Ultimate Broadband – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman
Mike Smith’s enthusiasm is infectious. Ask him a question about the background to his wireless ISP business, Ultimate Broadband, and he’s away. And rightly so – he’s built a highly successful enterprise out of nothing in just a few years. He’s enabled thousands of rural Canterbury residents to get socially connected, run their businesses better and connect their kids to the school network from home. And he’s close to launching a new farm management package to consolidate digital era efficiencies on the region’s farms.
As we motor across the plains south of Christchurch, Mike describes the scope of Ultimate’s network. From historic Tai Tapu on Banks Peninsula Ultimate covers pretty much all the area south to Timaru, east to the coast, and west to the Southern Alps foothills. “We cover most of the land mass from the Port Hills to the main divide – Lord of the Rings country,” he tells me. And aided by a generous share of the government’s RBI2 (Rural Broadband Initiative) programme which they won in a tender process they’re continuing to push out in the directions of Oamaru, Kurow and the Mackenzie Country. There’s an opportunity to double their footprint and significantly increase their customer base.
Customer Service Officer Patricia Paul works on some potential new business.
To serve all this area Ultimate operates 86 commercial repeaters and 60 private repeaters. The difference is that a commercial repeater is owned by Ultimate and used to service any number of customers, whereas a private one has generally been funded by a customer and normally serves only that customer.
I ask whether, given that WISPs operate by bouncing radio signals from hilltop to hilltop, the flatness of the Plains is an advantage or a challenge. “Both,” he responds. The advantage is access to a lot of fibre optic cable to feed the network. The downside is there are a lot of properties without line of sight to a suitable high spot, so it is necessary to use rooftops and other lower spots to fill the gaps, leading to reduced bandwidth capacity and increased demand for scarce radio spectrum. But all those issues are surmountable.
Mike’s background is as a salesman with a technical bent but he’s at pains to downplay his engineering skills. In an earlier career he worked as an Account Manager for Spark (then Telecom) selling mobile and fixed line solutions to small businesses. “I loved the wireless stuff,” he says. So about 9 years ago he started in business on his own, beginning with a small wireless network in the Orari Gorge. It took three years to build the relationships with customers and another year to build the network. Gratifyingly, most of those customers are still with Ultimate.
One thing led to another. Putting his strong sales and business skills to good use he started what is now Ultimate about 2009. With a great deal of help from neighbouring WISP Chris Roberts at Amuri.net Mike developed systems, hired staff and built wireless sites. The brand “Ultimate” was introduced in 2012 and the business has never looked back.
By now we’ve left the road and the big Isuzu 4wd is climbing steeply up a farm track overlooking Banks Peninsula towards Ultimate’s One Tree Hill site. Mike doesn’t seem to have reduced speed much and despite the vehicle handling the terrain effortlessly I get tossed around like Scotty in the old Barry Crump Toyota ads. But the view from the summit make the bruises worthwhile. The solidly-constructed site impresses with its collection of radios and 4×250 watt solar panels.
Bumping back down Mike tells me the secret of selling WISP services. “You can’t beat the old town hall meetings”, he says. Last week Ultimate held one in McQueens Valley near Halswell which 25 people attended. Mike did a spiel as CEO and then introduced his sales team to do the deal. Most attendees signed up on the night and then spread the word to neighbours who couldn’t attend, at which stage just about everyone in the community became a customer – in that instance so successfully that the local RBI2 site build will be brought forward ahead of schedule. “People are really keen to hear from us when we are opening up in a new area,” he says.
Mike is a natural relationship builder and instinctively builds partnerships within his business. He speaks very warmly of the partnership with Amuri.net which morphed from collegial advice and support in the formative phase, to an enduring wholesale arrangement today. Ultimate also partners extensively with other telecommunications operators to source backhaul and share infrastructure. They’re currently working on a deal with a digital trust, and they work closely with local government through their regions’ mayors.
Ultimate’s network operations centre team of Prashant Sharma and Jeremy Jackson looking at some network expansion.
Looking to the future, and like some other WISPs, Ultimate is working on an umbrella management system for digital farms. It will include a wide range of services such as remote opening of gates, stock traceability, fertiliser application, irrigation and farm security – all connected through the burgeoning new “Internet of Things.” “This will be a really good add-on to our farm network offering,” Mike says. “It will benefit the customer by having a single point of call for any servicing, remove the complexity of having multiple service providers’ radio signals creating interference, and make the customer more sticky as far as Ultimate is concerned.
And with 95% OF Ultimate’s customers being farmers, that stickiness is really Important.
Happy Customer – “Hallelujah – I found the ultimate broadband”
With a background in media and tourism, Emma Graham is not your typical Banks Peninsula farmer. She and her husband abandoned city life to become the fifth generation of Grahams to run the century-old, 1400 hectare Ahuriri Farm near Tai Tapu – an estate with a long reputation for producing export quality, lean, tender and succulent Canterbury lamb.
The Grahams are unashamedly city people. Their move to the country was life changing. Emma did a farm management course to prepare. The couple determined to keep their successful city-based businesses running remotely.
Until the realisation dawned that Ahuriri was still on dial up.
“For three years I battled to get fibre here,” Emma recalls. “I knew there was fibre coming up our road. I made several hundred phone calls. But I couldn’t get anyone to listen – costs kept rising, they talked about a six figure capex investment.
“I had a problem with cellphones too. I could just make an outward call by going out on the lawn and waving the phone around. But an inward call – forget it.”
“And then – halleluiah – I found Ultimate Broadband and all the problems were over.”
“The service quality is great. We can now live in this house. My husband can be in touch with his Auckland and Christchurch offices from here. The tenants and farm staff are happy. And Netflix runs better here over Ultimate than it did in town.
“Most important is the way I can now modernise the running of the farm. I can stand in the middle of a paddock and look up its history and status. I’m looking to work with Ultimate on more automated solutions driven by the technology – monitoring water, automated gates, drones, stock traceability, pump operation and a whole lot more. I’ve now got the communication tools to do all that.”
Emma admits to being a true perfectionist – she wants to do it once and do it right. She understands technology and has a true vision of Ahuriri being managed using 21st century technology, at city speeds. That’s a vision she and Mike Smith share, and which an increasing number of WISPs as well as a younger generation of farmers are now working towards.
In the year that Ahuriri has been an Ultimate customer there has been only one issue – on a Saturday afternoon – and Ultimate came out and fixed it within an hour or two.
A new age farming couple with city backgrounds and city businesses, with a tech-savvy, enthusiastic WISP with an eye to a commercial farm management package might well be a winning combination for farm management and social inclusivity in rural New Zealand. Watch this space.