Rural New Zealand is fast approaching a milestone where almost every farmhouse and rural residence can access city grade broadband at city prices.
That’s the view of WISPA.NZ – the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association – following today’s government announcement of significant additional broadband funding.
“That’s an extraordinary achievement for a country with our geography and challenging rural landscape,” says WISPA.NZ spokesman Ernie Newman. “Today’s announcement of another significant government investment in WISPs is a further step to close the gap.
“Fifteen years ago New Zealand’s telecommunications industry was the least competitive in the developed world alongside Mexico. Today its one of the most competitive. Our broadband coverage especially is way better than Australia’s.
“WISPs, or Wireless Internet Service Providers, have been a key part of the solution. About 30 of them supply broadband services over digital mobile radio, bouncing Internet signals from one hilltop to the next using thousands of radio sites around rural New Zealand. They are regional companies, mostly owner operated, with a strong commitment to customer service which sets them apart from the mainstream urban telcos. They represent private innovation and entrepreneurship at its best.
“WISPs are very skilled at fast deployment. Since they first became part of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative last year they have built many hundreds of new wireless sites in some of the most isolated parts of the country – vastly faster than the mainstream national phone companies.
“WISPs are looking forward to the challenge of completing the job for the benefit of rural communities economically, socially and educationally. “
CONTACT FOR COMMENT: Ernie Newman, 0223764363, email@example.com
When WISPA.NZ invited Inspire Net founder James Watts to open our 2018 midyear meeting in Palmerston North almost 100% of our members, from the far north to the deepest south, came along. That shows just how much James and Inspire are legends – not just among WISPs but across the whole telecommunications industry.
Twenty years ago as a young Manawatu electrician with passion for the Internet and extraordinary foresight, James started Inspire Net to provide dial-up access to the Internet at a price people were willing to pay, rather than the $8.50 per hour or $279 for 100 hours per month that people were having to pay. Inspire launched 100 hours of dial up for $35/28days.
Computers were always second nature for James. At age 8 he soldered together some components to make his first simple computer. So after he started work as a sparkie, whenever there was a job working on process control machinery or with an IT component James was assigned.
Around 2000, Inspire Net was booming. The Initial business plan forecast 2500 customers in the first 2 years, but that figure was reached in just 4 months. The trust, responsiveness and loyalty of a “local” supplier proved to be very alluring to people who were losing patience with the impersonal and lacklustre customer service provided by the big national or multinational operators.
Inspire scrambled to keep up with its growth, hiring more staff and commissioning new offices. This provided a service where customers were actually greeted by a real person instead of leaving cash in the letterbox to pay their bills, as often staff were out helping people with Inspired in home set up service.
That entrepreneurialism and vision – and arguably, incredible cheek – set the foundation for New Zealand’s biggest regional telecommunications company, delivering city-grade Internet services across a wide swathe of the lower North Island using WISP wireless, fibre, and copper services that Inspire either owns or resells.
By 2003 Inspire had many 2Mbit frame circuits and a 10Mbit circuit purchased from then dominant service provider Telecom. They asked Telecom to provide a 100Mbit service. Telecom declined – “Nobody needs 100Mbit,” they said, but eventually came back with a “stupid price”
Annoyed by the lack of insight into where wanted connectivity to be, James invested in some fibre and ducting. He drove around Palmerston North and persuaded roadwork gangs to drop fibre in the trenches before closing them up. He rewarded them with a few cans of beer, and laid his own fibre to replace what he was renting, made it go at the speed needed, then promptly cancelled many circuits he was renting as Inspire moved their customers onto their own fibre.
Given the success of faster and cheaper connectivity, James decided Inspire should carry on building fibre for themselves. They shared trenches with water mains and sewer lines, and even other Telcos and power companies, wherever they could find a hole in the ground at a price that made sense. “These days we’d be expected to pay our fair part of the trenching and access costs,” James acknowledges, “but at that time nobody worried, a lot of them thought I was a bit mad, as we laid duct many places that didn’t make sense then, but over the years it has all slowly come together into a pretty big network.”
So with a sizeable amount of fibre duct buried under the city, James quietly arranged a contractor to link it all together. “It was all perfectly legitimate – we’re a network operator with certain legal entitlements,” said James. Suddenly the Palmerston North CBD was connected by fibre on a par with Wellington’s Citylink. Local and central government offices, health centres and businesses were quick to seize the opportunities. Some had considered a move to Wellington in search of better Internet, but that trend ended.
X-ray clinics and radiologists were among the early users. Suddenly the big medical images could be transferred across town or beyond at the speed of light instead of being taken by car.
Market-wise, Inspire focused on schools, businesses, and those home users who were willing to pay a premium. Some enthusiastic users already wanted to use streaming so the system was upgraded to provide for that. The fibre network covered Palmerston North, but at the same time Inspire was Nationwide for dial up using IP net, and had a large footprint reselling ADSL / Bitstream.
In return for sharing those original trenches over the years, the city and surrounding towns have benefitted from the free use of fibres to run their local CCTV networks, and the launch of a free Wi-Fi service using all the traffic light poles around the CBD that had fibre available.
But increasingly James came to realise as Telecom started to put broadband around the inner city that rural people were missing out. Schools in town were getting ADSL but rural schools didn’t have broadband. “My brother’s kids couldn’t get broadband to do their homework, or even at their school” he recalls. “So we set up a wireless connection for them. As soon as word got around other locals wanted the same service and in no time we had 250 customers up the Pohangina Valley.”
Emboldened by success, Inspire made the call to roll out wireless on a larger scale starting with 3 or 4 Towers. Some of the farmers were sceptical. “They thought we were just smart townies out for a look in our shiny new gumboots.” So Inspire started using community champions and solar power. That was where they started making the serious breakthrough. The model worked because the community was actively involved. Meanwhile other WISPs were emerging all over New Zealand.
In the early days the customers were expected to pay for the Customer Premises Equipment. That proved problematic because customers baulked at paying every time there was a service upgrade, so the CPE was included within the monthly fee.
Today Inspire runs most of the services that it sells, but still has a significant amount of resell business on the UFB fibre and legacy copper networks. The community champions are still at the forefront of the Inspire Rural Wireless expansion.
The company is building up to 10 sites a month, with the construction process now so refined that three staff can build a new site in one working day.
With growth comes cost. Inspire now has 518 towers and a headcount of 38 people. Nine are in the infrastructure team working on the fibre and wireless networks, 14 on the technical helpdesk, 10 in the network operating centre, 4 in administration, and one in sales. There are over 4500 wireless customers on the Inspire Rural Wireless network, making it New Zealand’s largest WISP. Coverage essentially includes everywhere between Waverly and National Park in the north, Porangahau and all through the Tararua in the east, and down to the Kapiti region to the south.
So where next? Currently Inspire is building many new sites as a result of a contract through the government’s RBI2 initiative. It’s been rolling out public free Wi-Fi service at stadiums, cafés, bars and other public places, while sponsoring numerous charities including Ronald McDonald House, the Kimbolton Sculpture Festival, the Arohanui Hospice and Life Education. The goal from here is to service and support its customers’ lifestyles and grow as their lifestyle changes.
Inspire has no aspiration to overbuild other WISPs, James has always had a belief that New Zealand is too sparse for the WISPs to win by completing with each other, but by collectively covering people that need connectivity there is a good amount of business to be had for each WISP. It has a very secure customer base. Market research has revealed that ironically most people in Palmerston North don’t know Inspire is a local business, so it is doing some local public relations to remind them.
An interesting development in 2019 will be Spark’s venture into sport and especially the Rugby World Cup. James is confident that the Inspire network will cope fine with the Cup, fortified by a continual programme of upgrades over many years. The weak link if there is one will potentially be Spark’s own network, with not only Spark having never chosen to peer with the other ISPs of New Zealand for sharing traffic, but also their choice to migrate a large customer base off the copper network onto their mobile network, “it will be interesting to see how that copes if everyone wants to have a high enough resolution on their phone or tablet to actually see the ball or read the score”
The aptly-named Inspire is on a very secure base and will surely be around for a long time into the future.
No disrespect – but sartorial elegance is not usually a defining characteristic of the rugged rural blokes who typify the WISP community. But then, Stan and Heather Rivett aren’t your typical WISP stereotypes.
Stan (founder), wife Heather (recently recruited director) and dog Trixie greet me in their offices in Ocean View on the Otago Coast looking like city business people. No sign of the High-Viz and steel capped boots favoured by most WISP owners. Nor the standard 4WD – just a sedan, albeit a high performance one as Stan is a serious petrolhead. It’s a Friday and I’m on holiday so I feel a bit underdressed.
But I soon discover one crucial difference between Netspeed and the more conventional WISPs. Netspeed is a franchise operation. The Rivetts and their team run the office and customer service centre, the field work is done by the franchisees.
Stan started Netspeed in 2003 – “I was bullied into it by friends,” says Stan. In those days he was running a retail car stereo business in Dunedin, importing the equipment and selling it on TradeMe. So he advertised and quickly sold three franchises, in Christchurch, Wanaka and Oamaru. “It was a good proposition,” he says – “we signed our three franchise holders before servicing a single customer.”
The customers came thick and fast. It’s a familiar story – serious regional businesses trying desperately to get by on ADSL, Jetstream and dial-up. So a 10Mbps offering over wireless was a great attraction.
The early services were over a frame relay, and two years in Stan still had dial-up in his own office. But then a migration to WISP Wireless sent the business down a more conventional track. With a serious competitive advantage for rural customers.
The franchise arrangement works very well according to Stan. “We have local people to run the business in their local area while we provide the customer service, help desk, operations, technical support, accounting and marketing. We’ve built our own cloud-based accounting system.”
Heather joined the business as co-Director three years ago, following a corporate career. “I enjoy our customers and sales. I also work with Tania on the accounts and marketing as well as pulling the systems into shape.”
The Rivetts have an enthusiastic office team around them. Matt is the longest serving – he is Support Team Leader doubling as chief Coder and sometime hacker. Nick, who does marketing and promotions, has been there 2 years. Elliott, in charge of support calls and sales, is more recent. Among them all they handle functions as diverse as graphic design, social media, and technical support for all the franchises. It’s a tight, energised workplace.
Irene Walton is an enthusiastic customer of Netspeed. I visit her in the Karitane home she has just moved to and is renovating. Karitane is her 4th Netspeed connection having earlier connected to them while living and working in Wanaka, Hawea Flat, and Owaka where she and her husband owned a restaurant.
“Their service was absolutely 100% in all four locations,” Irene told me.
“They’re exceptionally helpful – whenever there’s been an issue they’re right onto it – even if its something like a PC issue that’s nothing to do with them. They talk me through it. They’re patient and never pass the buck.”
“When we arrived here in Karitane we needed a new chip. Nick arrived with it on a Sunday afternoon – he’d gone out for a Sunday drive and brought it. By comparison with Xtra in the early days, we could never even get hold of them.”
The Canterbury Dimension
It’s a major hike to the Rakaia Gorge in inland Canterbury but next morning I turn up to meet Netspeed Canterbury franchisee David Gabites at the quaintly named Windwhistle Garage. His network runs 125km from Christchurch to Lake Coleridge and provides connectivity to most of the farms in the Rakaia Valley, and more recently to Upper Glenthorne. At the extreme its 190km from Christchurch across 12 radio hops. Customers include a dozen high country stations with about 35 users including farm workers – in some cases the workers’ cottages are part of the main farm account and in others they are billed separately. There’s no cellular coverage in most of these areas.
“This place is called Windwhistle for a reason,” David tells me. Not the case on this sunny spring day, but David should know – his father was an accountant in Ashburton and had many clients in the high country including the famous Erewhon Station. The high winds have a major effect on the design of Netspeed’s sites which are engineered to withstand quite exceptional gusts.
“I was a retailer in an earlier life,” he tells me. “One day Telecom sent me a letter out of the blue apologising for the quality of my Internet in suburban Christchurch and saying there was nothing they could do about it – I hadn’t complained so I don’t know why they wrote. But it caused me to contact Stan Rivett to see what could be done and suddenly I found myself with a franchise.
“Then came the quakes and the GFC – but we got through all that and moved ahead.”
The franchisor/franchisee relationship seems clear and workable. Stan is responsible for monthly invoicing, marketing, the service centre, and the main Christchurch transmission site. David does installation including billing for installs, building and maintaining sites, monitoring, trouble shooting, and the 0800 service calls.
We arrive we up in the hills at Netspeed’s Coleridge site. Coleridge Village is visible just below the ridge. The site services a diversity of customers – big stations, smaller farms, the Mount Olympus ski field, and a hunting lodge. The view is stunning. “On a fine day,” David concedes, “its tempting to come up here and fix something that really doesn’t need fixing.” It sure beats his earlier life as a furniture marketer and salesman, allowing him to exploit his fascination with our high-country farms.
Netspeed is part of a crowded space for Canterbury WISPs with Ultimate and Amuri. But they’re friendly competitors who don’t tend to overbuild each other on the same sites, he says. There’s plenty of scope for all. And although the foundation of the business is rural, Netspeed has a significant number of customers in suburban Christchurch who choose its wireless option because of superior customer service.
On the way back to Windwhistle we stop at a cattle yard to meet happy customer William Innes. William’s been with Netspeed for 9 years. “The previous satellite service was awful and bloody slow,” he says. “Also very expensive with lots of maintenance issues.
“We’re really happy with Netspeed – you get the odd service glitch such as during the Port Hills fire, but they’re quick to fix these. And its great that my young kids (8, 7 and 5) can do their homework on line the same as the city students. The schools more and more just assume that all students have home Internet and fast speeds.”
“Everything on the farm is now done on line – environmental reporting, fertiliser, farm management data, and the whole works. And the Internet makes it far easier to recruit farm workers.”
Driving back to Windwhistle I feel a long way from Stan and Heather in their Ocean View office. But this team effort with franchisor and franchisee seems to work brilliantly with everyone playing to their strengths and relishing their work. Most important, the high-country residents are very satisfied and happy.
“Wireless Dynamics has been our saviour -our previous supplier was very slow and expensive; it worked for the EFTPOS most of the time but beyond that we couldn’t even upload a photo.”
So says Suzie Denize, owner of King Country tourist attraction ‘Hairy Feet.’ Suzie hosts thousands of hobbit fans who each year make a pilgrimage to isolated Mangaotaki to experience one of the settings for their favourite movie.
Hobbit-fanciers, of course, want to send lots of photos – but more about hobbits and the Internet later.
Wireless Dynamics began as an add-on to PC-Soft, a Te Kuiti computer business started by Jeremy Earl in 2000 and joined by Harley Cressey seven years later. Confronted daily with the reality that the quality of copper broadband their customers endured in the King Country was “terrible” and was never going to improve, the pair installed a wireless unit on top of their building across from the Sir Colin Meads memorial. After six months proving the concept and monitoring the effects of the region’s sometimes harsh weather they were ready to go commercial.
“The business came to us,” Jeremy says. “At first people were change-resistant but now there’s no need to convince anyone. People now get today’s reality that you can have the best of both worlds – better quality, and a cheaper price.”
Wireless dynamics has grown to 22 sites and more than 300 customers. It’s still growing. The network kicks in at Otorohanga in the north, goes south to Benneydale, east to around Mapiu (on the highway between Taumarunui and Te Kuiti), and west to the coast. It roughly matches the Waitomo District boundary.
The combined PC and WISP business is run by a tight team of 4 – Clifford and Raj making up the balance. They also rely on some contractors.
On a chilly and very windy early spring day Harley and Jeremy put me in their 4WD truck – with the number plate “BRDBND” – for a half hour drive west to their Oparure site. They’re off to tweak a dish for redundancy. It’s a long way up a very steep hill through a farm that grows warabi – a plant used to make sushi. Once you get off the main roads the King Country is full of surprises! The grass is wet and I’m a bit nervous about the sheer drops alongside, but I soon realise there’s a strong health and safety ethic in this business. Constructive advice about the driving comes continuously from the back seat.
At the summit the wind is a viscous, howling gale. Wrestling to get the door open without losing it, we struggle across to the site. Like all WISP owners these guys take a lot of pride in construction of sites. They have a standard design to minimise the need for spare parts. Their practice is to build ahead of demand, so they are very engaged in getting capacity up ahead of the rugby world cup – this is after all, Pinetree Meads country. “Lots of our customers already stream live TV every night, so we will cope ok with the RWC,” Harley tells me. “As long as the Spark network holds up, ours will too.”
I’ve only got half a mind on the conversation, as I struggle to take photos with the horrendous wind trying to wrest the tablet out of my hand. I have a sudden vision being whisked up into the air and landing back in Te Kuiti like Mary Poppins, which doesn’t seem too far-fetched in these conditions. But aided by a few spare Kg as an anchor I hang on gamely while the guys carefully climb the tower with a compass and spanner to make a small adjustment. By pointing the antenna more accurately to the next hill in the chain, they’ll improve the customer experience.
Twwenty minutes later, back into the 4wd we climb. Down the cliffside, through the wasabi, and we’re on a back road towards Piopio, a small but thriving community 24km from Te Kuiti. Thriving it is because in the mid-2000s residents became concerned about the decline and formed the Project Piopio Trust to promote development.
Over an excellent lunch at the Fat Pigeon café we meet another happy Wireless Dynamics customer and Piopio dweller, Rachel Laver from local boatbuilders, Laver Marine. Rachel’s husband is a cabinet maker. Together they have created a successful niche building high spec, individually crafted dinghies, most of which are made to order for super yachts.
“We sell most of our boats over the Web site,” Rachel tells me. “We never meet a lot of the customers. We’re growing fast. Before Wireless Dynamics we were on copper. There were constant outages and we’d wait a week or more for Chorus to get us back on line. We tried hot spotting the mobile phone but it didn’t work. But now, with Wireless Dynamics, the response time is great.
“We can watch Netflix. The speeds are way better. My husband is on line constantly while he is working.”
“We do the business accounts from home. The kids (7 and 5 years) use the school Chromebooks. Everything is affordable.”
Rachel has had a few jobs round town. One is for the local District Council where she organised the Digital Enablement Plan. “We were writing up all these ideas for better broadband, but Harley and Jeremy were already in business,” she says. In another role she gives marketing support to Wireless Dynamics – its easy to sense her passion for their business.
The King Country is swamped with small Community Newsletters which Wireless Dynamics support and exploit to get their message through. “They are young, vibrant newsletters for communities where the digital will exists.” The fact that Jeremy and Harley are locals helps to establish trust and credibility.
Versatility is key to the Wireless Dynamics business model. Recently an American film crew came to make a commercial for an internationally famous brand of beer, so they put in a temporary high capacity connection with extension through a small cell unit for a fortnight giving widespread coverage across the site. Similar one-off connections are frequently done for Kapa Haka festivals, indoor sports, and school galas. There’s also a free hotspot on the coast at Mangaotaki.
For our final visit we head off to hobbit territory – “Hairy Feet”, a tourist attraction half an hour north on a country road. As we drive I notice the copper line serving the district strung along spindly old wooden poles by the road. At one point a pole has snapped in half and the wire drags along the grass for several metres. Good luck to anybody hoping to watch Netflix across infrastructure like that – and forget the World Cup!
Its raining at Hairy Feet but that doesn’t diminish the enthusiasm of owner Suzie. “We use the Internet constantly when there are tourists here,” she enthuses while showing us around the shop. “We get really good streaming. My son is mad on online gaming – before Wireless Dynamics he had to live with CDs. I use media for work, uploading visitors’ photos to social media. Phones, EFTPOS – everything here is dependent on connectivity. And the kids now use the Internet for study without having to go offline every time we need to use the connection for business.
“In the past even voice calls used to fail – you feel stupid when a tourist calls from overseas and the phone cuts out! Life is so different now. We’re on a regular circuit for film crews making TV commercials.”
It’s the first week of spring. The tourist season is just beginning. You get the sense that the Hairy Feet team has an extra spring in its step because of having world class Internet access.
Another great example of a WISP lifting the economic and social capability of a New Zealand region.
When you ask a business to introduce you to a happy customer to interview, you don’t usually get sent straight to the Mayor. But Gore-based WISP Yrless had me around to the Gore Council chambers, no less, within 5 minutes of reaching town and before I could even rustle up a flat white.
Mayor Tracy Hicks – an imposing figure and considered speaker who would look equally at home in London or New York – is clearly a big Yrless supporter. He and his wife have been customers for years. Before Yrless, the big telcos gave them zero service and overstated their capability, he tells me. The couple switched to Yrless because it’s a local business with a great reputation and highly affordable.
Mayor Tracy enthuses about the difference the WISP service offered by Yrless has made to his district. The connections are excellent, and the coverage has improved vastly – right at the time when broadband has become a necessity on Southland farms. The Council is in the midst of developing a strategy to reflect the diversification and increasing sophistication of its agricultural sector. Lifestyles, young families, and diversification are all making connectivity imperative. Schools need their students to be able to go onto the school Web sites and collaborate on line with peers from their homes, just as kids in the main cities do.
“Yrless is an enabler for the district,” he tells me. “I’m excited by the vision and drive – I’ve got nothing but good to say about them.”
That’s from the Mayor, no less! You can’t get a better endorsement.
Back at base, Yrless founder and owner Joe Stringer is happily getting on with the day-to-day job of running a busy WISP. It’s the middle of the Southland winter so the solar panels are running low on some of his 78 rural sites, leaving a few generators struggling. So preventive maintenance is needed to make sure the customers get seamless services. Not a major problem, just part of the day to day job.
Yrless dates back to 2005. Joe trained in IT in Invercargill, then came home to the farm where his family are prominent breeders of Angus cattle. His parents were early adopters of technology and were keen to digitise the stud records – these days they are sent to Feilding and incur a financial penalty if they are not sent electronically.
Dial-up on the farm was never going to do the job. So Joe put up a radio tower so they could get acceptable Internet from Gore. For a while there were just ten customers. Then through his part time role as a volunteer firefighter Joe met business partner Norman McLeod.
“Norm knew the electrical stuff, and I knew the farmers,” Joe says, “so together we turned the business into a serious commercial player.” They were early participants when Voice over IP emerged, and suddenly had 100 customers
Joe is “almost” full time with Yrless. That is, when he’s not occupied on the stud farm, being a volunteer firefighter and trainer for the Gore and Waikaka brigades, paragliding, or learning to fly helicopters. No couch potato, this guy! Luckily there are several other staff – about 4 full timers and a similar number of part timers. Everyone works from home, walking the talk about modern age location-independent working enabled by great connectivity. It’s very successful professionally and personally, Joe says – but he concedes there are times when partners just want to get the staff out of the house for a while!
The Yrless network is extensive. Coverage runs from Milton south of Dunedin, to Mataura south of Gore. Inland it goes to Roxburgh and Lumsden, and on the seaward side to the Catlins area. Other WISPA.NZ member WISPs intersect with Yrless at every boundary, giving a seamless service into Otago and other parts of Southland.
Most Yrless customers are serviced by “WISP wireless” using hilltop sites to bounce the signal from point to point. The company owns some fibre optic cable and has plans for more, but wireless remains its core business. “There will always be links that are uneconomic for fibre,” Joe says, “but the demand for speed is continuing to grow.”
Looking ahead, he has plans to move more into fibre optic. One large dairy farmer is investing substantially to lay fibre to a wintering shed and farm cottages, and Joe has commissioned a hydraulic ram to be attached to a bulldozer (pictured) to lay it. It’s a big investment but well worthwhile for the future.
“We are lucky to have some very forward-thinking farmers in Southland,” Joe says. “High speed resilient Internet brings a lot of efficiencies as well as being a big factor in staff retention.” One example was a recent call from a real estate agent who wanted wireless Internet set up in an empty rural property to make it much more attractive to sell.
Many Yrless customers use their connectivity to support remote operation of highly sophisticated machinery such as grain driers and pellet makers, often controlled 24/7 by operators on the other side of the world. That is hugely efficient and makes reliability seriously important.
The best thing about being a WISP? “Meeting people, helping with installs and sorting out other problems, and seeing places I otherwise wouldn’t,” Joe says.
The most frustrating? “Trying to help people who just don’t get IT.” He laughs, recalling a nice elderly lady who really struggled with the computer. Midway through their conversation she went to answer the phone – putting the Sky remote to her ear. “And I was there to teach her the internet!”
Yrless has big development plans. More fibre – “wireless to the site then fibre around the cluster,” moving into retailing electricity, big data storage, and offering a cellphone service are all on the radar.
An “enabler for the district” with “vision and drive” as the Mayor says? Absolutely. Watch this space.
Chatting with Travis Baird and Glenn Hutton together in their functional but comfortable Balclutha office you can see why their business, Unifone, is so successful. They clearly get along well – there’s a mutual respect and recognition of complementary skills that has worked well for them since their separate WISP businesses merged in 2016.
Way back, while a student living at his parents’ home near Waihola, Travis saw his schoolmates using broadband while he suffered shonky dial-up Internet. With a bit of knowledge about wireless, and some help from his dad who was an electrician, he successfully beamed a signal from Milton to the family farm. The neighbours soon joined in.
Then when Travis went on to Otago University he met a group of fellow students who were also into wireless. Soon Unifone was selling broadband connections to numerous student flats. Travis built the business on his knowledge of the market, and his understanding that struggling students can’t sign year-long contracts – a reality that eluded the mainstream telcos.
Over time, Unifone came to own the Dunedin student telecommunications market and a lot more besides.
Meanwhile Glenn was leaving his role as a plant technician in a major corporate construction company in South Otago and looking for something to do. With a business partner he started a new WISP, Rivernet. Rivernet announced its presence by setting up free WiFi in the main street of Balclutha and then went on to build wireless sites around south Otago.
So, by the time the two businesses merged, both had sizeable footprints – Unifone in the Dunedin-Milton area, and Rivernet centred further south in Balclutha. The merged business took the Unifone name and moved ahead as a single entity, with Travis still based in Dunedin and Glenn in Balclutha.
Glenn recalls that when the two were talking about merging he expressed doubt about the potential for any more growth in South Otago. Travis disagreed and said he could easily increase it, to which Glenn responded that Travis would have to be a genius to achieve that. In a very short time he did so, more than doubling the customer count.
By 2017 when the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI2) came into the frame, the merged Unifone was already on a strong growth track. Its successful bid will double the number of sites but increase the customer count by a smaller percentage – the RBI2 areas, by definition, are sparsely populated and hard to reach. Glenn says the big benefit of RBI2 was that it drove a more disciplined approach to the way the business is run. “We had to get more structured so as to reach the point of sign-off – we had to involve the lawyer and accountant, standardise our pricing, and get really serious about formalising safe work practices,” he says. “The process of getting to the point of government sign-off was a lot of work but it has made our whole business more sophisticated and robust.”
Unifone’s RBI2 rollout is well under way. Glenn is especially proud of one of the first sites, Tussock Ridge in the Waipori pine forest southwest of Dunedin. Residents there had no connectivity at all until June of this year – not even mail delivery. Now they have full Internet access, with 50% of the residents signing up in the first three weeks after the site went live.
Today Unifone is growing steadily with around 60 wireless sites and 1800 customers as well as “white label” retail service providers. Most of the sites are owned outright by Unifone, although a handful are community or privately-owned sites. Unifone prefers to own the sites outright to keep the operation simple.
The northern boundary of the network is the Pigroot – the legendary State Highway 85 between Palmerston and Alexandra. In the south it ends at Kaka Point in the Catlins. Westward, there’s a strip right into Central Otago including Middlemarch and the Maniatoto region. Wireless hotspots abound on the Unifone network – in main streets, hotels, halls of residence and student flats.
Unifone customers are a diverse bunch. Dunedin is still a large part of the business and the company has never forgotten its student roots. “We compete on service,” Travis says. “The big anonymous telcos mail a broadband router out to the customer and never meet face to face. We make a house call and make sure they are set up – that’s consistent with our philosophy of being a local Otago company supporting local people.”
At the other end of the scale most customers are outside the 50kmh zones. About half are farmers, mostly dairy. Not only the managers are Unifone customers – farm workers need the Internet as much as anyone else, so there are numerous farm cottages connected. Some are paid by the farmer, and others direct by the employees. There’s a huge turnover in farm workers but Unifone has noticed recently they’ve become more confident to sign up for two years.
Unifone is clear that rural areas are its niche. “We could go and compete for city businesses,” Travis explains, “but we’d have to take on a lot more resources
Unifone’s team comprises about ten full timers. Glenn drives the desk while Travis drives the technology and the money. Tom is Operations Manager, Chris is support technician and handles Customer Services, while Sarah (Glen’s daughter) works part time on the phones. Office Manager Viv handles payroll. There are 4 technician/installers – Mitchell is the electrical and civil works technician, Troy and Kingsley are field techs based in Dunedin, and John is the field tech based in Balclutha.
Unifone has three years of growth ahead with existing contracts. It also hopes to win a part in RBI2a – the next iteration of government funding. Whether that happens or not, the business is humming along and the future looks bright.
Bidding For Bulls On Broadband
Julene and Garry McCorkindale have been customers of Unifone from early days – way back before the merger with Rivernet. Nowadays their Simmental bull stud boasts a variable speed wireless router in the stock handling yard. Its configured at a low speed for most of the year, but as sale time nears it is ramped up. That allows the sale to be live streamed, and potential buyers from afar to bid remotely by contacting their stock agent on site over Facetime or Messenger services.
“With high speed broadband there’s a whole new level of opportunity,” Garry says. His vision is to develop a fully online auction with its own app so that a group of buyers can watch live while communicating back to their agent and lodging bids.
Meanwhile, Julene uses the Unifone network to support her separate business – developing sales with prospective clients in the USA and UK using Skype and other platforms that enable all-important face-to-face contact.
Before Unifone came along connectivity was very poor and expensive. Now the couple enjoy excellent video and streaming services, from a supplier they describe as “very responsive.”
Velocitynet owner Trevor Fulton is a natural inventor. He invented a cordless jug and cordless iron many years ahead of Kambrook. Nowadays he’s focused on beating mainstream national phone companies to the gun by offering Southlanders, and others, a superior broadband service.
Trevor’s very obviously a Southlander – you’ve only got to hear him roll his tongue round a term like “broadband router” to work that out. But his heritage is Scots. His laid back, easy style and ready sense of humour seem absolutely at home in the crisp but bitterly cold southern winter.
Having retired at a young age in 2011, as a qualified electrician with a successful alarm installation and monitoring business, Trevor hit on the idea of a wireless ISP covering rural Southland. He learned about WISP services and technology over the Internet, went back for some university training, and visited several WISPs around the regions of New Zealand to pick their brains. Armed with those practical insights, and after practicing by connecting his home to his office, he started Velocitynet.
Put like that, it all sounds so easy.
For about three years Velocitynet grew slowly, somewhere on the cusp between a hobby and a serious business. Then in 2014 Trevor was joined by Nigel Ferguson, previously a senior network engineer with the Southland District Council. “That’s when we started getting seriously commercial,” Trevor says. “I hadn’t really known what I was doing – I was copying others and off the Internet and hoping for the best. Nigel brought serious engineering expertise from his role at the Council.”
Velocity’s first wireless site was at Forest Hill near Winton, close to Trevor’s home. A tv station had occupied the site but gone out of business, so Velocity joined with a local technology business to take the site over. Meanwhile Velocity did a deal to buy fibre bandwidth from a local school, long before the Ministry of Education came up with the same idea and officially sanctioned it.
From there it was all forward progress. Trevor became adept at building wireless sites. He could do one entirely on his own in 2 days, driving home by a different route each time putting sales flyers into letterboxes. Pamphlets, and the resulting word of mouth in each community, drove Velocity strongly into the market.
Early builds included the areas of Ferndale, Mataura, Clinton, and Limehills. Trevor’s inventiveness can be seen in some of the sites which occupy imaginative locations such as the roof of a fertiliser shed and on top of a grain silo. They work perfectly! Lumsden followed, not quite such a happy story as Vodafone turned up in the town a month later to compete using the government-subsidised RBI1 cellular Internet service.
Meanwhile as the business grew the staff compliment grew alongside. Trevor is clearly proud of the team he’s built around him. “Maria in accounts has been with me for 23 years,” he tells me, “and database engineer Max is undoubtedly one the best in the country.” Dennis on sales, Nicola on reception, and engineer James complete the team.
“Service is what sells,” he says – “the phone is always answered within 3 rings.” Take that, mainstream phone companies – customers from the North Island ring Velocity because they can’t get Spark or Vodafone to answer their calls. That’s enabled Velocity to sell fibre services as well as copper-based DSL connections throughout the country – Velocity goes in with a competitive quote, couriers a DSL router to the customer, and away they go.
Fibre is a bit more tricky but depending on location it can be done. The jewels in Velocity’s fibre offering include a private fibre to the satellite tracking station, a fully fibre ducted subdivision on the outskirts of Wanaka, and another under construction in Queenstown with over 600 customers. And the company has many bespoke tailored deals for individual customers locally and overseas – helped again by its owner’s inventive streak.
Put all that together, add in a sizeable data centre, and you have a highly successful business with 1500 customers, 13 wireless sites, and a range of technologies for sale. Velocity is here to stay for Southlanders and those further afield.
Velocitynet customer Kathy Wilson is delighted to have decent connectivity at last. Before that, Kathy had dial up Internet through Spark at her home, and no connectivity in her fruit shop. The trouble was that her area, Ryal Bush, had one of Spark’s oldest exchanges with no plans for an upgrade, and the cellular coverage was equally bad. With three teenagers at home all needing Internet access to do their homework, and immersed in Google classrooms, that simply didn’t work.
“Now we have 100% reliability for both home and the business,” Kathy says. “EFTPOS works. We have an antenna. We’re about to connect the dairy shed as well. And the kids are happy!”
Colin Hitchen’s company Lochiel Engineering is famous for its trailers. It’s in a hard-to-find corner of rural Southland. But that doesn’t matter. Rarely does a client come through the door – most describe the trailer they want, Colin designs it on an electronic tool that turns the design into a drawing, and the customer goes on line and buys off the drawing. The image is so real that many customers think it’s a photo of a trailer already built.
For that reason Lochiel is a very big Internet user. So big that Velocity is now putting in a fibre connection to the factory, which will also pass a number of rural residences. “I hadn’t heard about Velocity until I dug deep,” Colin says. “I was on Vodafone’s RBI1 connectivity, but it was very weather-dependent. I’m very glad I found Velocity – they are very consistent and responsive. Its an excellent relationship.”
WISPs will be to the forefront for rural NZ as sports start going live on the Internet in 2019. The way we view major sports events will start changing for ever. At least one high profile event will be streamed on the Internet, with some games not available on TV. Other major sporting events are likely to follow rapidly.
Rural people will be concerned that they dont miss out.
If you are in a rural location and don’t have streaming quality Internet, contact your local WISP. Act NOW – don’t wait until the game is three months away and resources are stretched.
WISPs can connect most places in rural NZ. And work with your neighbours – a group wanting coverage will attract the attention of your WISP better than one alone.
If you are already a WISP customer but concerned whether your bandwidth will meet the demands of a busy sports season, pick up the phone to your WISP. Most of us are constantly upgrading our service to meet ever-increasing demands for bandwidth, and some of us are upgrading at government expense through the Rural Broadband initiative. But dont lie awake worrying – ask us.
PrimoWireless seems to be everywhere in Taranaki. Maybe it’s the utes carrying the distinctive multi-coloured logo, symbolising the fireworks that quite literally marked the start of the business. Maybe it’s the way founder Matthew Harrison, a larger than life personality, stands out in a crowd.
About 12 years ago Matthew was working at PowerCo. He and a mate were passionate about on-line gaming. Both lived in Inglewood – a few kilometres apart; one rural, the other urban (or as near to urban as Inglewood gets.)
Gaming’s an activity where for the true enthusiast speed is king – a nanosecond too slow and you die! So they wanted to connect their computers directly bypassing slow phone lines.
They knew line of sight radio could allow them to cobble together their own connection and increase their speeds, so they started by putting antennas high on their rooftops. But in the flat terrain, no binoculars at hand, and with significant distance to contend with, they had no way to prove whether their homes could see each other.
So they each clambered onto their rooftops and at the appointed time lit rockets left over from Guy Fawkes. They found they did have a line of sight connection at the achievable altitude. Game on!
Their indoor antennas did the job just perfectly. That part is not rocket science – there’s an old joke about using household woks for connectivity.
However, the fireworks had attracted the curiosity of neighbours who, in broadband-starved Taranaki, wanted in. Then the daughter of a neighbour from further afield enquired and was given a connection too. Almost by accident, Taranaki had a new telecommunications provider.
Meanwhile Matthew had left PowerCo to work in a local computer shop where he came to realise that a huge number of Taranaki people were craving better broadband. A mate was working for Inspire.net – the doyen of New Zealand’s WISPs – so Inspire let Primo resell its connectivity, initially across four ADSL copper lines. Primo went on to negotiate a backhaul service from Kordia in New Plymouth which was a mere 30Mbps but which Matthew says seemed a lot at the time. By 2007 he had an incorporated company, half a dozen wireless sites and a brand.
Eleven years on PrimoWireless is a Taranaki icon with more than 3000 customers served by around 80 transmission sites. It offers a choice of, fibre (where available), copper, or WISP wireless connectivity. Centred around Mount Taranaki, Primo extends from the west coast to Mokau in the north, Whangamomona in the north east, and approaching Patea in the south, nudging against friendly fellow WISPs at each boundary.
The ratio of customers to sites is high by WISP standards – for example the German Hill site we visited (pictured) connects 180 customers which is a big customer count for a WISP tower by any standards. The Taranaki terrain is a unique combination of mountains and lowlands. In the east the province comprises very rugged ridges and valleys. In the west there’s lots of flat land but a highly inconvenient mountain that blocks line of sight traffic. Primo responded to the latter early on by building a spider’s web, starting with a ring of sites right around the mountain to serve the huge population of dairy farmers. The site on the very picturesque German Hill, with its stunning views, is pivotal to this.
Primo has been awarded a significant contribution from the government to upgrade sites and expand coverage as part of the Rural Broadband Initiative. They started building and upgrading sites within days of the contract being awarded in August 2017, way earlier than the big cellphone companies who a year later are still at the planning stage. An expanded list of new users has since been put on the table, and Primo is quietly confident of gaining a whole lot more customers on the back of its strong performance with the earlier round.
Walk into the Molesworth Street office and you get the sense of a happy, capable, friendly team. There’s a lot of laughter. Many are old friends of Matthew, or friends of other staff. Total headcount is around 16 people – two in management, three each in helpdesk, installation, accounts and back office, and one in HR. There’s also a handful of part timers.
“I came from a job doing night fills at The Warehouse but this is so much more rewarding – I do tech work, troubleshooting, inbound calls from customers and emails. Now and then I get to go out on a job if extra hands are needed. There’s been a huge amount to learn but the team helped me a lot in the early days.”
Finding the technical people with the versatility to run the business is a challenge. “WISPs are a unique sub-set of the IT sector,” Matthew says. “The younger ones take a while to train – everything is learned on the job. Versatility is crucial – they need to understand IT, working at heights, safe 4 wheel driving in steep terrain, computers, solar power, and building. The last guy we recruited was a landscape gardener who has useful knowledge when we need to build retaining walls. Safety is an absolute priority.”
“I’ve been at Primo 18 months. I mostly do accounts receivable, and I meet and greet customers who call in. The best thing about working here is getting to play with all the new technical toys – cameras and hardware – and being able use “geek speak.” I enjoy the family orientation and culture, we all get along and because we are all geeks we speak the same lingo.”
Primo customers seem a happy bunch too. One I visited was new customer Arabella Cornthwaite who with her family, moved 2 years ago from Raetihi to manage a 1300 acre sheep and beef property, an hour from Stratford and 90 minutes from Taumarunui on the “Forgotten Highway.” They were previous customers of Inspire.net who Arabella says were “really good,” but inherited a very slow and expensive satellite service.
“Last Thursday Primo connected our area up,” Arabella tells me. “It’s so good – we’ve used it several times already to talk to the family in both Raetihi and the UK on Skype video. We can now do the banking and receive the kill sheets each day to help manage the farm efficiently. And it will be great when the children get to school age.”
Over a decade Primo has become an icon – up there almost with the cows and the mountain. You get the feeling that it has made a huge contribution to the development of the region and its industries. It feels strong, responsive, and solid – larger than life like its founder and set for a very bright future worthy of the fireworks that marked its beginning.