New Zealand is fast approaching a milestone where almost every farmhouse and rural residence can access city grade broadband at city prices.
That’s the view of WISPA.NZ – the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association – following today’s government announcement of significant additional broadband funding.
“That’s an extraordinary achievement for a country with our geography and challenging rural landscape,” says WISPA.NZ spokesman Ernie Newman. “Today’s announcement of another significant government investment in WISPs is a further step to close the gap.
“Fifteen years ago New Zealand’s telecommunications industry was the least competitive in the developed world alongside Mexico. Today its one of the most competitive. Our broadband coverage especially is way better than Australia’s.
“WISPs, or Wireless Internet Service Providers, have been a key part of the solution. About 30 of them supply broadband services over digital mobile radio, bouncing Internet signals from one hilltop to the next using thousands of radio sites around rural New Zealand. They are regional companies, mostly owner operated, with a strong commitment to customer service which sets them apart from the mainstream urban telcos. They represent private innovation and entrepreneurship at its best.
“WISPs are very skilled at fast deployment. Since they first became part of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative last year they have built many hundreds of new wireless sites in some of the most isolated parts of the country – vastly faster than the mainstream national phone companies.
“WISPs are looking forward to the challenge of completing the job for the benefit of rural communities economically, socially and educationally. “
CONTACT FOR COMMENT: Ernie Newman, 0223764363, firstname.lastname@example.org
When WISPA.NZ invited Inspire Net founder James Watts to open our 2018 midyear meeting in Palmerston North almost 100% of our members, from the far north to the deepest south, came along. That shows just how much James and Inspire are legends – not just among WISPs but across the whole telecommunications industry.
Twenty years ago as a young Manawatu electrician with passion for the Internet and extraordinary foresight, James started Inspire Net to provide dial-up access to the Internet at a price people were willing to pay, rather than the $8.50 per hour or $279 for 100 hours per month that people were having to pay. Inspire launched 100 hours of dial up for $35/28days.
Computers were always second nature for James. At age 8 he soldered together some components to make his first simple computer. So after he started work as a sparkie, whenever there was a job working on process control machinery or with an IT component James was assigned.
Around 2000, Inspire Net was booming. The Initial business plan forecast 2500 customers in the first 2 years, but that figure was reached in just 4 months. The trust, responsiveness and loyalty of a “local” supplier proved to be very alluring to people who were losing patience with the impersonal and lacklustre customer service provided by the big national or multinational operators.
Inspire scrambled to keep up with its growth, hiring more staff and commissioning new offices. This provided a service where customers were actually greeted by a real person instead of leaving cash in the letterbox to pay their bills, as often staff were out helping people with Inspired in home set up service.
That entrepreneurialism and vision – and arguably, incredible cheek – set the foundation for New Zealand’s biggest regional telecommunications company, delivering city-grade Internet services across a wide swathe of the lower North Island using WISP wireless, fibre, and copper services that Inspire either owns or resells.
By 2003 Inspire had many 2Mbit frame circuits and a 10Mbit circuit purchased from then dominant service provider Telecom. They asked Telecom to provide a 100Mbit service. Telecom declined – “Nobody needs 100Mbit,” they said, but eventually came back with a “stupid price”
Annoyed by the lack of insight into where wanted connectivity to be, James invested in some fibre and ducting. He drove around Palmerston North and persuaded roadwork gangs to drop fibre in the trenches before closing them up. He rewarded them with a few cans of beer, and laid his own fibre to replace what he was renting, made it go at the speed needed, then promptly cancelled many circuits he was renting as Inspire moved their customers onto their own fibre.
Given the success of faster and cheaper connectivity, James decided Inspire should carry on building fibre for themselves. They shared trenches with water mains and sewer lines, and even other Telcos and power companies, wherever they could find a hole in the ground at a price that made sense. “These days we’d be expected to pay our fair part of the trenching and access costs,” James acknowledges, “but at that time nobody worried, a lot of them thought I was a bit mad, as we laid duct many places that didn’t make sense then, but over the years it has all slowly come together into a pretty big network.”
So with a sizeable amount of fibre duct buried under the city, James quietly arranged a contractor to link it all together. “It was all perfectly legitimate – we’re a network operator with certain legal entitlements,” said James. Suddenly the Palmerston North CBD was connected by fibre on a par with Wellington’s Citylink. Local and central government offices, health centres and businesses were quick to seize the opportunities. Some had considered a move to Wellington in search of better Internet, but that trend ended.
X-ray clinics and radiologists were among the early users. Suddenly the big medical images could be transferred across town or beyond at the speed of light instead of being taken by car.
Market-wise, Inspire focused on schools, businesses, and those home users who were willing to pay a premium. Some enthusiastic users already wanted to use streaming so the system was upgraded to provide for that. The fibre network covered Palmerston North, but at the same time Inspire was Nationwide for dial up using IP net, and had a large footprint reselling ADSL / Bitstream.
In return for sharing those original trenches over the years, the city and surrounding towns have benefitted from the free use of fibres to run their local CCTV networks, and the launch of a free Wi-Fi service using all the traffic light poles around the CBD that had fibre available.
But increasingly James came to realise as Telecom started to put broadband around the inner city that rural people were missing out. Schools in town were getting ADSL but rural schools didn’t have broadband. “My brother’s kids couldn’t get broadband to do their homework, or even at their school” he recalls. “So we set up a wireless connection for them. As soon as word got around other locals wanted the same service and in no time we had 250 customers up the Pohangina Valley.”
Emboldened by success, Inspire made the call to roll out wireless on a larger scale starting with 3 or 4 Towers. Some of the farmers were sceptical. “They thought we were just smart townies out for a look in our shiny new gumboots.” So Inspire started using community champions and solar power. That was where they started making the serious breakthrough. The model worked because the community was actively involved. Meanwhile other WISPs were emerging all over New Zealand.
In the early days the customers were expected to pay for the Customer Premises Equipment. That proved problematic because customers baulked at paying every time there was a service upgrade, so the CPE was included within the monthly fee.
Today Inspire runs most of the services that it sells, but still has a significant amount of resell business on the UFB fibre and legacy copper networks. The community champions are still at the forefront of the Inspire Rural Wireless expansion.
The company is building up to 10 sites a month, with the construction process now so refined that three staff can build a new site in one working day.
With growth comes cost. Inspire now has 518 towers and a headcount of 38 people. Nine are in the infrastructure team working on the fibre and wireless networks, 14 on the technical helpdesk, 10 in the network operating centre, 4 in administration, and one in sales. There are over 4500 wireless customers on the Inspire Rural Wireless network, making it New Zealand’s largest WISP. Coverage essentially includes everywhere between Waverly and National Park in the north, Porangahau and all through the Tararua in the east, and down to the Kapiti region to the south.
So where next? Currently Inspire is building many new sites as a result of a contract through the government’s RBI2 initiative. It’s been rolling out public free Wi-Fi service at stadiums, cafés, bars and other public places, while sponsoring numerous charities including Ronald McDonald House, the Kimbolton Sculpture Festival, the Arohanui Hospice and Life Education. The goal from here is to service and support its customers’ lifestyles and grow as their lifestyle changes.
Inspire has no aspiration to overbuild other WISPs, James has always had a belief that New Zealand is too sparse for the WISPs to win by completing with each other, but by collectively covering people that need connectivity there is a good amount of business to be had for each WISP. It has a very secure customer base. Market research has revealed that ironically most people in Palmerston North don’t know Inspire is a local business, so it is doing some local public relations to remind them.
An interesting development in 2019 will be Spark’s venture into sport and especially the Rugby World Cup. James is confident that the Inspire network will cope fine with the Cup, fortified by a continual programme of upgrades over many years. The weak link if there is one will potentially be Spark’s own network, with not only Spark having never chosen to peer with the other ISPs of New Zealand for sharing traffic, but also their choice to migrate a large customer base off the copper network onto their mobile network, “it will be interesting to see how that copes if everyone wants to have a high enough resolution on their phone or tablet to actually see the ball or read the score”
The aptly-named Inspire is on a very secure base and will surely be around for a long time into the future.