NOTE: This Conference is for WISPA.NZ members and invited guests only. Anyone else wishing to attend should enquire through firstname.lastname@example.org
Wed 22 January – Open session for all
Registration and morning tea – sponsored by Complete-coms
Call to order and Welcome – WISPA Chairman Mike Smith
Mayoral Welcome – Deputy Mayor of New Plymouth, Richard Jordan
Official Opening and Ministerial Address Hon Kris Faafoi, Minister of Communications (by video)
The Primo Story – Bringing Broadband to Taranaki Matthew Harrison and Team
Rural Connectivity Policy and Progress Graham Mitchell, CEO, Crown Infrastructure Partners
Rural Connectivity Group Update including Colocation John Proctor, Programme Director
Day 1 business session concludes Free evening
Thu 23 January – Open Session for All
NZ INTERNET EXCHANGE
Update from Chair Chris Browning
WISPAPALOOZA Chair Mike Smith gives a rundown on his learnings from the recent event in Las Vegas
Before U Dig Before U Dig Business Development Manager Richard Dyson explains how to keep your infrastructure secure.
Services Sharing Among WISPs
A key part of the rationale for forming WISPA was to foster a culture of collaboration and implement specific sharing arrangements. This interactive session led by Mike Smith will cover some practical examples where WISPA members have already established cooperative services and systems, and discuss opportunities for the future.
Chair – Mike Smith
Bridget Canning, WIZ Wireless
Lachlan Chapman, AONet
The World of WISPs in Australia
WISPA Australia President Dainen Keogh
Morning tea – sponsored by Complete-coms
Wholesaling as a Value-Add for WISPs
This session will explore the merits of selling on a wholesale basis as a source of additional volume.
Chair – Mike Smith
Stan Rivett, Netspeed
Tom Linn, Wireless Nation
Presentation from Len Starling of Radio Spectrum Management
Update from Corey Weir, Chair, Radio Frequency Users Association of NZ
Panel discussion on topical spectrum issues, to include:
Chair – Peter Mancer, WISPA Spectrum Specialist
Corey Weir, Chair, RFUANZ
Dainen Keogh, President, WISPAU Australia
Dale Roberts, Go Wireless
Mike Smith, WISPA.NZ
The Fully Connected Farm – the New Horizon for WISPs?
WISPs have successfully shown the way to get broadband connectivity to the homesteads of Kiwi farms. Is the next step connectivity right across the farm? If so, are WISPs the logical businesses to spearhead this, how is it being used at present, and what new opportunities for improved farm efficiency will it unlock?
Session to include:
Chair – Mike Smith, WISPA.NZ
Federated Farmers Vice Chair Andrew Hoggard
IoT Taranaki’s Paul Oliver
Microsoft NZ Chief Technology Officer Russell Craig,
There can be few nicer places to wake up each morning than high on a ridge overlooking the eastern Bay of Plenty’s unspoilt Ohiwa Inlet. Children’s writer and illustrator Nikki Slade Robinson – famous for “The Little Kiwi’s Matariki” – lives in that idyllic spot with husband Jim who helps front the nearby Motu Trails – one of Great Rides on The New Zealand Cycle Trail.
The availability of city-grade Internet through local WISP Evolution Networks has given the Robinsons the best of both worlds – a city grade online working environment and a country lifestyle. And Evolution’s partnership with CIP in the RBI2 project is extending similar coverage to more rural people in the Opotiki, East Cape and Bay of Plenty regions every week.
Evolution is a young WISP dating back to 2015 when the government was promoting digital development plans among district councils. Tauranga-based IT service company Stratus Blue came up with the idea, and the Opotiki District Council swung behind as a financial partner. Over time CIP recognised the work of Evolution in expanding its network to unserved areas, and supported it to expand and upgrade its services.
Nikki is a huge supporter of Evolution. “We were one of their first customers in 2015 – I met them at a public meeting in Ohiwa. Since we signed up 4 years ago we’ve only had one brief outage during a big storm. It’s great that I can now send my writing and illustrations over the Internet just as though I was in the middle of Auckland.”
Husband Jim is equally enthusiastic. “The change to Evolution was overwhelming. Before they came we relied on copper lines, with constant dropouts. These days I’m constantly sending big batches of photos showcasing the Trails with never an issue. There’s no way I could have done that before – you could never send emails over little more than a MB or so at a time. I used to drive into Opotiki (about 30km) and go online.”
Jim’s even joined video conferences from home involving lecturers and students from multiple locations and says apart from minor variation at peak times, Evolution’s service has never missed a beat.
Evolution’s Mark Simpson has come to know the Robinsons well. Mark was working for Stratus Blue when it saw the opportunity to get into the WISP market. Having spearheaded the growth, he has come to know most of the customers along the way but with rapid growth through about the 300 mark he confesses this is becoming more of a challenge.
The territory is challenging for a WISP. Mark covers a huge mileage every week rolling out new towers, upgrading existing ones and connecting new customers from his base in Tauranga north to Te Kaha and Waihau Bay, and south to Kawerau. One of the upgrades at Kohi Point, funded by CIP, will improve the Robinsons’ service even further.
“We’ve got at least half the homes in Ohiwa as customers now, including one who is a software developer running a server there,” Mark says.
One aspiration Evolution shares with the Motu Trails Charitable Trust is a series of wireless hot spots along the Pakihi Track, which is the most rugged of the group of trails. With that ruggedness come safety issues and a network of hot spots would make a big contribution to making this a safe place for adventurous cyclists, runners and hikers.
Mark and I leave the hospitable Robinsons to cross a couple of valleys where we stop to visit farming brothers Chris and Richard Evans. Their hilly property is inland from the Ohiwa Inlet – near the centre of a triangle bounded by Whakatane, Opotiki and Taneatua. Its rugged and challenging country. Mark Simpson knows the farm well having just completed building a new tower there under the RBI2 programme.
Chris and Richard are modern farmers who fully get the role of IT in agriculture. “Everything on the farm relies on the Web,” Chris tells me. “The new tower gets Internet into what has been an absolute blind spot – we had Farmside (satellite) before but it was expensive and very unreliable.”
The farm uses numerous Web-based services including the FarmIQ package. Their teenage families use it for school and university study. There’s lots of video used – the brothers are very confident it will work well for the Rugby World Cup with an impressive and very reliable 50-60Mbps downstream connection.
One immediate concern is farm security. Poaching is an increasing issue across the Eastern Bay of Plenty and in many other rural areas. With video cameras incorporating number plate recognition technology it has become far easier to intercept unwelcome visitors, or follow up afterwards with hard evidence of the visit, and the Evans farm is well up with those opportunities.
Driving back to base in Tauranga I comment to Mark that his customers seem almost like personal friends. He laughs – but he’s a guy who obviously loves his work and enjoys the people contact. WISPs show that smaller, local businesses have an edge even in the world’s fastest-moving industry.
“It’s all about local knowledge – name a street anywhere in South Auckland and our installers can tell you all about the coverage available.”
So says the affable Peter Mancer, General Manager of Connecta, as we sip coffee in a Pukekohe café. He and colleague Abilash Thangavel don’t look like the archetypal WISP – crisp white shirts reflect the peri-urban demographics of the Counties-Franklin area where they operate. Connecta feels like an apt name – you can catch a suburban train from Pukekohe to Auckland every hour, yet its marketing, like many WISPs, is focused on the traditional school calf club days.
Connecta’s had a lot of history. Way back in 2002 it started off as Wired Country, a fibre-focused subsidiary of Franklin electricity lines company Counties Power. Some truly futuristic thinking led to Pukekohe High School becoming New Zealand’s first fibred school and the lines company embracing telecommunications.
Wired Country grew rapidly in several parts of the country – Christchurch, Queenstown, Nelson and almost Northland. Many resellers were involved in marketing the service, including Watchdog where Peter – an industry veteran – worked at the time reselling Wired Country’s services to 260 rural schools at speeds way faster than the 56k service then available. All this happened long before Chorus became involved in fibre or the government thought about fibre in schools – Wired Country was a true pioneer.
But as the company diversified its communications business, it became obvious that its home turf south of Auckland was better suited to the flexibility of wireless technology than the constraints of fibre. The power company decided to return to its electricity base and sold Wired Country to Compass Communications under the brand Compass Wireless. Compass remains the parent company today.
Compass Wireless later migrated to the standards-based technology WiMax, allowing flexibility in the choice of equipment manufacturers. It grew steadily for a decade, then in 2015 started implementing Long Term Evolution or LTE, a leading iteration of 4G mobile.
As Peter recounts all this we are climbing Pukekohe Hill, an icon of South Auckland surrounded by market gardens based on the rich volcanic soil. The tower at the summit is not a typical WISP tower. You can get there is a 2-wheel drive sedan up a public road. There’s mains power resulting from Connecta’s history as a lines company subsidiary – no need for pesky solar panels or batteries. The customer count from the tower seems massive. And like many of Connecta’s South Auckland towers there is a fibre connection. Everything feels well established, orderly and robust.
The brand was changed to Connecta in 2017 after Peter joined as GM. “The Compass brand was about cities, but we are country so we needed differentiation,” he explains.
Connecta has a firm hold on its territory. It covers the whole of the old Franklin and Rodney Council areas – east to Clevedon, north almost to the Brynderwyns, and west to the Tasman Sea. It also has a heavy presence in rural Rotorua including the Broadlands Forest, Reporoa and Waikite Valley areas.
Peter sees Connecta as different to most WISPs in that nearly all customers are on licensed spectrum in the 2.5 or 3.5 bands. This reflects the comparatively dense population compared to others, meaning that interference is more of an issue. He talks up the benefits of LTE – “its near line of sight, capable of finding multiple paths, and less prone to interference in high traffic areas.”
Most Connecta customers are using it for voice as well as Internet, due to the strong technical support from the parent company and the poor quality of the residual copper infrastructure. Connecta offers very attractive voice pricing. It also provides hosted PBX services to a number of businesses, offering a major improvement in efficiency.
“We know our customers really well,” Abilash adds. “We know their business, know where their premises are, and geography. Lots are older people who need IT support, or families – rural people are more likely than city people to need help and we are happy to work with them.”
Connecta prides itself that the average length of time a customer stays is 7 years – even those who leave the district often re-sign with parent Compass.
The small Connecta team comprises about 7 people, working within Compass with its overall count of 90. Corporate services and billing are shared but otherwise Connecta staff are able to get on with their own specialist market segment.
Connectivity is Crucial to the Gourmet Herb Business
An old fashioned industry transformed by a total commitment to IT, would be a fair description of Connecta customer Scarborough Fare.
Scarborough Fare is New Zealand’s second largest specialist grower of fresh herbs, with a 19 year history selling a wide variety of herbs into the café and restaurant market through specialist intermediaries.
“Availability and timeliness are everything in our industry,” co-owner Jeanette Rea tells us. “We only deal with the wholesale market, and we are expected to have whatever herbs the end customer needs on hand when they need it. That’s why IT is the basis of our operation.”
So much the basis that every one of the company’s 25 staff have access to the special app. It tells them when they are required at work, what to pick, what to plant, rostered days off, annual leave, and what to order. Deciding what to plant, and when, requires data imported from numerous sources.
IT is also important for compliance. The business, which is hydroponic, is required to monitor and report on native plantings to mitigate earthworks, nutrient waste disposal, and sustainability.
So the relationship with Connecta as their communications supplier is business-critical.
“We switched to Connecta about 18 months ago,” says Jeanette. “The relationship with Abilash is really important. Luckily our IT specialist came to us as a picker with IT qualifications back in the Philippines– he saw the opportunity to improve the business and works very closely with Connecta. It’s great to talk to a familiar local face when we have a request.”
Indeed, Scarborough Fare has become so IT centric that Connecta is in the process of looking to provide an alternative backup connection for redundancy.
Next time you eat out in a classy restaurant, the chances are Connecta is part of the value chain that got the fresh herbs to them and contributed to the taste of the dish you are eating. Bon appetit!
Despite the hype surrounding Vodafone’s launch of the next cellphone technology, it risks a serious downside to thousands of rural broadband users, according to the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA.NZ).
“Vodafone and its competitors are putting huge pressure on Government to reallocate radio spectrum so they can run 5G more cost-effectively,” WISPA Chairman Mike Smith says.
“However, some of the spectrum the mobile companies are trying to claim is already used commercially by about 30 regional WISPs, who collectively service many tens of thousands of rural customers. These customers are farms who use the Internet for business management, rural kids who use it for study, and rural people who depend on it for social inclusion. Most cant get Internet any other way.
“If the government responds to the cellphone companies’ land grab, some of those users could face more expensive Internet or even lose their hard-won connectivity altogether.
“The advantages of 5g are very much in the future. By contrast, WISPs are solving the connectivity issue for rural New Zealand here and now.
“It makes no sense to slow or reverse the progress made in connecting our major export sector, just so that some online games will work a nanosecond faster or city people can connect their home air conditioning to their car GPS. 5g’s benefits are marginal and futuristic, but basic connectivity for rural families and businesses is here, now, and economically essential.
“WISPA seeks a clear assurance from Minister Faafoi that no decision will be made to reallocate spectrum until the issues have been thoroughly aired in public.”
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.