ThePacific.net – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman
“Technology Tangata Whenua
for the Top of the South.”
That’s how Thepacific.net boss Sue Lubransky sums up the company, the local broadband provider for the Nelson and Marlborough regions. It’s a company with a unique history, sparked by some early visionaries with a passion for the role of digital connectivity in schools.
Way back, prominent Nelson school principal Charles Newton was one of the early educators to foresee the way digital technology would revolutionise education. He desperately wanted to bring his school, Nayland College, along with Waimea College and others around them, into the broadband world. He saw the potential for the schools to be linked by fibre.
Local lines company Network Tasman came to the party. Encouraged by the late Barrie Leay, a lateral thinker with long experience in the electricity market, they recognised a natural synergy between their electricity lines business and the fibre future. Alongside Charles Newton and others, Network Tasman coordinated building a fibre link around the schools. Volunteers dug the trenches, and so the Nelson Loop evolved. Meanwhile Network Tasman as the fibre vendor quietly connected the hospital and other large users.
As a well-connected former head of the Electricity Supply Association and a passionate advocate for renewable energy, Leay foresaw the opportunity for shareholder Buller Electricity, as well as Network Tasman, to gain a stake in the emerging new generations telecommunications sector.
In 2002 Network Tasman recognised a need to spilt the educational component of the venture off to a dedicated new entity, so Thepacific.net was born. Each school was given an IP address in Thepacific.net’s range. Sue Lubransky recalls this as very cutting edge in those days, though not unique. This was the era when everyone thought the fax machine had changed the world forever.
Several of those early participants had fortuitous connections to central and local government. So a year later when Project Probe (Provincial Broadband Extension) – the brainchild of Minister Paul Swain – was announced, The Loop, alongside Thepacific.net, became the only private entity to receive Probe funding. Consultant Jamie Horrell, a Nelsonian from way back, project-managed the funding. He, along with several other consultants with an emotional attachment to Nelson, still play a role from time to time in developments. That helped The Loop and Thepacific.net get traction with the original Rural Broadband Initiative or RBI1.
Current boss Sue Lubransky is Barrie Leay’s daughter. In 2005 he encouraged her to leave her accounting and IT role to work full time for Thepacific.net. It’s a “friends and family” business.
“When I joined we were just finishing the Probe contract builds,” Sue recalls. “French Pass was the last one – thirteen years later that isolated and challenging site is still there despite the solar panels being blown off in horrendous winds. We built the site to service French Pass school and even today we are their only communications link – the school cannot get on Net for Learning (the crown-owned network for New Zealand schools and students) so we hook them up through a Virtual Network – for a school with 32 kids their hardware is massive.”
Over the next few years Sue worked on enriching the wireless connections around the schools. Over that time the schools migrated to Net for Learning, became connected to fibre, and went through SNUP – the School Networks Upgrade Programme. Mobile phones became progressively cheaper and digital connectivity became a “must have” for students. But from day one and increasingly as the schools needs became satisfied
Thepacific.net expanded relentlessly out into homes and businesses – not just in rural Nelson and Marlborough but even in inner suburbs such as Stoke where poor copper and fibre have left a gap for the wireless operator
Fast forward a decade and a half. Today the extent of Thepacific.net’s coverage is impressive. From south of Ward in south east Marlborough, north to parts of the Marlborough Sounds, and west across Golden Bay. It truly is “technology tangata whenua” – running a successful synchronous wireless network, with very low latency and a high committed information rate (guaranteed bandwidth for customers) all around the Top of the South.
The company’s office is in Richmond, still co-located with Network Tasman. There’s an impressive data centre there hosting major local businesses – just one of the adjuncts Thepacific.net has developed over the years along with free WiFi hotspots funded by local government. Head office aside, a really important base is the Montgomery Car Park in central Nelson with its line of sight connection to the company’s Maitai and Grampians sites, as well as to major customers in the Nelson port area.
Chris Tews in the Maitai Valley is among the newer customers. Having migrated recently from Auckland he took it as a given that high quality broadband would be available a 5-minute drive from Nelson to enable him to seamlessly move his business with multiple spreadsheets, regular video meetings, and streaming videos. “I’d previously been a Vodafone customer in Auckland,” he says, “but the local Vodafone people did a site visit here on the hill and said the signal was too weak to work. It was a shock. So I went to Thepacific.net which is literally the only service I can get on the hill. While it is not quite as strong as Auckland fibre, the signal is fit for purpose – I use video regularly and there’s no buffering or pixilation. The customer service has been great, they are very helpful on the phone.”
There’s an increasing trend for farm and winery customers to seek coverage right across their properties, not just for operational reasons but to keep staff in contact and automated machines operating. Femtocells (small cells that boost a mobile phone signal across a localised area) are key to this and very popular with the customers.
So where is Thepacific.net going? Sue relishes the question. “To infinity and beyond,” she responds. “I love the ever-evolving technology. Moores law, and the laws of physics don’t change, but the way we use things is constantly progressing. There’s a real buzz in being a responsive service provider and doing things ahead of the big operators. We do bespoke solutions, we are nimble, fast, connected, tech savvy, passionate, and above all regional.
“We have put huge effort into the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative. We’ve looked at expanding into the West Coast/Buller area. We want whoever gets awarded RBI contracts to do the job really well for our region – no cheap and nasty installs or oversell/underdeliver outcomes. We’re here for our region.
“Technology Tanagata Whenua for the Top of the South?” Yes, I think so.