Prominent WISP owners Matthew Harrison (Primo) and Lachlan Chapman (AONet) featured on national TV yesterday with this news item.
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.”
Amuri.net – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman
Everything about Amuri.net feels solid, understated, and sustainable. Entering the grounds of its North Canterbury network operations centre I actually drive past without spotting it. Understated, in that there is no identifying signage – just a cluster of unglamorous white buildings. Solid, because these are seriously strong and professional structures. Sustainable, because Amuri gained fame among WISPs by being the only telecommunications operator to stay on line in Kaikoura throughout the 2016 earthquake.
Amuri.net covers a large block of Canterbury from Kaikoura, south to the Rangitata River, west to the Southern Alps. The site count is relatively modest – just 40. This is because unlike some other WISPs, owner Chris Roberts believes in having a smaller number of big, sophisticated sites each serving a large customer count. Consequently a typical Amuri.net hilltop site features a hut rather than just a cabinet, reflecting the impact of being 1000 meters or more above sea level with a lot of snow to deal with. And if Chris or a staff member get caught out by weather when visiting a site, at least they have ready made overnight accommodation!
Chris Roberts first started taking an interest in wireless Internet around 2005 when he was working on a dairy farm. There was no broadband.
He knew what could be done, having worked previously for lines company Orion, so he started with buying an ADSL connection from the local Chorus exchange and transmitting it aerially to his first site. With all his neighbours wanting connections ADSL proved not to have enough capacity, so he quickly changed the source to Snap Network in Christchurch – at that time an independent network company which since became part of 2degrees mobile.
Then about 2008 FX Networks (now Vocus) came through Culverden with fibre optic cable. After the frustration of trying to get the connectivity Chris needed from Spark (Telecom), FX was a breath of fresh air. Soon Amuri.net had all the connectivity it could wish for and has never looked back.
As we drive through the countryside Chris points out the various farms and workers’ cottages. A typical local dairy farm has 4 to 6 houses on it to cater for farm workers. A few farmers throw in Internet with their tenants’ rent but most tenants pay their own way. Chris is very “hands on” and points out one by one those who are Amuri.net customers and those who are not.
“We don’t do contracts,” he tells me. “The big phone companies we compete against insist on a two year contract and a credit check. Many of the farm workers are immigrants with no credit history. We take them on trust. They’re good payers. Sometimes it’s an advantage to be local and not to look too big.”
Amuri.net is among nine WISPs that has won tenders from Crown Investment Partners to expand its network as part of RBI2, the second stage of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative. Chris points out his site at Doctors Hill south of Culverden. At an altitude of around 1000 metres that is among 30 sites in for either a new build or an upgrade as part of that development. This one will be upgraded from a cabinet to a hut, allowing more space for modern equipment that is now coming on stream.
It takes a team to run a business. As well as Chris and his wife Noelle, they have a head technical leader, two field technicians, and a customer service operator. Two additional people are being brought in for the RBI2 build.
Amuri.net also operates a data centre – a backup facility where medium and large users can store their computer files in case of loss in a disaster. “We’re just the right distance from Christchurch – far
enough away that we’re not going to be part of the same disaster, but near enough that the customer can get up here in an hour or two to retrieve computer files if necessary.” He seems to be right as there is an impressive stack of co-located servers sitting securely in the racks.
Solid, understated and sustainable seem like good words to describe not only Amuri.net but its owner also.
Dan and Mandy Shand still remember the times just a few years ago when they had to set the alarm for midnight so as to send an email from their 140-year-old homestead at Island Hills.
Such was the competition for the limited capacity on dial-up at the end of their ancient North Canterbury copper lines that the small hours were the only time an email could stand a chance of going through.
“We asked Telecom what our options were. They said we should drive up and down between here and town with a radio slightly off the station, listen for crackling noises, and then ask each farmer to please earth his electric fences properly,” Mandy recalls. “They were no help at all.”
“At that stage we were getting established with a four-day walking track as a commercial enterprise for tourists,” Dan said. “We had the farm to run, and an apiary. We’d just returned from Sydney where I’d worked as a graphic artist – I could have kept that job and worked from here if I had the ability to send and receive big files.”
Finally, along came Chris Roberts and Amuri.net. Island Hills Station became his 6th customer.
“Suddenly we could market the walking track properly,” Dan recalls. “The use of online marketing led to us getting some good articles for promotion. Then we went live with online bookings – people could book 24/7 whether Mandy and I were online or not.”
The walking track is like a DoC track but privately owned. Once the visitors started coming Dan and Mandy were up and running. They were doing 3000 bed nights a year, and those visitors were going to other attractions and cafes in the region as well. Everybody won.
“We couldn’t have done any of this without Amuri.net and the WiFi,” Mandy says. “The Internet access led to us being able to buy the farm and start a honey business. We used the Internet to recruit staff.
More recently the entrepreneurial couple have started a flourishing farm and apiary software business involving collaboration among 5 software developers around the world. A row of clocks on the wall shows the time in each of their home cities to help plan Skype video calls.
“I don’t think people understand that an Internet connection is a way of generating cash,” Dan says. “Without WiFi we wouldn’t get workers – and if we did, we wouldn’t retain young staff including the WOOFERs who have become really important to us.”
“These days you can live without a mobile phone, but you can’t live without the Internet.”
Ultimate Broadband – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman
Mike Smith’s enthusiasm is infectious. Ask him a question about the background to his wireless ISP business, Ultimate Broadband, and he’s away. And rightly so – he’s built a highly successful enterprise out of nothing in just a few years. He’s enabled thousands of rural Canterbury residents to get socially connected, run their businesses better and connect their kids to the school network from home. And he’s close to launching a new farm management package to consolidate digital era efficiencies on the region’s farms.
As we motor across the plains south of Christchurch, Mike describes the scope of Ultimate’s network. From historic Tai Tapu on Banks Peninsula Ultimate covers pretty much all the area south to Timaru, east to the coast, and west to the Southern Alps foothills. “We cover most of the land mass from the Port Hills to the main divide – Lord of the Rings country,” he tells me. And aided by a generous share of the government’s RBI2 (Rural Broadband Initiative) programme which they won in a tender process they’re continuing to push out in the directions of Oamaru, Kurow and the Mackenzie Country. There’s an opportunity to double their footprint and significantly increase their customer base.
Customer Service Officer Patricia Paul works on some potential new business.
To serve all this area Ultimate operates 86 commercial repeaters and 60 private repeaters. The difference is that a commercial repeater is owned by Ultimate and used to service any number of customers, whereas a private one has generally been funded by a customer and normally serves only that customer.
I ask whether, given that WISPs operate by bouncing radio signals from hilltop to hilltop, the flatness of the Plains is an advantage or a challenge. “Both,” he responds. The advantage is access to a lot of fibre optic cable to feed the network. The downside is there are a lot of properties without line of sight to a suitable high spot, so it is necessary to use rooftops and other lower spots to fill the gaps, leading to reduced bandwidth capacity and increased demand for scarce radio spectrum. But all those issues are surmountable.
Mike’s background is as a salesman with a technical bent but he’s at pains to downplay his engineering skills. In an earlier career he worked as an Account Manager for Spark (then Telecom) selling mobile and fixed line solutions to small businesses. “I loved the wireless stuff,” he says. So about 9 years ago he started in business on his own, beginning with a small wireless network in the Orari Gorge. It took three years to build the relationships with customers and another year to build the network. Gratifyingly, most of those customers are still with Ultimate.
One thing led to another. Putting his strong sales and business skills to good use he started what is now Ultimate about 2009. With a great deal of help from neighbouring WISP Chris Roberts at Amuri.net Mike developed systems, hired staff and built wireless sites. The brand “Ultimate” was introduced in 2012 and the business has never looked back.
By now we’ve left the road and the big Isuzu 4wd is climbing steeply up a farm track overlooking Banks Peninsula towards Ultimate’s One Tree Hill site. Mike doesn’t seem to have reduced speed much and despite the vehicle handling the terrain effortlessly I get tossed around like Scotty in the old Barry Crump Toyota ads. But the view from the summit make the bruises worthwhile. The solidly-constructed site impresses with its collection of radios and 4×250 watt solar panels.
Bumping back down Mike tells me the secret of selling WISP services. “You can’t beat the old town hall meetings”, he says. Last week Ultimate held one in McQueens Valley near Halswell which 25 people attended. Mike did a spiel as CEO and then introduced his sales team to do the deal. Most attendees signed up on the night and then spread the word to neighbours who couldn’t attend, at which stage just about everyone in the community became a customer – in that instance so successfully that the local RBI2 site build will be brought forward ahead of schedule. “People are really keen to hear from us when we are opening up in a new area,” he says.
Mike is a natural relationship builder and instinctively builds partnerships within his business. He speaks very warmly of the partnership with Amuri.net which morphed from collegial advice and support in the formative phase, to an enduring wholesale arrangement today. Ultimate also partners extensively with other telecommunications operators to source backhaul and share infrastructure. They’re currently working on a deal with a digital trust, and they work closely with local government through their regions’ mayors.
Ultimate’s network operations centre team of Prashant Sharma and Jeremy Jackson looking at some network expansion.
Looking to the future, and like some other WISPs, Ultimate is working on an umbrella management system for digital farms. It will include a wide range of services such as remote opening of gates, stock traceability, fertiliser application, irrigation and farm security – all connected through the burgeoning new “Internet of Things.” “This will be a really good add-on to our farm network offering,” Mike says. “It will benefit the customer by having a single point of call for any servicing, remove the complexity of having multiple service providers’ radio signals creating interference, and make the customer more sticky as far as Ultimate is concerned.
And with 95% OF Ultimate’s customers being farmers, that stickiness is really Important.
Happy Customer – “Hallelujah – I found the ultimate broadband”
With a background in media and tourism, Emma Graham is not your typical Banks Peninsula farmer. She and her husband abandoned city life to become the fifth generation of Grahams to run the century-old, 1400 hectare Ahuriri Farm near Tai Tapu – an estate with a long reputation for producing export quality, lean, tender and succulent Canterbury lamb.
The Grahams are unashamedly city people. Their move to the country was life changing. Emma did a farm management course to prepare. The couple determined to keep their successful city-based businesses running remotely.
Until the realisation dawned that Ahuriri was still on dial up.
“For three years I battled to get fibre here,” Emma recalls. “I knew there was fibre coming up our road. I made several hundred phone calls. But I couldn’t get anyone to listen – costs kept rising, they talked about a six figure capex investment.
“I had a problem with cellphones too. I could just make an outward call by going out on the lawn and waving the phone around. But an inward call – forget it.”
“And then – halleluiah – I found Ultimate Broadband and all the problems were over.”
“The service quality is great. We can now live in this house. My husband can be in touch with his Auckland and Christchurch offices from here. The tenants and farm staff are happy. And Netflix runs better here over Ultimate than it did in town.
“Most important is the way I can now modernise the running of the farm. I can stand in the middle of a paddock and look up its history and status. I’m looking to work with Ultimate on more automated solutions driven by the technology – monitoring water, automated gates, drones, stock traceability, pump operation and a whole lot more. I’ve now got the communication tools to do all that.”
Emma admits to being a true perfectionist – she wants to do it once and do it right. She understands technology and has a true vision of Ahuriri being managed using 21st century technology, at city speeds. That’s a vision she and Mike Smith share, and which an increasing number of WISPs as well as a younger generation of farmers are now working towards.
In the year that Ahuriri has been an Ultimate customer there has been only one issue – on a Saturday afternoon – and Ultimate came out and fixed it within an hour or two.
A new age farming couple with city backgrounds and city businesses, with a tech-savvy, enthusiastic WISP with an eye to a commercial farm management package might well be a winning combination for farm management and social inclusivity in rural New Zealand. Watch this space.
Countrynet – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman
Countrynet owner Russ Watson tells me he’s never had so much fun in his life as building a WISP.
As our chopper climbs 7300 feet into the Remarkables above Queenstown on an idyllic summer day in a heat wave, I can understand that.
Out the window, almost in touching distance, is Double Cone dominated by Countrynet’s highest site. Russ points out the radio gear that takes the signal from Countrynet’s Network Operating Centre in the Watsons’ home and bounces it on to numerous sites further into the region, the array of solar panels that power it, and the batteries and diesel generators for backup. We’re way, way up in the sky and you expect either a deer or Gollum to appear at any moment.
“I’ve climbed up there with a pack of gear a good few times,” he tells me matter-of-factly.
Sooner him than me.
The Remarkables site is one of 30 servicing a couple of hundred happy Countrynet customers. They’re farmers, lifestyle block dwellers and remote businesses. Russ and his wife Shirley look on them as friends. Many are provided with computer services and other technical help that goes well beyond just the fast Internet connection.
With a background including farming, a lifelong interest in amateur radio, and impressive technical expertise in SCADA (the computer systems that run critical infrastructure like drainage, water and electricity,) setting up a WISP came as a natural move late in his career. Around 2002 he started selling Internet connectivity as a by-product of his SCADA work. He, and Countrynet, have never looked back.
The helicopter dives alarmingly towards the famous Walter Peak station.
These days its a major tourist attraction as well as a working sheep station. My hands won’t stop vibrating in time with the rotor blades as I try to make notes, hold the camera steady, and take in the view.
At Walter Peak we land twice – once to inspect another of Countrynet’s radio sites, and the other to drop off a parcel as a favour. Walter Peak is a loyal customer. Without mains power the cellular companies cannot put cell sites nearby so the less power-hungry WISP WiFi sites are perfect for the job. Since Countrynet came along Walter Peak has benefited from the ability to do things like Internet banking and tax work online, but the biggest benefit has been in ability to attract and retain staff without their suffering from real isolation. In the WISP era they watch Netfix and Youtube videos like the rest of us. And remote Otago and Southland have a disproportionate amount of homeschooling so the ability to connect with the school network and the wide world of education is a real plus.
Back at Queenstown Airport we hop into his electric car and head for his Network Operations Centre/home. Russ and wife Shirley are Countrynet’s only employees. They manage the network from laptops and cell phones, from anywhere in the world, with access to usage volumes second by second, the status of each site, and tools to activate backup or bypass a site if something goes wrong. Automation using tailored open source software proliferates, manpower requirements are minimal.
Several contract installers work with them. These people also make the sales calls. There’s no advertising – word of mouth works well in the country so why would you? And the business philosophy is to provide ample bandwidth capacity which in the end is cheaper than trying to manage scarcity as well as delivering a superior customer experience. There are no fixed term contracts – a handshake still means something in the South. “The natural contract of good service and good delivery is deemed sufficient,” Russ says.
VoIP services – Voice over Internet Protocol – are a standard offering. Customers on 2degrees can now use their cellphones for making and receiving calls and texts over Countrynet’s WiFi even if they are way out of range of any cellular network. Other cellphone users can use VoIP by using an internal Countrynet number, referring to this number on the greeting message they leave on their cell phone voicemail. The end result is isolated customers missing far fewer mobile calls.
Countrynet still runs the SCADA network for the local Council. Anyone can go onto countrynet.co.nz/scada and see up-to-the-minute information about water collection and usage through the Lakes District – of limited interest in the cities but crucial intelligence for a water-dependent back country station.
Like any small business there are challenges. Lack of competitive backhaul (connection to the mainstream telecommunications networks), a sense that they are too small to be taken seriously by government and councils, and the “big feet” of the big telcos who trample over the little guys are among them. But Countrynet’s philosophy of “more technology, fewer people” and their close relationship with their customers has made them a highly successful business.
Maybe that’s why Russ is having so much fun.
Minister Bridges, Graham and your team, distinguished guests, fellow WISP’s….
For those that don’t know me, I am the founder and managing director of PrimoWireless, and we based in the region like no other, that is Taranaki.
As the elected president of “WISPA NZ” – the Wireless Internet Service Provider’s Association of New Zealand– it is a huge honour to be able speak to you here today.
Many of New Zealand’s wireless ISP’s have traditionally flown under the radar of the telco sector, we are well known locally, but less so nationally – so it’s incredibly satisfying to see that so many WISPs have been entrusted with parts of the government’s latest RBI2 initiative.
Today feels like an accumulation of all the hard work that Wireless ISP’s have done behind the scenes in rural New Zealand for more than a decade.
WISPA New Zealand was only formed in January of this year, as an independent collective of small businesses getting us on the same frequency was a challenge, however RBI2 was the catalyst for bringing us,
and our industry closer together and with a combined voice.
In recent months we have grown to become an industry body with nearly all of New Zealand’s leading Wireless ISP’s among our members.
So, let me tell you four important facts about those members.
Firstly, we are very much local and part of the scenery of rural New Zealand. Individually our businesses may be small but collectively we are significant and second only to Spark with a combined customer count of over 40,000 users in rural New Zealand.
Secondly, we are totally focused on customer service. We have to be. As local businesses, we see our customers at the supermarket or when out for dinner, our “call centres” are answered by locals, who know the area, and can often be family, sometimes it’s even the business owner on the end of the phone.
Thirdly, “WISPs” are resilient, adaptable and fast on our feet – we build our networks with stability, and redundancy in mind, if you need a service in a remote place then we can deal with it rapidly due our local knowledge and our community support, where we can’t get easy site access, farmers have made tracks for us and in return we sponsor our community’s organisations and events.
And fourth, our technology is leading edge. We use modern radio equipment that has capabilities to deliver high capacity connections with fast installations at an affordable price, rural New Zealand should no longer miss out on the benefits of ultrafast broadband. Multiple users in each household will now be able to go online together using video and other high bandwidth applications.
Our technology is constantly evolving and we are there at the forefront with it to ensure that rural New Zealand doesn’t miss out.
Don’t just ask for better, Ask for the best.
There are about 10 WISPs here today, all members of our association, but there are 2 people I want to recognise officially for what they have done.
I can even claim they were the founders of the WISP industry in New Zealand, and they are none other than James Watts of Inspire.net (Hand up please) and Murray Pearson of Lightwire (Hand up please). James was the visionary who used a combination of business planning, audacity and sheer cheek to get New Zealand’s first WISP established in the Manawatu – Murray led the way doing much the same in the Waikato and with the support of the Waikato university’s WAND research group built one of first wireless networks for schools in New Zealand.
James, Murray – you are part of New Zealand’s telecommunications history, thank you for opening the doors to what is now a thriving industry in the rural New Zealand landscape.
More recently, “WISP’s” have demonstrated just how resilient we can be. Chris Roberts from Amuri.net in Canterbury kept Kaikoura connected during the recent earthquake while every other telecommunications service went off line. The Kaikoura supermarket was able to make sales, the hospital was in contact with the outside world, and the residents were able to reassure their families. Well done, Chris – for showing in a very practical way the resilience of wireless ISP services when the mainstream providers lost their networks.
Lastly, I’d thank Crown Fibre Holdings for the very professional way you have supported the WISP’s through this RBI2 process. We are but little businesses.
We don’t have multi story buildings full of lawyers like the big mobile phone companies and you have been great to deal with and we look forward to continuing to work with you for the good of the families, businesses and schools in the remote corners of rural New Zealand.
Rural New Zealand is our home, and rural Kiwis are our people.
The WISP’s here today may all be dressed up for the occasion but tomorrow morning we will all be back home, clambering up hills with radio gear, getting another site commissioned and closing that digital divide.
Thanks to everyone and here’s to RBI2 being a huge success.
Ma te Wa
– Matthew Harrison.
A number of WISPA.NZ members have submitted bids for RBI2 – the next round of the government’s Rural Broadband Investment programme. The outcome is expected to be announced in August 2017.
This promotional booklet was published by WISPA.NZ to explain why WISPs are the logical choice for public investment in rural areas.
WISPA.NZ with the support of a cluster of members published a promotional brochure entitled “WISPs -the ideal source of rural broadband.” This was produced at the closing of the RBI2 bids and circulated to a wide range of interested groups. Download or view the brochure here.
WISPA.NZ responded to comments by Vodafone CEO Russell Stanners – our Farmers Weekly scan 0517.
The WISPA.NZ Submission to MBIE’s Radio Spectrum Management division on the 5 year review can be downloaded here.