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.”
That’s how Wireless Nation Founder and CTO Tom Linn was described recently by the National Business Review. As I sit down with him for lunch in a Takapuna restaurant I have to agree that sums him up to perfection. He’s charismatic and personable, with a gentle but firm style.
It was in 2002 that Tom realised that he was never going to get a university education in his native Myanmar due to the military dictatorship having closed down the colleges. So having looked around for a country with a reputation for freedom, Tom chose New Zealand. Fast forward a few years and armed with a Masters in Engineering from Auckland university, specialising in Artificial Neuron Network, Tom started Wireless Nation.
There were two drivers. First, his frustration in not being able to get naked broadband (internet without also paying for a landline phone) in his Auckland apartment. “Telecom ruled the country in those days,” he says. Second, a friend farming in the Waikato could not get any broadband at all, leading Tom to realise that for many parts of rural New Zealand high quality satellite was a highly viable option.
So at the Waikato Home and Garden Show in 2006, Tom launched satellite broadband with the support of business partners and investors in Hamilton.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing from day one. Gamers quickly made it known that latency was unacceptable in their world which ruled out satellite, so reselling Kordia Extend fixed wireless product was introduced as a successful alternative. But with that issue solved, Wireless Nation expanded quickly across rural New Zealand from a Waikato stronghold. The company later introduced 3G and 4G fixed wireless nationwide through the government-funded Vodafone RBI-1 network.
Meanwhile the apartment sector became the second market for the business. The company worked with apartment block Body Corporates to bring “fibre to the basement” years before the government introduced its Ultra Fast Broadband. Most owners were very keen. However, there’s always an exception – even today there is a minority of apartment complexes where fibre has been rejected for aesthetic reasons, mostly in top-end, student accommodation or heritage properties.
More recently, motor homes have entered the picture. The NZ Motor Homes Association has a whopping 80,000 plus members, many of whom spend most of the year living in their vehicles for a few weeks at each location and then moving on. Broadband can be a challenge – campers want to stream Netflix as much as anyone but existing service plans didn’t contemplate the possibility that users would be forever moving to a different town or rural site. So Wireless Nation became the Association’s official provider and offering an affordable wireless broadband service to thousands of happy campers .
Motor home people often cluster together for rallies or get-together events which can raise challenges with short term periods of heavy demand. Wireless Nation stays ahead by foreseeing these events and in conjunction with Vodafone, establishing extra capacity ahead of time. “When we can’t do this we tell the customers up front,” Tom says. “Our industry so often doesn’t communicate well with end users – we do – we are getting better at communicating than a lot of players and we find customers are very forgiving about capacity issues if they know ahead.” Motor home owners, he says, are great customers – they pay regularly, use the service responsibly, and generally don’t have lots of kids hogging the network during the evening peak.”
But it was the isolated Chathams that captured the interest of many WISPs when Wireless Nation got involved around 2013. With no undersea cable and little prospect of one, the best solution was satellite backhaul and a WISP last mile service. And it was there that I travelled to see the difference Wireless Nation is making.
Its my first trip to the Chathams. The 1950s Air Chathams Convair flight out of Wellington is pretty much full. About half the passengers appear to be locals returning. The rest are obviously visiting, mainly in relation to provision of infrastructure – IT people, engineers, DoC rangers, other government officials, and me.
Driving from the airport gives a first impression of the landscape. Flat, lots of scrub and tussock, few trees, unsealed but well-maintained roads, sparse habitation. The declining population, sinking through 600 on Chatham Island and 40 on Pitt, is a serious issue. In earlier times when kids reached secondary school age parents sent them to boarding schools In Christchurch, but these days they move the whole family across to the mainland. They don’t return.
Armed with a rental car (expensive, over 200,000 km on the clock but running well) I go exploring. This feels like a friendly community. Drivers wave cheerfully when you pass. Nobody seems to be in a rush. (One exception – I’m on a dirt road doing 85km/h and am overtaken by a maniac on a quad bike who a few minutes later skids to a halt, does a 180 turn, and charges back towards me before swerving off into a paddock!)
My Android phone is getting an unaccustomed 2 day rest – there’s zero cellular coverage in the Chathams. Those lucky enough to be on 2degrees can get voice over WiFi when they’re in range of a WiFi connection, but there is nothing for Spark nor Vodafone customers. The government has funded the Rural Connectivity Group to build some towers in the medium term future, but the backhaul will still be satellite.
The Internet is another matter. Since Wireless Nation “adopted” the Chathams many businesses have Internet almost at city standards, the speeds constrained only by the satellite backhaul. However, in my room at the popular Hotel Chathams I’m on Farmside satellite Internet. Speeds on some occasions are adequate, but then without warning go into freefall.
Hopefully as Wireless Nation roll out more extensively that will change.
The Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust
“Here on the Islands we’re 45 minutes ahead of the rest of New Zealand in time, but 20 years behind in connectivity,” says Iain Torrance, CEO of the Chatham Islands Enterprise Trust.
Sitting with Iain – a telecommunications veteran with history in the UK, internationally and TelstraClear in New Zealand – I get to understand the challenges, priorities and solutions surrounding development of the Chathams. We’re in his unpretentious office a few minutes out of Waitangi.
The Trust is one of four organisations working on development, he tells me. Central government formed it in 1991 after the Council went broke. Owned by all Chathams residents, the Trust is a public benefit entity that controls the airport, the new $50 million Waitangi wharf, electricity supply, fuel, some fishing quota that it leases out, and the shipping service. Beyond those overtly commercial interests its mandate is to work for the social and economic benefit of the Chathams. Ever since an initial government grant at the time of formation it has been self-funded.
The other three economic development stakeholders are the Chatham Islands Council, the Moriori iwi Hokotehi, and the Maori iwi Ngati Mutunga.
When it comes to the development priorities, the four agencies are in general agreement. Top priority is the airport – that seems to be on track with a 500m extension of the runway needed to accommodate Class 4 jets including the B737. Air Chathams have bought a B737 simulator from Air New Zealand ready for the phase out of the aged Convairs which have serious limited ability to support a thriving trade in live crays and other fish to Asia.
Second priority is renewable energy to replace the current diesel generators on which the electricity supply depends.
Third priority is 21st century telecommunications – Internet and cellular. Within the Islands the current copper network is way past its end of life, expensive to run, and far short of the needs of the Islands today. And connectivity between the mainland and the Islands is satellite only – way short of 21st century needs. I’m left wondering why, while New Zealand is investing $22.2 million to connect Tokelau’s atolls to the world with undersea fibre optic cables, our own Chathams are left with 20th century satellite with no improvement in sight.
Yet Iain Torrance concedes that its hard to justify an undersea cable for a community while it has a declining population.
Torrance pulls no punches about the state of connectivity. “We can’t use SaaS. The copper is aging. Everything is satellite which is expensive, atmosphere-sensitive and unreliable. Voice and Internet calls drop all the time. Most Islanders can’t access TeamTalk. Farmside is now part of Vodafone and isn’t compelled to accept new customers. The emergency services have very slow log-in times. The Ministry of Primary Industries will have issues with fishermen struggling to comply with reporting catches within the required time because of unreliable or non-existent connectivity. Some high-end farmstays and other tourist ventures turn off the Internet for guests because it’s too expensive. That’s why telecommunications connectivity is very much on the list.”
Quite an indictment.
“We need to stop talking about the technology and talk about outcomes,” he urges. “We need to get across that our people want to work, access information, be able to use Facebook, and do school homework on the Internet, like mainland New Zealand. Safety is a big factor too – the ability for workers on isolated sites to be in contact when they’re out on a job. Fundamentally it’s about the social and economic benefit to our remote community. Its quality of life.
“Within the Trust we’ve had a silo mentality when it comes to technology. There’s a server here that our electricity company can’t access. So we’ve brought in a consultancy to spec our IT needs and consolidate them.
He’s also hoping the islands will get a 4G mobile network in the next few years as part of RB2. “We’ve worked with MBIE and CIP in the past year and the announcement before Christmas of $6.3m investment in ‘the Islands’ to address mobile black spots and accelerate RB2 gives us a cautious optimism but it’s still an unknown as to what it may bring our community and when.”
Meanwhile Wireless Nation is filling a vital need. There’s a three-year window for Wireless Nation to consolidate and establish themselves as the preferred supplier, he says.
Key users on the Chathams underline the crucial importance of telecommunications. Rana Solomon heads the emergency management operation for the Chathams Council. She works a lot from home, monitoring a stream of tsunami or earthquake warnings and other alerts from GNS or NIWA that could pose a threat to the low-lying Islands. When the Council team are in isolated areas or off the Islands they need to be accessible remotely.
“In most places civil defence have teams rostered on to monitor alerts 24/7, but on the Chathams there’s just me.”
Luckily now she has Wireless Nation at home on an unlimited plan, but the big challenge is how to notify the Islands population if a big one is coming.
“We can’t rely on the basic phone system,” she explains, “because its only capable of handling 15 or 20 conversations at a time. So we rely heavily on Facebook – in an emergency, or the threat of one, we can easily have 10,000 people looking at our page. So I carry a mobile and use it to access people’s home WiFi systems when I’m passing a home or business. I don’t use it lightly because some people’s plans are very data-constrained.
The importance of telecommunications is also the focus in the health centre. Sally Lenauze manages the Chathams hospital. At first glance it looks like a typical rural health clinic until you realise the nearest specialist is many hours away. It falls within the Canterbury District Health Board
“We’re incredibly lucky to have telehealth services from Canterbury,” Sally tells me. “We use it about 6 times a month for a mix of patient consultations, follow up appointments with specialists, mental health consults, dental advice, shoulder reconstructions and clinical education. The drawback is that when we switch on the video it takes most of the Island’s telecommunications capacity so we have to be considerate. But when we use it, the value is huge.”
Down the road, Monique Hagedoorn is a recent arrival. As the first SPCA person on the Island she works with South Island inspectors dealing with animal welfare. She’s also a qualified veterinary nurse and practices as a volunteer in her spare time.
“I’ve got a 2degrees phone provided by MPI,” she tells me. “Luckily 2degrees allows voice calls across WiFi, though I have to be within a few metres of the office. But the broadband is awful – Skype is unsatisfactory and often goes down. And no way will the home TV get Netflix.
“So much of life today is Internet-dependent. I really want to stay in touch with my family in the Netherlands but its very hard. And there’s a safety issue where there’s no connectivity too.”
Over a beer at the Henga resort Jason Somerville, Commercial Solutions Manager for Wireless Nation, is optimistic about changes to come. “The lodge here at Henga now has unlimited broadband which will be great for guests,” he says. “Before now many tourist places didn’t offer Internet to guests because of the cost. There are lots of businesses waiting for affordable, unlimited Internet – at last we are bringing it here. The biggest hurdle is often the setup cost but its surmountable for most. And Jason should know – his current visit includes providing public WiFi at the airport among other jobs.
Jason’s a huge fan for his company. He enthuses about modern satellite. There’s almost literally nowhere, in any part of New Zealand, that the company can’t connect. He quotes town centres in the Waikato, a marina in Wellington and education applications as recent examples. “Otorohanga is a great example,” he says. Free community WiFi in the town centre is a reason for tour buses to stop. It enables CCTV in the town centre to reduce crime.
It’s the sheer diversity of markets that makes Wireless Nation a successful company. How big is it? Tom Linn wont quote the customer count – but he does let slip that the business is about to become liable for the Government’s Telecommunications Development Levy, which has a threshold of $10 million turnover. That’s certainly not small.
Tom is not about slowing down. He’s brought well-respected William H. Smale QSM, known as Bill, of Smales Farm Technology Park fame in as managing director. He’s spoken publicly of turning Wireless Nation into a multi national. Back in Myanmar he comes from a highly entrepreneurial family.
Finishing the coffee after an excellent lunch in Takapuna I have no doubt he will succeed. Tom has a very strong business ethic – “to me its not just about making money; its about pursuing our passion without limits.” He runs a happy and motivated team and encourages location-independent working. He’s a natural deal-maker, has a gentle footprint on the planet and comes across as a genuinely nice guy.
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.”