The government’s announcement that it will allocate 5G frequencies instead of selling them is good news for New Zealand telecommunication users.
Mike Smith, the chair of WISPA.NZ, which represents more than 30 wireless internet service providers around New Zealand/Aotearoa, says allocation of the 3.5GHz band gives the telecommunications sector more certainty.
“The announcement ensures our MNO (mobile networks operators) get important access to the spectrum they need for 5G mobile rollouts but also puts clear expectations around increasing 5G coverage in regional New Zealand, which we applaud,” Mike Smith says.
He says the announcement gives the industry an affordable way to deploy 5G technology. “We see it as a win for New Zealand,” he says. “It also confirms the commitment to Māori with the IMSC (Interim Māori Spectrum Commission) being allocated spectrum in the band. “The additional announcement that network provider Dense Air is working with the government to develop 5G services into under-served areas using their unique networking solution with access in the band is also good news.”
Smith says all that remains to be done is a “regional 3.5GHz allocation” which will be a key enabler for rural internet connectivity. “WISPA members, along with private network operators, are ready to use this allocation in the band as soon as it is announced. Once spectrum becomes available we can deliver rural broadband to those people outside of the small towns and major centres which will get mobile 5G services.
He says WISPA is working closely with RSM (Radio Spectrum Management), the Government’s spectrum regulatory agency, to ensure equal and fair access to the 3.5GHz band is made available to WISPS and regional operators. This will ensure rural connectivity is boosted and not set back with a 5G mobile-only rollout.
“There has been an ongoing concern from our organisation that too much focus on 5G mobile would limit the benefits of this band for regional NZ.”
He says some mobile operators may have been tempted to go for the easily accessible customers in the towns and cities, but with this allocation the government can ensure operators move into smaller centres. “Also, providing spectrum in the band for smaller regional providers to provide service those outside of those 5G areas is critical for a digitally inclusive New Zealand”
He says the access to spectrum such as the 3.5GHz is vital for wireless internet service providers. “It’s required to power new technologies that best ensure those outside of major cities and towns can have the connectivity they deserve. “Our WISPA members, who primarily focus is on delivering services to regional NZ, need to have fair and equal access to this new spectrum and any upcoming bands as well. “This will ensure that the more than 75,000 homes and businesses WISPA members already connect can be better served in the years to come.”
He says WISPA looks forward to future announcements in relation to the 3.5GHz band and a “regional spectrum allocation”.
WISPA’s series of videos showcasing some of the professional, can-do, local entrepreneurs who have delivered affordable city-grade broadband connectivity to regional New Zealand, as well as comments about them from key representatives of the rural, technology and political scene.
“Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) in regions throughout New Zealand have been working with the Ministry of Education to support the fast tracking of Internet connectivity for students as announced by the Minister of Education today,” the Chairman of the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association (WISPA.NZ) Mike Smith said.
“Since the lockdown our 26 regional WISPs have been burning midnight oil helping Ministry officials identify homes in our regions with students but no Internet, and who we can connect rapidly.
“WISPs are already heavily committed rolling out the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative project to keep adding to our tally of around 70,000 regional and rural customers. However we recognize the extreme importance of student home connectivity in the present circumstances and will be redoubling efforts to make these connections once the details are resolved.”
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 back here at wispa.nz for updated information and use the contact form to ask any questions.
Normally in working hours I’d say no, but this morning feels different. I’m in the middle of hearing the most fascinating WISP customer story ever; its 11.01am which feels like an omen; Chris Mayer from Kiwi WiFi seems to be sending me subliminal “just do it” signals; and here in the isolated Aniseed Valley the legendary Nelson sunshine is beating down.
Our host Timoti is a greenstone carver. He lives in a cluster of around 10 rural buildings including motor homes. The market for his carving used to be local but suddenly went global when
WISP Kiwi WiFi came along three years ago and gave him the bandwidth to establish an awesome Web site – check out http://www.timoti.nz
Going on line was a game changer, Tim tells me. Before that there was copper – way past its use-by date and no way capable of supporting a Web site.
“I’m a recluse,” Tim says – “the Internet’s great because I can deal with people without having to meet them.” Yet he seems most unlike a recluse – he’s overloaded with personality and engaging to talk to on a range of topics. He just doesn’t like going to town – he’ll make a trip to Brightwater for groceries when he must but gets out again as fast as he can. Nelson is way outside his comfort zone.
Despite being hidden away in an isolated valley few Kiwis, let alone global pounamu-seekers, have heard of, Tim has a fast growing business carving greenstone, dealing at the very top of the market and mostly making to order. Suddenly, thanks to the Web, his market is global.
Tim tells us of an Alaskan couple who looked on line and fell in love with his work. They ordered two wedding rings. Then they flew into Nelson and came to the Aniseed Valley to pick them up. Then they got married down the road.
But the benefits of city-grade connectivity in the Aniseed didn’t end with the Web site. Tim and his team cut the copper and now rely solely on Voice Over IP through Kiwi WiFi. They’ve spent up large to convert everything to Apple. a wonderful merging of an ancient indigenous skillset with the best of 21st century technology. They plan to produce a pounamu pendant for every child in state care. Several kids in the Valley are home schooled with a huge online content to their education.
It’s a huge success story embracing traditional culture, economic development, and a real future for kids who otherwise might get left behind.
But we must move on.
Reluctantly leaving the Aniseed Valley, Chris Mayer tells me about the beginnings of Kiwi WiFi. Chris started life as a fitter and welder, then went on to establish The Internet Kiosk, a successful business providing Wi-Fi hot spots in camping grounds throughout New Zealand. He found that bandwidth to a lot of places where camping grounds exist was problematic, so Chris branched into provisioning connections using WISP technology.
In 2015 Kiwi Wifi became involved with the Tasman District’s Digital Enablement Plan, the forerunner to the RBI2 programme. Seeing the opportunity to develop economic activity in the Aniseed, he leapt in and connected it. That was the start of Kiwi WiFi in the top of the South Island. One thing led to another, and he sold The Internet Kiosk to concentrate on Kiwi WiFi, recently moving from Canterbury to Nelson as part of the process.
For a business that’s already made such an impact in the Aniseed Valley, Kiwi WiFi is young by WISP standards. The current customer count is just 350 but its growing daily. Most significantly, Kiwi WiFi has a government Rural Broadband Initiative contract for at least 16 new sites to cover another 550 plus customers across numerous parts of the Nelson district down to Mount Murchison where it intersects with fellow WISP Zelan. There’s a good working relationship with Zelan’s Mark Kersten as well as neighbour Chris Roberts of Amuri.net on the Canterbury side.
Being later on the scene than most WISPs might well pay off.
Chris takes me to see four hilltop sites, starting with the Observatory Hill site practically in the suburbs of Nelson. From there we progress across a range of climbs from mildly thrilling 4 wheel driving to white knuckle. Customers on the Aniseed site include farms, an adventure centre and several sawmills as well as some residences in downtown Brightwater, but Chris explains he is much more focused on rural opportunities than urban even though urban fibre is relatively slow in coming to the region. Aniseed has already been upgraded as part of his Rural broadband Initiative funding. With many children in the Valley home schooled, reliable connectivity is crucial.
Our tour culminates at High Peak – a spectacular 1200-foot mountain with amazing views across the whole of Nelson, the Tasman district, Kaiteriteri, Mount Murchison, and Motueka
where Kiwi Wifi provides the bandwidth to a free hotspot in the main street. High Peak services 80 customers, growing fast, including Kiwi WiFi’s own new office and workshop. The summit is owned by a well-known local horse whisperer who is very happy to enjoy city grade connectivity on the rooftop of the province.
Forestry is the dominant industry. Trees present a significant challenge to any WISP, as the wireless services depend on line of sight. So the planning requires anticipation of the likely growth of trees and the cooperation of land owners sometimes to do some topping.
Heading back to base we come across another very happy Kiwi WiFi customer. Gavin Alborn’s tourist business runs 15 water taxis that carry an astonishing 125,000 passengers a year around the Tasman area, as well as a restaurant, camping ground and sea kayaks.
“We had hopeless telecommunications a couple of years ago, and we need perfect connectivity and redundancy to access our servers in Queenstown, so we approached Chris,” Gavin tells me. “Now we have an antenna on our roof pointing back to Marahau. Our business Internet is resilient and first class – and my home theatre works brilliantly!”
So Kiwi WiFi has a big future. But as Chris drives me back to Nelson Airport its Tim and his carving that made the big impression on me. How Kiwi Wifi transformed a business, a valley, and potentially a generation of kids. A great success story and an inspiration for many. I’ll keep watching them.
And I should add that the amazing Timoti very generously gave me a carved pendant – another story that you can read here.
Raglan’s unique. For generations its been the Waikato’s beach town – a summertime mecca for Waikato and Auckland beachgoers. Once it had an image problem, but today its very mainstream.
Its crowded in summer. On a Saturday you can wait in line 90 minutes for a hamburger. Its unspoilt and natural. The surf is sensational. According to “Lonely Planet” its New Zealand’s best-looking town. The population is an eclectic mix of international business people, hippies, and surfers.
On the downside, there’s not a lot of employment, certainly so in the off season. And the residents aren’t in a hurry to accelerate development with some having famously threatened to leave if KFC ever comes to town.
There isn’t much work in Raglan. Most people commute to Hamilton.
Despite all that, Raglan has fibre-grade broadband before the cities even got it. Its got Wanna Internet to thank for that.
Driving west from Wanna’s new premises in Frankton – a few metres from SH1 with oodles of room to expand – founder Jason Brand tells me how Wanna came about.
Jason spent many years overseas. He’s an electronic engineer by profession but a telecommunications guy by choice. He worked in London, South Africa and Australia. His career culminated as Group Chief Technical Architect of global financial services giant Investec.
But Jason had done his dash with big corporates and computers. Around 2011 he returned to his roots in Raglan. With nothing much to do over Christmas he set up a wireless hot spot. It actually made a small amount of money.
So Jason upgraded Wanna from a dalliance to a serious business. He organised backhaul from Snap Internet on a standard home plan and bought some access points to service a handful of customers. “It cost me a heap in data over-runs,” he confessed. Then he stumbled across Go Wireless, the doyen of and equipment supplier to Kiwi WISPs. From there it was game on.
Jason’s original goal was to WiFi-connect the whole of Raglan. He didn’t quite get there. But life moved on. The Snap bill got higher and higher as he connected multiple customers to what was essentially a single residential plan. So working with Waikato “Telco Guy” Shane Hobson he organised a professional backhaul deal through FX Networks, allowing him to sign up multiple customers in the far bigger market of Hamilton.
At that time Chorus was realising it no longer had the benefit of a monopoly. Suddenly its backhaul pricing dropped by 90%. The backhaul floodgates opened.
That made Wanna’s business model a whole lot more enticing. The company became nationwide but retained a Waikato focus. In no time they’d built a dozen wireless sites from Te Akau south to Kawhia and Whatawhata in the east.
He’s been telling me all this as we wind our way west through undulating country towards the coast. Now, we turn off the road and climb a steep farm track for 15 minutes to Wanna’s site at Mount Te Uku station, way up in the sky among the wind turbines.
As WISP sites go this is special. Its powered by both solar panels and wind turbines. Solar is king but wind kicks in for a couple of weeks each year when the sun disappears. The pristine concrete slab looks as if its been vacuumed that morning – everything is immaculate. It’s a site that’s benefited from a decade of trial and error. The concrete pad makes life easy – its safe to work on, convenient, meets the OSH goals, and avoids the cattle damaging the fence by sticking their heads through to eat the grass.
Jason claims proudly a site like this should go a decade without serious maintenance.
Every WISP’s area has individual climatic and topographical challenges. Wanna contends with wild westerly salt water gales which cause huge issues with rust. Powder coating helps resist this. They’ve seen wind turbines blown to pieces on a really bad day. It’s not just confined to WISP sites – Wanna Systems and Networks Manager Paul Willard tells me he has put special reinforced walls on the west side of his home so it won’t blow over. Issues with loose sand have seen the turbines literally blown off a site or two on bad days. Planting special grasses specific to the area helps to stabilise their equipment.
Wanna’s coverage has grown greatly over time. Today the network comprises over a dozen sites covering the coast from Te Akau (west of Taupiri) to Kawhia, and inland to the general area of Whatawhata. There’s constant expansion – a new site has just been commissioned at Aotea to strengthen the Kawhia footprint. All that’s taken Wanna’s customer count to around 1100 businesses and homes.
Back at the Frankton base I get a chance to talk more to Paul Willard. By his own description a “classic nerd” Paul spent time as Global Operations Manager for SMX email and has been in large corporates for most of his career. He’s got the tech skills as well as business credentials honed by an MBA.
“I knew nothing about WISPs when I came into this sector,” he tells me. He shifted from the corporate world into another local WISP several years ago, then moved to Wanna. “I went to the WISPA conference last week while Jason went up a hill to pour concrete for the next tower,” he quips. “That shows the way we each prefer to work.”
As for the future, who knows in such an evolving industry? Fibre to the premises is increasingly intruding into Wanna’s core territory. New settlements targeted now have small clusters of customers – maybe 20 compared to the 3500 on offer in Raglan. New wireless technologies, especially LTE (Long Term Evolution) are imminent and offer huge new efficiencies preceded by a lot of capital investment.
Jason sees local customer service as Wanna’s greatest strength. He speculates that WISPs might morph into RISPs – regional Internet Service Providers offering a selection of different access technologies of which wireless is just one, from a range of vendors, through a local interface. “Wanna is already in that transformation and preparing for the future,” he says. “They value the opportunity to talk to a real person. Our edge is customer service – but even that is under threat as artificial intelligence takes on the traditional human interface in contact centres.”
Happy Wanna Customers are easy to find
Alex Crane, Security Consultant – “Absolutely Exemplary service!”
Not many customers describe their telecommunications service as “Absolutely exemplary” but that’s the description from Wanna customer Alex Crane. Alex is a Raglan-based security consultant whose needs are quite special, including penetration testing. His 120 year-old copper line in a dead spot in Raglan was never going to meet his needs, and experiences with both Vodafone and Spark showed no interest in a customer whose needs didn’t fit their “cookie cutter” product.
“Wanna’s billing and reminder services, their automation levels and personal service, are the best customer service I’ve ever experienced from an ISP,” says Alex. It doesn’t get much better than that.
– “Some People Really Know What They’re Doing”
Across the opposite side of Wanna’s network I find another huge Wanna fan. Gordon Simmonds is the accountant at Crusader Meats on Highway 30, midway between Mangakino and Benneydale. With 170 staff Crusader is small by meat industry standards, but in Benneydale its massive.
“We had nothing here for connectivity,” Gordon tells me. “The copper was unusable – it couldn’t even do Internet banking. We’d had a go ourselves at getting a wireless connection, but it was going down most days.
“Then Jason from Wanna came into the picture. He started again with proper solar power and technology. Everything went perfectly. Soon we had enough confidence to add our voice services into the mix – which is really important in a place with no cell coverage – and to add our other sites also.”
Few businesses choose to service a disparate range of small, far-flung markets such as Wairoa, Tolaga Bay, Haast, Minginui and Murupara. But then, WiFi Connect is not a conventional business.
Along with sister WISPs Toko Net and Wairoa Wireless, supported by wholesaler Gisborne.net, and motivated by a passion for getting under-privileged kids aboard the digital era, founder Ivan Lomax relishes the tough challenge of bringing the most remote corners of the country online.
Its not easy. Most WISPs focus on a natural region that they can easily service – usually with all customers within an hour or two’s drive of the base.
Born in the education sector, and specialising in low income communities, WiFi Connect’s background is steeped in low decile schools and a desire to give their deprived rural kids a digitally-based education comparable with their city peers.
Ivan Lomax was Principal of Te Puia Springs School, an isolated rural community of around 350 people 100km north of Gisborne, when chance made him an early convert to digital education. Schools up the East Cape were plagued with poor ERO reports, so the Ministry of Education partnered with local runanga, Te Runanga o Ngati Porou and called in the 2020 Trust to see whether its Computers in Homes programme could help.
Ivan’s home area of Tokomaru Bay got involved – the community wanted decent broadband so they could use the gifted computers. Seed money was contributed by the 2020 Trust, and WISP Gisborne.net provided connectivity.
Soon after, the community trust that had been established to manage the Tokomaru Bay project collapsed. “I ended up facing 12 Toko customers to whom I’d promised Internet access,” Ivan recalls. So he took them on and quickly expanded to 60 customers. Now Tokomaru Bay has a stand alone, low cost WISP with 300 customers wholesaling services from Gisborne.net.
The Wairoa Story
At the same time 200km south in Wairoa, colleague Leon Syme was walking a similar path.
“I’ve been a school technician since university,” Leon recalls. “I got a Masters in Business Administration, undergraduate degree in Arts, and spent a year in Japan.
“Then I taught myself about computers, starting on a Commodore 64. I became a technician and learning facilitator for several local schools. Ronald Brice (of Gisborne.net) had just established a couple of towers in Wairoa, and I became his man at the southern end of the network. So about 2008, working with Ivan, Ronald, and Laurence Zwimpfer of the 2020 Trust, we started out – then got funding from a remote schools broadband fund under Gisborne.net’s name to expand the network even more.”
Fast forward to 2019. Wairoa Wireless in its own right is still small, but the combination of a friendly commercial relationship with Ivan and Ronald, and a day job as school technician, keep Leon fully occupied. Customers are mostly farmers and businesses. A few are way out at the back on the edge of Te Urewera country. Others are halfway down state highway 2 towards Napier, and in remote Putere south of Lake Waikaremoana. The Maungataniwha Forest kiwi restoration project, on a series of ridges between the Te Urewera National Park and the Whirinaki Conservation Forest, is a customer of Wairoa.net. Little chance of fibre there any time soon!
Leon describes Wairoa.net as a hobby that hangs off the “serious businesses” of WiFi Connect and Gisborne.net. “Ivan’s the figurehead – I’m the visionary who does the work,” he quips.
The Minginui Story
With WiFi Connect and Wairoa.net well established, a call came from Chris Eketone who Ivan and Ronald had worked with many years earlier on the “Tuhoe on Line” project. “Tuhoe want to know you as a person before doing business,” says Ivan. That led to a project in the township of Minginui, midway between Murupara and Ruatahuna, then famous for endemic multi-generational unemployment, damp homes, and real poverty.
The local school Te Kura o Te Whaiti-nui-a-Toi, was an early recipient of Fibre to the School. So supported by the school’s Board, the group arranged to build 3 towers to connect the remote valleys where the student lived. The broadband is not free to households, but there is a low cost service with high data allowances. Students now access broadband Internet 24/7 like their Auckland peers.
But the impact goes far wider than just online learning and homework. After decades with zero employment growth, a serious number of jobs has been created as a direct result of connectivity – 80 at a native plant nursery, and eight at a dairy farm among them.
The school curriculum has also developed with programmes around local fauna and the natural environment.
Chris Eketone recently told the Education Gazette “Like us, with the right support and determination the world is your oyster – its transforming our childrens’ learning opportunities and the benefits are spreading across the community.”
Haast, and the West Coast
While the Computers in Homes programme was at its peak, it had the West Coast REAP (Rural Enterprise Assistance Project) as a strong partner. Discussions among a range of parties, including WiFi Connect, resulted in building a 45km, 5 tower network. It ran from Fox Glacier south to Bruce Bay, linked to an existing WiFi Connect presence in Hokitika, enabling locals to migrate off satellite and use the Internet much more affordably. It was a very collaborative project – WiFi Connect provided travel, intellectual property and time, the Te Runanga o Ngati Makaawhio provided marae accommodation and helicopter support, and InternetNZ provided funding.
That led to a successful major bid to build the RBI2 (Rural Broadband Initiative) project in South Westland, a project that will keep Ivan and team very busy the next two years.
That’s not all. There are Wifi Connect services in Ruatoki, Murupara, Kawerau, Te Urewera and other places at various stages of development.
The Man in the Centre of This
Its an idyllic mid summer morning when I meet Ivan Lomax by the iconic Tolaga Bay wharf to see WiFi Connect’s heartland for myself. Mount Titirangi – one of a confusing number of similarly-named places – dominates the landscape just to the south. It looks alluring as a site for a WISP tower and it proves to be just that as we drive the near vertical slope in a trusty 4wd. There’s no room for error – a slight mis-judgement would have us back at the highway in a nanosecond – but a magnificent view of Cooks Cove where Cook moored in 1769 is a welcome distraction from the precipitous slope.
The summit of Titirangi is home to an impressive array of wireless sites with antennas that reflect the distances to the next hilltop in the chain. But unlike most WISPs who can go to their highest site and see most of their coverage area, only a tiny fraction of the far flung WiFi Connect network is visible from here.
“Is fragmentation an issue,” I ask Ivan.
“Not at all. The good thing is we only go where we are asked to go. So we already have key people on the ground. We get sub-contractors locally. We hire keen people who were unemployed,” he says.
“Our core clientele is low-income – but we need some high-income customers to pay the bills. The logistics are challenging – in some places there is not even a courier service.
“We’re not into flashy marketing – it will happen but we’re not quite ready. And we’re lucky that both Leon and I have other income streams so we can afford to do this.
The scattered but needy customer base WiFi Connect services must count itself lucky too. The lives of many needy young New Zealanders are being transformed by the extraordinary work of WiFi Connect to close the digital divide, drawing on the willingness of visionaries in isolated communities to help themselves.
It’s in the corporate DNA of MATnet, and the blood of founders Gren Povall and Hoppie Joubert.
They’ve lived in the spectacular surroundings of the Mackenzie Basin for more than 20 years each, and breathed engineering since childhood. Almost everyone in Twizel seems to know them.
Gren has the British equivalent of the new National Diploma of Engineering in electronics and telecommunications, and is a qualified radio mechanic. Hoppie, after starting a career as a fingerprint specialist in the South African police, then qualified in Telecommunications through an adult apprenticeship. Both have supplemented their technical know-how with business management qualifications.
But its engineering that gets Gren and Hoppie of bed. You can tell that from the glint in the eye when the techie talk starts, the superbly-stocked and super-orderly workshop, and the solid technical base on which MATnet (Mackenzie Access Technologies Network) has been built.
And their home base, Twizel, has been engineering-focused since the days when the Ministry of Works built the massive Waitaki River hydro scheme which dominates the landscape.
G&H Comms – the parent company of MATnet – started in 2007. At the time Gren and Hoppie were both working locally for the giant Swiss/Swedish multinational ABB. The pair were donkey deep in electricity, installing and maintaining a range of SCADA and fibre infrastructure in power stations.
“A local fish hatchery wanted a way to monitor its pools and equipment,” Hoppie recalls. “Text was too unreliable, so they asked us about a SCADA solution to monitor the alarms over the Internet. A few years on and we had a network and the bones of a business.”
Today MATnet has about 500 users. Coverage starts near Burkes Pass in the north, runs east to Peak Valley near Benmore, west to Mount Cook Station, and south to the Lindis Pass. The topography is extraordinarily varied and the coverage map looks like a piece from an intricate jigsaw puzzle.
The Mackenzie country is no place to take shortcuts. Some of MATnet’s 27 wireless sites are subject to extreme weather, especially gale force winds. One cools to a constant minus 20 degrees in winter. Heat transfers are used during winter for de-icing. Most sites are monitored by high definition cameras. Visiting on an idyllic January afternoon, it was hard for me to believe that just 2 days earlier it had been snowing on the surrounding mountains. The MATnet team never go anywhere without winter gear. Snow, sheep damage, and wind damage are always risks so no shortcuts are taken in design. Wind gusts of 180km/h have been recorded on one site. Many sites include weather stations.
Customers are predominantly farms, but also include many accommodation places in this tourist Mecca – from luxury establishments charging up to $3000 a night, through to backpackers. But whether they pay $3000 or $30, modern day globe trotters all expect to play Netflix movies without buffering. That’s something MATnet cheerfully provides. One recent backpacker guest described its service as the fastest backpacker Internet they had discovered anywhere in the world. An AirBnB place told MATnet that after they signed up for high quality reliable Internet their occupancy rate doubled from about 35% to more than 70% – a huge return on a small investment. Yet another top end establishment scans MATnet’s live cameras before deciding whether to collect the guests by car or by plane.
Then there are salmon farms with retail outlets. Everything needs to be monitored – oxygen levels, water temperature, and processes. Security surveillance is huge. Meanwhile the shop needs EFTPOS.
That’s a lot of MATnet’s secret of success. Its connectivity business is supplemented by technical support in diverse ways through the parent company – SCADA systems, a lot of power station work including telemetry, innovative systems for the South Island rowing venue, new ways for shearers to record shearing and wool packing data in the merino industry, and security systems. When a customer wants something innovative Hoppie and Gren leap into action – that’s what drives them. “Industrial trouble shooters” is their self-description.
MATnet has never marketed itself extensively in a formal manner. It relies heavily on word of mouth. “The main driving force for demanding quality Internet is farmers’ wives,” Hoppie says. “They need connectivity so they can order tractor parts and do the banking, and their kids can do homework – these are decisions that are generally made by women.”
Gren gets excited about bringing connectivity to the country. “It’s satisfying giving country people something the city people take for granted,” he says.
Summer is an exciting time because of the district’s influx of tourists. There are numerous peak events – the Maadi Cup for rowing often crashes the cell phone networks. Then there are food and wine festivals. At Christmas the population of Twizel goes from about 1500 to 9000. MATnet doesn’t let its community down but gears up to meet the demand.
Meanwhile the business is heavily into community activities. Live camera coverage of rowing championships, a backbone for media coverage, PA services, search and rescue, and community security are all offered on a pro bono or cost recovery basis.
Is there scope for MATnet to grow? Geographically, perhaps not much other than some growth in burgeoning lifestyle blocks. But MATnet’s unique combination of skillsets and enthusiasm for telemetry and related technologies may drive innovation within the existing customer group for a long time.
Engineering innovation in the Mackenzie country certainly didn’t end when the last power station was commissioned. Look no further than MATnet for genuine, ongoing on-line entrepreneurship.
Accounting in the Backblocks
Susan (Sue) Allan runs a thriving accounting practice from the property where she was brought up – on the main highway near Burkes Pass, served by MATnet’s Mt Hay wireless site.
“No way could I work from here without reliable Internet,” she says. “For a while I struggled by with the old Farmside satellite. Farmside was great for a while but they didn’t upgrade. Over time I found I was constantly having to get in the car and drive to my parents’ place to send emails and access all the online services.”
“Then I met Hoppie and Gren. I was one of their first customers. The accounting business, the farm and our guest accommodation have all benefited.”
Being a professional accountant means there are a lot of software changes to contend with. There’s a daily download of IRD data into Sue’s system and a constant range of work in progress on the IRD site for various clients.
Sue’s son Josh is usually at boarding school in Timaru, but appreciates the high quality Internet when he comes home for holidays.
Art and Tourism – “No WiFi, no survive”
So says Julie Greig at Burkes Pass Accommodation and Gallery, another who was on “expensive and useless” satellite Internet until MATnet came along.
“We’re delighted. Its brilliant. Asian tourists use a huge amount of data and now we can provide it, >says Julie.”
In the satellite days the business couldn’t share Internet with the guests – there just wasn’t enough capacity. But now they love it and get regular reviews on the travel sites commenting favourably on the quality of the connectivity.
Retail Needs to be On Line
Claire Lawrence at Mackenzie Country Building Supplies “had a gutsful” when a big national phone company put new equipment in, “destroyed” her Internet, and showed no interest in her predicament with her business being taken off line. “They just wouldn’t talk to me,” she laments. We couldn’t do banking or anything – it was a networking issue. Big corporate arrogance.
But a few hours after talking to MATnet her store was on line again.
“Everything has worked perfectly since then – MATnet fixed my problem even though it wasn’t theirs,” says Claire. “The service is magnificent – if we have trouble I know they’ll be there.”