Evolution Networks – a WISP Profile by Ernie Newman.
There can be few nicer places to wake up each morning than high on a ridge overlooking the eastern Bay of Plenty’s unspoilt Ohiwa Inlet. Children’s writer and illustrator Nikki Slade Robinson – famous for “The Little Kiwi’s Matariki” – lives in that idyllic spot with husband Jim who helps front the nearby Motu Trails – one of Great Rides on The New Zealand Cycle Trail.
The availability of city-grade Internet through local WISP Evolution Networks has given the Robinsons the best of both worlds – a city grade online working environment and a country lifestyle. And Evolution’s partnership with CIP in the RBI2 project is extending similar coverage to more rural people in the Opotiki, East Cape and Bay of Plenty regions every week.
Evolution is a young WISP dating back to 2015 when the government was promoting digital development plans among district councils. Tauranga-based IT service company Stratus Blue came up with the idea, and the Opotiki District Council swung behind as a financial partner. Over time CIP recognised the work of Evolution in expanding its network to unserved areas, and supported it to expand and upgrade its services.
Nikki is a huge supporter of Evolution. “We were one of their first customers in 2015 – I met them at a public meeting in Ohiwa. Since we signed up 4 years ago we’ve only had one brief outage during a big storm. It’s great that I can now send my writing and illustrations over the Internet just as though I was in the middle of Auckland.”
Husband Jim is equally enthusiastic. “The change to Evolution was overwhelming. Before they came we relied on copper lines, with constant dropouts. These days I’m constantly sending big batches of photos showcasing the Trails with never an issue. There’s no way I could have done that before – you could never send emails over little more than a MB or so at a time. I used to drive into Opotiki (about 30km) and go online.”
Jim’s even joined video conferences from home involving lecturers and students from multiple locations and says apart from minor variation at peak times, Evolution’s service has never missed a beat.
Evolution’s Mark Simpson has come to know the Robinsons well. Mark was working for Stratus Blue when it saw the opportunity to get into the WISP market. Having spearheaded the growth, he has come to know most of the customers along the way but with rapid growth through about the 300 mark he confesses this is becoming more of a challenge.
The territory is challenging for a WISP. Mark covers a huge mileage every week rolling out new towers, upgrading existing ones and connecting new customers from his base in Tauranga north to Te Kaha and Waihau Bay, and south to Kawerau. One of the upgrades at Kohi Point, funded by CIP, will improve the Robinsons’ service even further.
“We’ve got at least half the homes in Ohiwa as customers now, including one who is a software developer running a server there,” Mark says.
One aspiration Evolution shares with the Motu Trails Charitable Trust is a series of wireless hot spots along the Pakihi Track, which is the most rugged of the group of trails. With that ruggedness come safety issues and a network of hot spots would make a big contribution to making this a safe place for adventurous cyclists, runners and hikers.
Mark and I leave the hospitable Robinsons to cross a couple of valleys where we stop to visit farming brothers Chris and Richard Evans. Their hilly property is inland from the Ohiwa Inlet – near the centre of a triangle bounded by Whakatane, Opotiki and Taneatua. Its rugged and challenging country. Mark Simpson knows the farm well having just completed building a new tower there under the RBI2 programme.
Chris and Richard are modern farmers who fully get the role of IT in agriculture. “Everything on the farm relies on the Web,” Chris tells me. “The new tower gets Internet into what has been an absolute blind spot – we had Farmside (satellite) before but it was expensive and very unreliable.”
The farm uses numerous Web-based services including the FarmIQ package. Their teenage families use it for school and university study. There’s lots of video used – the brothers are very confident it will work well for the Rugby World Cup with an impressive and very reliable 50-60Mbps downstream connection.
One immediate concern is farm security. Poaching is an increasing issue across the Eastern Bay of Plenty and in many other rural areas. With video cameras incorporating number plate recognition technology it has become far easier to intercept unwelcome visitors, or follow up afterwards with hard evidence of the visit, and the Evans farm is well up with those opportunities.
Driving back to base in Tauranga I comment to Mark that his customers seem almost like personal friends. He laughs – but he’s a guy who obviously loves his work and enjoys the people contact. WISPs show that smaller, local businesses have an edge even in the world’s fastest-moving industry.