Amuri.net – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman
Everything about Amuri.net feels solid, understated, and sustainable. Entering the grounds of its North Canterbury network operations centre I actually drive past without spotting it. Understated, in that there is no identifying signage – just a cluster of unglamorous white buildings. Solid, because these are seriously strong and professional structures. Sustainable, because Amuri gained fame among WISPs by being the only telecommunications operator to stay on line in Kaikoura throughout the 2016 earthquake.
Amuri.net covers a large block of Canterbury from Kaikoura, south to the Rangitata River, west to the Southern Alps. The site count is relatively modest – just 40. This is because unlike some other WISPs, owner Chris Roberts believes in having a smaller number of big, sophisticated sites each serving a large customer count. Consequently a typical Amuri.net hilltop site features a hut rather than just a cabinet, reflecting the impact of being 1000 meters or more above sea level with a lot of snow to deal with. And if Chris or a staff member get caught out by weather when visiting a site, at least they have ready made overnight accommodation!
Chris Roberts first started taking an interest in wireless Internet around 2005 when he was working on a dairy farm. There was no broadband.
He knew what could be done, having worked previously for lines company Orion, so he started with buying an ADSL connection from the local Chorus exchange and transmitting it aerially to his first site. With all his neighbours wanting connections ADSL proved not to have enough capacity, so he quickly changed the source to Snap Network in Christchurch – at that time an independent network company which since became part of 2degrees mobile.
Then about 2008 FX Networks (now Vocus) came through Culverden with fibre optic cable. After the frustration of trying to get the connectivity Chris needed from Spark (Telecom), FX was a breath of fresh air. Soon Amuri.net had all the connectivity it could wish for and has never looked back.
As we drive through the countryside Chris points out the various farms and workers’ cottages. A typical local dairy farm has 4 to 6 houses on it to cater for farm workers. A few farmers throw in Internet with their tenants’ rent but most tenants pay their own way. Chris is very “hands on” and points out one by one those who are Amuri.net customers and those who are not.
“We don’t do contracts,” he tells me. “The big phone companies we compete against insist on a two year contract and a credit check. Many of the farm workers are immigrants with no credit history. We take them on trust. They’re good payers. Sometimes it’s an advantage to be local and not to look too big.”
Amuri.net is among nine WISPs that has won tenders from Crown Investment Partners to expand its network as part of RBI2, the second stage of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative. Chris points out his site at Doctors Hill south of Culverden. At an altitude of around 1000 metres that is among 30 sites in for either a new build or an upgrade as part of that development. This one will be upgraded from a cabinet to a hut, allowing more space for modern equipment that is now coming on stream.
It takes a team to run a business. As well as Chris and his wife Noelle, they have a head technical leader, two field technicians, and a customer service operator. Two additional people are being brought in for the RBI2 build.
Amuri.net also operates a data centre – a backup facility where medium and large users can store their computer files in case of loss in a disaster. “We’re just the right distance from Christchurch – far
enough away that we’re not going to be part of the same disaster, but near enough that the customer can get up here in an hour or two to retrieve computer files if necessary.” He seems to be right as there is an impressive stack of co-located servers sitting securely in the racks.
Solid, understated and sustainable seem like good words to describe not only Amuri.net but its owner also.
Dan and Mandy Shand still remember the times just a few years ago when they had to set the alarm for midnight so as to send an email from their 140-year-old homestead at Island Hills.
Such was the competition for the limited capacity on dial-up at the end of their ancient North Canterbury copper lines that the small hours were the only time an email could stand a chance of going through.
“We asked Telecom what our options were. They said we should drive up and down between here and town with a radio slightly off the station, listen for crackling noises, and then ask each farmer to please earth his electric fences properly,” Mandy recalls. “They were no help at all.”
“At that stage we were getting established with a four-day walking track as a commercial enterprise for tourists,” Dan said. “We had the farm to run, and an apiary. We’d just returned from Sydney where I’d worked as a graphic artist – I could have kept that job and worked from here if I had the ability to send and receive big files.”
Finally, along came Chris Roberts and Amuri.net. Island Hills Station became his 6th customer.
“Suddenly we could market the walking track properly,” Dan recalls. “The use of online marketing led to us getting some good articles for promotion. Then we went live with online bookings – people could book 24/7 whether Mandy and I were online or not.”
The walking track is like a DoC track but privately owned. Once the visitors started coming Dan and Mandy were up and running. They were doing 3000 bed nights a year, and those visitors were going to other attractions and cafes in the region as well. Everybody won.
“We couldn’t have done any of this without Amuri.net and the WiFi,” Mandy says. “The Internet access led to us being able to buy the farm and start a honey business. We used the Internet to recruit staff.
More recently the entrepreneurial couple have started a flourishing farm and apiary software business involving collaboration among 5 software developers around the world. A row of clocks on the wall shows the time in each of their home cities to help plan Skype video calls.
“I don’t think people understand that an Internet connection is a way of generating cash,” Dan says. “Without WiFi we wouldn’t get workers – and if we did, we wouldn’t retain young staff including the WOOFERs who have become really important to us.”
“These days you can live without a mobile phone, but you can’t live without the Internet.”