Started With Fireworks And Never Looked Back

PrimoWireless – A WISP profile by Ernie Newman.

Matthew Harrison at the German Hill site which serves 180 Primo customers in western TaranakiPrimoWireless seems to be everywhere in Taranaki. Maybe it’s the utes carrying the distinctive multi-coloured logo, symbolising the fireworks that quite literally marked the start of the business. Maybe it’s the way founder Matthew Harrison, a larger than life personality, stands out in a crowd.

About 12 years ago Matthew was working  at PowerCo. He and a mate were passionate about on-line gaming. Both lived in Inglewood – a few kilometres apart; one rural, the other urban (or as near to urban as Inglewood gets.)

Gaming’s an activity where for the true enthusiast speed is king – a nanosecond too slow and you die! So they wanted to connect their computers directly bypassing slow phone lines.

They knew line of sight radio could allow them to cobble together their own connection and increase their speeds, so they started by putting antennas high on their rooftops. But in the flat terrain, no binoculars at hand, and with significant distance to contend with, they had no way to prove whether their homes could see each other.

So they each clambered onto their rooftops and at the appointed time lit rockets left over from Guy Fawkes. They found they did have a line of sight connection at the achievable altitude. Game on!

Their indoor antennas did the job just perfectly. That part is not rocket science – there’s an old joke about using household woks for connectivity.

However, the fireworks had attracted the curiosity of neighbours who, in broadband-starved Taranaki, wanted in. Then the daughter of a neighbour from further afield enquired and was given a connection too. Almost by accident, Taranaki had a new telecommunications provider.

Meanwhile Matthew had left PowerCo to work in a local computer shop where he came to realise that a huge number of Taranaki people were craving better broadband. A mate was working for Inspire.net – the doyen of New Zealand’s WISPs – so Inspire let Primo resell its connectivity, initially across four ADSL copper lines. Primo went on to negotiate a backhaul service from Kordia in New Plymouth which was a mere 30Mbps but which Matthew says seemed a lot at the time. By 2007 he had an incorporated company,  half a dozen wireless sites and a brand.

Eleven years on PrimoWireless is a Taranaki icon with more than 3000 customers served by around 80 transmission sites. It offers a choice of, fibre (where available), copper, or WISP wireless connectivity. Centred around Mount Taranaki, Primo extends from the west coast to Mokau in the north, Whangamomona in the north east, and approaching Patea in the south, nudging against friendly fellow WISPs at each boundary.

The ratio of customers to sites is high by WISP standards – for example the German Hill site we visited (pictured) connects 180 customers which is a big customer count for a WISP tower by any standards. The Taranaki terrain is a unique combination of mountains and lowlands. In the east the province comprises very rugged ridges and valleys. In the west there’s lots of flat land but a highly inconvenient mountain that blocks line of sight traffic. Primo responded to the latter early on by building a spider’s web, starting with a ring of sites right around the mountain to serve the huge population of dairy farmers. The site on the very picturesque German Hill, with its stunning views, is pivotal to this.

Matthew Harrison at the German Hill site which serves 180 Primo customers in western Taranaki
Matthew Harrison at the German Hill site which serves 180 Primo customers in western Taranaki

Primo has been awarded a significant contribution from the government to upgrade sites and expand coverage as part of the Rural Broadband Initiative. They started building and upgrading sites within days of the contract being awarded in August 2017, way earlier than the big cellphone companies who a year later are still at the planning stage. An expanded list of new users has since been put on the table, and Primo is quietly confident of gaining a whole lot more customers on the back of its strong performance with the earlier round.

Walk into the Molesworth Street office and you get the sense of a happy, capable, friendly team. There’s a lot of laughter. Many are old friends of Matthew, or friends of other staff. Total headcount is around 16 people – two in management, three each in helpdesk, installation, accounts and back office, and one in HR. There’s also a handful of part timers.

Hanan Pillette – Helpdesk Wizard
Hanan Pillette – Helpdesk Wizard

“I came from a job doing night fills at The Warehouse but this is so much more rewarding – I do tech work, troubleshooting, inbound calls from customers and emails. Now and then I get to go out on a job if extra hands are needed. There’s been a huge amount to learn but the team helped me a lot in the early days.”

 

Finding the technical people with the versatility to run the business is a challenge. “WISPs are a unique sub-set of the IT sector,” Matthew says. “The younger ones take a while to train – everything is learned on the job. Versatility is crucial – they need to understand IT, working at heights, safe 4 wheel driving in steep terrain, computers, solar power, and building. The last guy we recruited was a landscape gardener who has useful knowledge when we need to build retaining walls. Safety is an absolute priority.”

Craig Plyler – Geeky Gorilla
Craig Plyler – Geeky Gorilla

“I’ve been at Primo 18 months. I mostly do accounts receivable, and I meet and greet customers who call in. The best thing about working here is getting to play with all the new technical toys – cameras and hardware – and being able use “geek speak.” I enjoy the family orientation and culture, we all get along and because we are all geeks we speak the same lingo.”

 

Primo customers seem a happy bunch too. One I visited was new customer Arabella Cornthwaite who with her family, moved 2 years ago from Raetihi to manage a 1300 acre sheep and beef property, an hour from Stratford and 90 minutes from Taumarunui on the “Forgotten Highway.” They were previous customers of Inspire.net who Arabella says were “really good,” but inherited a very slow and expensive satellite service.

New Primo customer Arabella Cornthwaite in the Whangamomona outback
New Primo customer Arabella Cornthwaite in the Whangamomona outback

“Last Thursday Primo connected our area up,” Arabella tells me. “It’s so good – we’ve used it several times already to talk to the family in both Raetihi and the UK on Skype video. We can now do the banking and receive the kill sheets each day to help manage the farm efficiently. And it will be great when the children get to school age.”

 

 

Over a decade Primo has become an icon – up there almost with the cows and the mountain. You get the feeling that it has made a huge contribution to the development of the region and its industries. It feels strong, responsive, and solid – larger than life like its founder and set for a very bright future worthy of the fireworks that marked its beginning.

Watch this space.

PrimoWireless.co.nz 


ACT NOW FOR 2019 SPORTS VIEWING

WISPs will be to the forefront for rural NZ as sports start going live on the Internet in 2019. The way we view major sports events will start changing for ever. At least one high profile event will be streamed on the Internet, with some games not available on TV. Other major sporting events are likely to follow rapidly.

Rural people will be concerned that they dont miss out.

If you are in a  rural location and don’t have streaming quality Internet, contact your local WISP.  Act NOW – don’t wait until the game is three months away and resources are stretched.

WISPs can connect most places in rural NZ.  And work with your neighbours – a group wanting coverage will attract the attention of your WISP better than one alone.

If you are already a WISP customer but concerned whether your bandwidth will meet the demands of a busy sports season, pick up the phone to your WISP.  Most of us are constantly upgrading our service to meet ever-increasing demands for bandwidth, and some of us are upgrading at government expense through the Rural Broadband initiative. But dont lie awake worrying – ask us.

For WISPs in your region look under “Find Your Local WISP” on this site.

You Need A Good Breakfast To Run Aonet Broadband

Aonet.nz -A WISP profile by Ernie Newman
Lachlan Chapman’s ute does 70,000 kilometres a year. Living on a lifestyle block outside the Rangitikei town of Bulls with a young family, it’s not unusual for him to drive to the Bombays and back in a day – a round trip of 900km. Such is the breadth of the AONet network.

When the land’s too challenging for the quad bike, horseback can be the best option
When the land’s too challenging for the quad bike, horseback can be the best option

 

You need a decent breakfast to deal with that kind of workload – especially on days when the job involves leading a horse laden with radio gear up a steep hill.

 

 

The wider Chapman family are farmers from long ago. On the family farm in Takapau Lachlan found the satellite broadband appallingly bad. The family were fed up with paying $600 a month for poor reception. Lachlan developed a keen interest in the use of digital technology for farm management – sensors, system monitoring, climate and the like – he sees this as still “bleeding edge” but is convinced it has a huge future.

So in the best farming tradition Lachlan decided to build his own connection. A family friend knew about radio, while Lachlan had always had a passion for Networks. A few friends with complementary knowledge were roped in. Suddenly Takapau was the site of AONet’s first connection, just off the State Highway.

That was only 4 years ago. AONet is one of our youngest WISPs.
Serving external customers as well as family farms was always the plan, but it mushroomed. There has been practically no advertising – just a modest Facebook page. Why advertise when you’ve got the kind of grapevine that links rural NZ?

An impressive key distribution site – one of three on Mount Three in Hawkes Bay
An impressive key distribution site – one of three on Mount Three in Hawkes Bay

Today AONet covers a large swathe of the North Island. From Glenbrook and the Hunua Range in the north it runs west to the King Country town of Ohura, east to Hawkes Bay’s Waimarama and Ocean Beaches, and south to Rongotea on the outskirts of Palmerston North. It doesn’t always cover entire areas but instead infills areas not served by other WISPs – getting greater utilisation of existing sites trumps expanding the footprint. Customers number around 1500 with an average of roughly one wireless site for every 10 customers.
The Chapman family farms are still integral to the business. “Its really handy having a supportive family and to draw on the resources of the farms, and the relatives often check on the sites and give on-site support,” Lachlan says.
AONet’s office has 4 staff – mostly working on phones dealing with customer service. They also service a related business, ISP Ltd, which operates in the wholesale telecommunications market selling connectivity to IT and security companies. There are also several contractors based around the North Island who handle installation, development and trouble shooting. One of the latter, radio legend Bill Warrilow, was co-founder of AONet and manages the Ruapehu district developments, often carrying equipment for new sites on his back for 45 minutes at a time.

The big breakfast at Viv’s Café
The big breakfast at Viv’s Café

The day we meet for breakfast (Viv’s Café in Sanson – excellent mince on toast for me, a big breakfast for Lachlan) he is set to deal with paperwork around his near-complete chunk of the government’s RBI2 (Rural Broadband Initiative) contract. There’s also a site to be maintained in Hawkes Bay if the components arrive on courier early enough. No two days are the same.
Spark’s capture of rights to the Rugby World Cup are a topic on everyone’s lips. Lachlan is looking to upgrade a number of sites in anticipation of a huge surge in demand. But its not just WISPs who will be under pressure, we agree – Spark themselves will be challenged to make sure hundreds of thousands of concurrent wireless video connections can be managed without letting customers down.

Daniel Jefferis, a farmer all his life, hails from the Mangakahu Valley near the Pureora Forest Park west of Lake Taupo. In the old days his parents had Farmside satellite services on their farm, with poor speeds. More to the point, Daniel’s younger siblings used to chew through data to the tune of $600 a month routinely, and on famous occasions get into a fourth digit. At Daniel’s own 3500 acre property 10 kilometres away even Farmside was unobtainable. So when AONet became available around 2014 the difference was amazing.

Tucked away in a garden in Taradale
Tucked away in a garden in Taradale

“I don’t watch any broadcast TV at all now,” Daniel says. “Its all on demand. I can use the Internet for business and research as well. We’re not yet into the “Internet of things” applications yet – new apps are coming along every year so that will come. Meantime its all about the administration of the farm. All that for $100 a month.” Daniel is clearly a very happy customer.
Lachlan loves the customer contact aspect of the work – the opportunity to help people who have no other option. He is proud of the resilience of the network – during the heavy North Island floods early in 2018 one customer, tourist resort Blue Duck Lodge in the boondocks 40km west of Raurimu, was completely isolated for several days, but the AONet service kept the guests connected to the outside world.

For the future, Lachlan is looking carefully at the next generation of satellites. In time they may displace today’s WISP technology, but not yet. Its an exciting, fast moving industry to be part of.

AONet.nz 


Technology Tangata Whenua

ThePacific.net – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman

 

“Technology Tangata Whenua

for the Top of the South.”

 

 

“Technology Tangata Whenua for the Top of the South.” That’s how Thepacific.net boss Sue Lubransky sums up the company, the local broadband provider for the Nelson and Marlborough regions. It’s a company with a unique history, sparked by some early visionaries with a passion for the role of digital connectivity in schools.

Way back, prominent Nelson school principal Charles Newton was one of the early educators to foresee the way digital technology would revolutionise education. He desperately wanted to bring his school, Nayland College, along with Waimea College and others around them, into the broadband world. He saw the potential for the schools to be linked by fibre.

Local lines company Network Tasman came to the party. Encouraged by the late Barrie Leay, a lateral thinker with long experience in the electricity market, they recognised a natural synergy between their electricity lines business and the fibre future. Alongside Charles Newton and others, Network Tasman coordinated building a fibre link around the schools. Volunteers dug the trenches, and so the Nelson Loop evolved. Meanwhile Network Tasman as the fibre vendor quietly connected the hospital and other large users.

As a well-connected former head of the Electricity Supply Association and a passionate advocate for renewable energy, Leay foresaw the opportunity for Network Tasman, as well as thepacific.net shareholder Buller Electricity, to gain a stake in the emerging new generation telecommunications sector. So Thepacific.net was born.

Each school was given an IP address in Thepacific.net’s range. Sue Lubransky recalls this as very cutting edge in those days, though not unique. This was the era when everyone thought the fax machine had changed the world forever.

Several of those early participants had fortuitous connections to central and local government. So a year later when Project Probe (Provincial Broadband Extension) – the brainchild of Minister Paul Swain – was announced, The Loop, alongside Thepacific.net, became the only private entity to receive Probe funding. Project Probe helped Thepacific.net get traction into the wireless world.

At that time, Marcos Biscaysacu, Justin Wells and Tim Price were pushing the boundaries in finding new and cost effective solutions to serve customers in difficult terrain. Several of those staff have a strong emotional connection with the area and still play a role from time to time.

“When I joined we were just finishing the Probe contract builds,” Sue recalls. “French Pass was the last one – thirteen years later that isolated and challenging site is still there despite the solar panels being blown off in horrendous winds. We built the site to service French Pass School and today we are that isolated community’s most reliable communications link.

The next few years thepacific.net worked on enriching the wireless connections around the region. Over that time schools migrated to N4L (Network for Learning), became connected to fibre, and went through SNUP – the School Networks Upgrade Programme. Mobile phones became progressively cheaper and digital connectivity became a “must have” for students. But from day one and increasingly as the schools needs became satisfied.

A link site and access points near Seddon, 25km south of Blenheim
A link site and access points near Seddon, 25km south of Blenheim

 

Thepacific.net expanded relentlessly out into homes and businesses – not just in rural Nelson and Marlborough but even in inner suburbs such as Stoke where poor copper and fibre have left a gap for the wireless operator

 

 

Fast forward a decade and a half. Today the extent of Thepacific.net’s coverage is impressive. From south of Ward in south east Marlborough, north to parts of the Marlborough Sounds, and west across Golden Bay. It truly is “technology tangata whenua” – running a successful synchronous wireless network, with very low latency and a high committed information rate (guaranteed bandwidth for customers) all around the Top of the South.

Atop the Network Tasman building in Richmond
Atop the Network Tasman building in Richmond

The company’s office is in Richmond. There’s an impressive data centre there hosting major local businesses – just one of the adjuncts Thepacific.net has developed over the years along with free WiFi hotspots funded by local government. Head office aside, an important link is in central Nelson with its line of sight connection to the company’s Maitai site, as well as to major customers in the Nelson Central and Port area.

Chris Tews in the Maitai Valley is among the newer customers. Having migrated recently from Auckland he took it as a given that high quality broadband would be available a 5 minute drive from Nelson to enable him to seamlessly move his business with multiple spreadsheets, regular video meetings, and streaming videos.

“I’d previously been a Vodafone customer in Auckland,” he says, “but the local Vodafone people did a site visit here on the hill and said the signal was too weak to work. It was a shock. So I went to Thepacific.net which is literally the only service I can get on the hill. While it is not quite as strong as Auckland fibre, the signal is fit for purpose – I use video regularly and there’s no buffering or pixilation. The customer service has been great; they are very helpful on the phone.”

The Maitai Valley – typical Top of the South terrain
The Maitai Valley – typical Top of the South terrain

There’s an increasing trend for farm and winery customers to seek coverage right across their properties, not just for operational reasons but to keep staff in contact and automated machines operating. Femtocells (small cells that boost a mobile phone signal across a localised area) are key to this and very popular with the customers.

So where is thepacific.net going? Sue relishes the question. “To infinity and beyond,” she responds. “I love the ever-evolving technology. Moores law, and the laws of physics don’t change, but the way we use things is constantly progressing. There is a real buzz in being a responsive service provider and doing things ahead of the big operators. We do bespoke solutions; we are nimble, fast, connected, tech savvy, passionate, and above all regional.

A very rural Marlborough site, capable of 50Mbps
A very rural Marlborough site, capable of 50Mbps

 

“We have put huge effort into the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative. We want whoever gets awarded RBI contracts to do the job really well for our region – no cheap and nasty installs that oversell/under-deliver outcomes. We’re here for our region.

“Technology Tanagata Whenua for the Top of the South?” Yes, I think so.

ThePacific.net 


Connectivity Galore For The Wairarapa

WIZwireless – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman

Who had an image of WISP founders and owners as geeky, techy, rough-and-tough alpha males? Think again. Bridget Canning of WIZwireless in the Wairarapa district breaks the mould. She and farmer husband John founded and own the business, but day by day it is clearly Bridget in the driver’s seat.

WIZ antennas on the Tranzit building
WIZ antennas on the Tranzit building

From its new offices just north of Masterton town, the WIZ footprint goes northward to Pongaroa on the outskirts of Eketahuna. To the south it touches Lake Ferry on Palliser Bay, west to the Tararuas and east to wild coastal beaches including Castlepoint and Riversdale. It’s rugged country and these relatively tight boundaries have been set for good reasons – the philosophy is to keep the business within 90 minutes drive of the Masterton base.

The undulating and steep terrain demands an unusually high ratio of sites to customers. That necessitates about 115 sites around the district – some owned by individual customers but most owned by WIZ. A handful have co-location – other phone companies or wireless users sharing the same site.

Frustration at having no broadband at the Canning farm 45 minutes northeast of Masterton was the reason WIZ got started. Going to town was, and remains, a time consuming activity. In the early 2000s the benefits of broadband connectivity for rural dwellers had become very plain but there was no obvious plan to roll out beyond the main centres any time soon.

So the Cannings decided on an audacious scheme to build it themselves for the use of their local community. The grand plan was to connect the homestead and about 15 neighbouring properties. Bridget recalls spending $150,000 in setup costs over two days, with the expectation of recouping this over time from twenty neighbours. However, in those days Telecom was largely unregulated and was not a friendly player – it may have been a coincidence but the moment it learned about WIZ going live it re-opened the local exchange and beefed up its service, reducing the initial potential customer count from twenty to three.

“For a time we had New Zealand’s most expensive Internet,” Bridget recalls, “so we had to go to market and find a whole lot more customers in a hurry. Our investment blew out to over $1.5 million over 10 years of growth.” Those were challenging times. Bridget recalls getting a lot of support from James Watts of neighbouring WISP Inspire.net as she fought to build and grow the network and to make the investment pay. For the past three years it has become cashflow positive. WIZ is on very firm ground these days.

Bridget recounts her story as we make the 45 minute journey from WIZ to her family farm. This is a challenging drive – usually dominated by those careering  battering rams loaded with logs that tilt alarmingly into the path of oncoming traffic on bends. Its easy to see the attraction of a session online compared to a physical journey!

At the Canning farm – Alan Emerson, Bridget Canning, Craig Young (TUANZ), Shaun Minifie and John Canning
At the Canning farm – Alan Emerson, Bridget Canning, Craig Young (TUANZ), Shaun Minifie and John Canning

Along the way Bridget and colleague Shaun Minifie point out numerous WIZ sites. Notably the towers are shorter than a lot of WISP sites because the steepness of the hills makes extra height unnecessary and reducing the risk of wind problems the Wairarapa is well known for.

Bridget and Shaun are among 5 full time workers. The company is among 9 WISPs to have a contract to build parts of the government’s Rural Broadband Investment (RBI2) project.  WIZ is very proud of the speeds it offers being much higher than the 25Mbps required as part of the RBI2 contract – when I was there Bridget ran a speed test from her home which came in at 54Mbps/19Mbps – significantly faster than typical VDSL or basic UFB fibre.

The basics of WIZ are comparable to most WISPs. International connectivity is obtained through the Internet exchange in Auckland. Snap (now part of 2degrees) provides the connection to the Tranzit building at the back of the Masterton CBD from where it runs to the network operations centre (NOC) just north of the town. There’s ample redundancy – if the Tranzit site goes down the signal can be diverted direct to the NOC. And if an individual sites fail, the signal is automatically diverted around the network via a different route.

Near the Canning farm we turn off up a long and seriously steep farm track, climbing towards WIZ’s Turkey Ridge site on the rooftop of the eastern Wairarapa.

The Turkey Ridge site
The Turkey Ridge site

The view from the top is spectacular by any standards – WISPs are privileged to enjoy the best views in the world often in places where few other people get to go. We pause a while to enjoy it while Bridget and Shaun explain the various dishes and panels. The site is built to last and even in the unlikely scenario of a solar panel blowing away the battery setup would keep it going for at least ten days.

Happy Wiz Customers

Back near sea level we go into the Canning homestead where a group of neighbours who also happen to be WIZ customers have assembled to meet us. They tell us about what having fast Internet suddenly available meant to them personally and commercially.

New customer Charles White
New customer Charles White

Charles White is a very new WIZ customer who was until recently on Spark ADSL. At its best it did the job but it was very inconsistent – “we could always tell when school was out or there was high usage by the kids down the road.” Sometimes the family had to set the alarm and get out of bed late at night to use the Internet. “We couldn’t have dreamed of Netflix in those days,” Charles says.

He and his wife have three daughters and noted that a limit on one Internet user at a time was not good for family harmony. “We’re an equestrian family,” Charles recounts, “and these days entries for events are all online – the girls are at boarding school and when they come home for holidays they expect to stay in touch with their friends, do homework and organise their parties – they don’t appreciate being asked to go offline so I can do the banking.”

So moving to WIZ was a huge relief and benefit. The girls are already looking at Netflix. Sky is definitely under threat at the White household.

Alan Emerson operates a well-known public relations practice with wife Adrienne D’Ath, working from their farm in rural Wairarapa. He came to WIZ early on when he heard about it in 2006. There was no broadband at home whatsoever and trying to file stories with editors in Feilding was all but impossible. He was losing clients as a result. WIZ built a site for him, the connectivity was solved overnight, and a number of former clients returned. Now the consulting business can connect as well as if it were in the centre of a major city, using Skype, booking flights, booking tickets to the rugby or concerts, and accessing multiple phone connections for voice calls.

Speeds better than many fibre-connected city dwellers!
Speeds better than many fibre-connected city dwellers!

“We had a relative visit from Wellington who commented that our WIZ connection here is faster than their Spark connection in central Wellington on fibre,” Alan says. “Its all about the contention (ratio of subscribers to the available bandwidth) and WIZ is way faster.”

 

John Canning­ has to say good things about WISP because he owns it, but when he takes off his WIZ hat and puts on his sheep and cattle farmer one you can see he’s delighted with the way broadband has enabled the progress of the farm. Among the specialist projects is a contract to supply a supermarket that wants same day kill. The animal has to be on the hooks within 3 hours of leaving the farm. It’s important to know the yield from the previous day before selecting the animals for the next day, so now he is able to look at the results online and adjust his drafting.

Flooding can be an issue, and now he gets 3 hours notice of a potential flood from a rain gauge up in the hills sending signals back to the farm over the Internet. And the need to buy stock selectively following the mycoplasma bovis outbreak has complicated the sale and purchase process, but using fast Internet gives him the data and speed he needs to buy rapidly and profitably.

John’s an enthusiast for the potential of communications technology in farm management. He talks of automated measurement of grass, fertiliser, yields and soils using satellites. A WIZ customer already uses an infra red camera in the middle of their free range pig farm for security and so the overseas owner can see what is happening night and day. Vineyards are doing the same.

“But the big benefit is staff,” John says. “Whatever their hobbies and pastimes may be, the Internet is usually a key part, so having top class connectivity makes the staff and their partners much more happy and stable – that’s good for everyone.”

WIZwireless


Almost 25 Years of Fast Broadband In Our Most Challenging Region

Gisborne.net – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman

A display of the Gisborne.net sites in the office foyer
A display of the Gisborne.net sites in the office foyer

 

So much for those who thought the WISPs were new kids on the block! Its almost a quarter century since Ronald Brice, along with Dave Parker, started Gisborne.net.

 

In 1995, as an installer of IT networks with a degree in computer science Ronald looked at the high price of phone services and saw an opportunity to bring the Internet to his home town of Gisborne.

Starting with a 1 Megabit link around Gisborne city, working with local wireless entrepreneur Laurie Colvin, and with the District Council as the first major client, Ronald and Dave just got on and did it. Gisborne.net hasn’t looked back.

Fast forward 24 years to 2018 and you find a thriving Internet business that provides urban-grade broadband, with unlimited data at highly affordable prices, to 3500 customers. All this in one of the most challenging regions to build a WISP geographically, topographically and economically. In its understated way Gisborne.net has probably done as much to open up Poverty Bay to the 21st century world as the completion of Gisborne’s rail link opened it to the 20th 60 years before.

The 3500 customers make the company one of the New Zealand’s biggest WISPs. They range across the economy. Dairy farmers, many of them refugees from expensive and erratic satellite services, have embraced WISP wireless services on a large scale. Many pay for their farm staff connections as well as their own to offset the downside of isolation.

Local iwi Ngati Porou has Gisbone.net connectivity in 49 maraes. So do a number of the isolated Ngati Porou health clinics, where they support video consultations for nurses, doctors and patients. Other maraes frequently take a temporary connection when there is a special event, but once the Government RBI2 contract is completed 100% of maraes will have ongoing access. Highly profitable manuka honey and foresty businesses are customers – even a commercial hemp operation.

At the technological extreme, Rocket Lab uses Gisborne.net for its Internet services at the Mahia Peninsula launch site. When it has high demand for bandwidth during a launch other customers’ traffic is diverted via Wairoa so that nobody’s service gets downgraded.

 

The Wheatstone Road site, sending the signal from the outskirts of Gisborne to Mahia for Rocket Labs
The Wheatstone Road site, sending the signal from the outskirts of Gisborne to Mahia for Rocket Labs

The coverage is comprehensive. Starting at the top of East Cape and Cape Runaway, south through Gisborne, the Mahia Peninsula, Wairoa, and west through Lake Waikaremoana and Tutira in Hawkes Bay. That’s a sizeable chunk of the North Island, serviced by over 200 sturdy sites build to withstand some of the country’s strongest gales. Most of the sites require direct line of sight to each other but there are exceptions – going through one line of hills is usually achievable, two is a struggle, and three is impossible.

Gisborne.net’s office, opposite McDonalds in downtown Gisborne, houses a data centre providing data storage to a range of corporate customers, the network operation centre from which the 200 sites can be controlled and traffic re-routed, and the team of half a dozen staff comprising design, development, management and accounting specialists. Installers (who mount the CPE or Customer Premises Equipment on users’ houses, sheds or offices) are external contractors based in Gisborne and Wairoa.

The site on Kaiti Hill towering above Gisborne
The site on Kaiti Hill towering above Gisborne

Backhaul is connected to the network here through a fibre link from Gisborne.net’s own routers in the Internet Exchange in Mayoral Drive, Auckland.

From here it goes to a rooftop antenna, up to a tower on nearby Kaiti Hill, then on to the 200 hilltop antennas that are the company’s network.

 

Resilience is key. The sites are made to last with solid engineering and high-spec materials. A typical site with solar panels re-charging the batteries can run for up to 5 years without a site visit, provided that the farmer tops up the battery water now and then when passing. Most do so happily.
It takes a lot of radio spectrum on a range of bands to run such a complex network. Ronald notes the business owns a lot of spectrum by WISP standards. “Spectrum is gold,” he says – ample choice reduces the likelihood of any interference issues with adjacent spectrum-holders which is a very rare occurrence.

The company was one of the first to contract with Crown Infrastructure Partners – the government agency charged with deployment of RBI2, the second phase of the Government’s Rural Broadband Initiative. It was one of a very few WISPs contracted for the earlier RBI1 version for which it connected thirteen schools. For RBI2 the commitment is much larger. Ronald notes that even with the government contribution the private investment required is still substantial – and like other WISPs contracted for RBI2 Gisborne.net has been rolling out the coverage well ahead of schedule. Contrast this with the three cell phone companies who are still at the starting gate.

The new Rocky Range site at Tutira in Hawkes Bay
The new Rocky Range site at Tutira in Hawkes Bay

Much of the RBI2 project is about upgrading the speeds of existing Gisbore.net customers, but there is also a substantial number of new connections who will grow the network coverage west into the Waioeka Gorge and beyond. The aspiration is to keep expanding west towards Taupo, in the first instance covering isolated Minginui where Minister Shane Jones recently announced $10 million funding for a manuka honey project.

Femtocells – small base stations that deliver voice and data signals across an area somewhat bigger than household WiFi – are adding a new dimension for Gisborne.net customers. The company has deployed hundreds of Vodafone’s “Sure Signal” femtocells. The customer gets data services from Gisborne.net and voice services from Vodafone across the same connection, meaning that their cell phone can be used to make and receive voice calls and texts from the customer’s home even it is way out of range of the Vodafone network.

The company – and its associated WISP WiFi Connect which specialises in low-decile areas in the northern and western parts of the region – are generous with data and keenly priced. WiFi Connect offers prices as low as $10 per week, uncapped with 2MBs speeds, allowing the customer to access Netflix movies all day long. For a typical family way up the coast, with no car and very rare access to town, that’s life changing.

For all the quarter century of history, Ronald Brice remains an enthusiast for the technology and the service. With the cellphone companies coming to Gisborne at some stage as part of their portion of the RBI2 rollout, he is unfazed by the prospect of more competition. He’s fit and youthful looking for someone who’s been in the business a quarter century. Chatting to him you get the feeling that Gisborne.net has a way to go yet.

Ronald Brice explains the network to Craig Young, CEO of TUANZ
Ronald Brice explains the network to Craig Young, CEO of TUANZ

“We’re way cheaper than the competition,” he says. “We offer unlimited capacity at $75 monthly. We’ve offered unlimited data plans ever since the days of dial-up ended, and that didn’t change when Netflix came into play. Its better to spend money on ample bandwidth than on arguing with the customer every month about the amount of usage.”
Very few 21st century users would disagree.

CUSTOMER APPRECIATES AN ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE NETWORK

Gisborne.net’s usage of solar power as the mainstay of its network is one of a number of aspects of the service appreciated by one of its oldest customers.

Noel Amor has used Gisborne.net for more than 20 years. As the first employee of food processing company Cedenco Foods he initially worked with Ronald Brice when Cedenco’s IT services were provided by Gisborne.net’s IT arm. When the Internet appeared and Gisborne.net came on stream it was an obvious choice to provide Cedenco’s connectivity. That’s never changed.

Nowadays Noel imports food processing machinery from Italy and sells throughout Australia as well as New Zealand. “I travel a lot,” he says, “and I can access my server in my home office from wherever I go in the world.

“Gisborne.net runs under the radar – you don’t see a lot of flashy advertising – but they have a huge coverage and have made a significant contribution to the development of the region.’

Noel appreciates the fact that if there is ever a problem he can speak to someone down the road in Gisborne who knows the region to solve it, rather than a distant call centre. “They’re still the same faces, and they respond quickly on the phone. Its good to see a local company meeting the local and regional needs.”

Gisborne.net


Closing Taranaki’s Digital Divide

PrimoWireless – Closing Taranaki’s Digital Divide.

(Re-posted from The Download)

Fibre is making Taranaki’s rural wireless internet service run much better. It can reach deeper into rural areas it couldn’t get to before.

Regional wireless internet service provider PrimoWireless has used fibre for four or five years now, to improve internet speeds and reliability for its rural customers. Fibre also extends its network into those deep rural pockets even satellite can’t reach.

PrimoWireless’ managing director, Matthew Harrison, says fibre is proving particularly valuable to those at the furthest-most points of its network. “Some of those farms can’t even get satellite because the hill country is too steep. They were stuck on dial-up and they used to wait a whole day for an email,” he says.

Taranaki was one of the first regions to have fibre installed as part of the UFB initiative. The aim is to deliver the kind of fast telecoms service city people take for granted to rural New Zealand.

UFB fibre has helped transform communications in rural Taranaki, says Harrison.

“It’s the fastest there is. Nothing else can go as fast as fibre – you can do 10 GB or 100 GB. You change the equipment on the end and it will go faster.

“We use the fibre to get better speed and latency [faster response times]. We get it as close as we can to our sites, and then we use wireless to deliver the service to the end-user. The closer we can bring the fibre, the closer effectively we can bring Auckland to them – which is where all the internet comes from,” he says.

PrimoWireless’ combined broadband radio wireless and fibre service means its business and rural customers can now, for example, set up a viable home business, no matter how remote their farm. And local marae can persuade reluctant young Māori to join in their activities as they can now use the internet for downtime entertainment.

In the same way, wool farmers can attract younger shearers as they no longer face being disconnected from the internet while working on a remote farm.

Farmers can now make more use of Internet-of-Things’ precision agriculture applications – for herd testing and to manage irrigation and water levels, for example – because both the cowshed and woolshed can now connect to the internet.

PrimoWireless is 12 years old. It has 3,000 customers and operates 80 broadband radio wireless sites that form a ring around Mount Taranaki. The sites vary in size from small ones serving 10 to 20 people, to big ones serving around 200 customers.

In September 2017, PrimoWireless secured funding from Crown Infrastructure Partners (CIP) to further develop its network. It uses regional radio spectrum on the 2.6Ghz
and 5Ghz bands so it can serve both non
line-of-sight and line-of-sight customers.

“We’re closing the urban and digital divide,” says Harrison.

“We aim to close that gap up, so rural people can have the same opportunities as townies.”