Two small service providers – one from the Wairarapa, the other from Gisborne – tell Johanna Egar how they are bringing broadband internet to rural New Zealand. Sometimes being remote is an advantage, particularly when it comes to launching rockets
Gisborne.net – rockets, marae and DIY equipment
Serving the remote East Cape has been Gisborne.net’s business for over three decades. The company serves dozens of remote marae. It works closely with Ngāti Porou, the large iwi perhaps best known for its affiliation with the 28th (Māori) battalion. The iwi has 50 marae, 48 of these now have a robust broadband wireless connection.
But its most prestigious customer is Rocket Lab. It provides the high-speed fibre and wireless communications that connect the rocket-launch company’s Mahia Peninsula site south of Gisborne, with its Auckland and US headquarters.
Gisborne.net began life in 1995. This was a year or so before Telecom began rolling out its first internet service, says managing director Ronald Brice. He says Gisborne.net is likely the reason this happened as it showed there was a demand for the internet.
Back then, the company leased a 128k ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) line from Telecom. It was considered fast at the time and proved prohibitively expensive for customers. It cost eight cents a minute.
“Most people couldn’t afford it,” says Brice. “So we looked at alternatives. We got radio towers in from the US and a radio expert. He designed antennae that could go 2 to 3km – they were originally designed to just go around an office, so had about a 50 metre range. Then we built antenna that could go outside – from our office across to the district council.”
Once they could network across the street, the company took off, expanding into rural Gisborne. “We now have wireless towers right up the coast,” says Brice. “The network goes up to Cape Runaway, down to Lake Tutira and across to the Waioeke Gorge. We have three and a half thousand customers. We also provide fibre in town, through Chorus’ fibre. We have 400 on fibre in Gisborne. We promote this because wireless has limited capacity and fibre is such a good service.”
Like the Wairarapa’s WIZwireless (see story on page 17) Gisborne.net is expanding further with the help of RBI2 (Rural Broadband Initiative phase two) funding. It operates 240 solar-powered towers of varying sizes, from 14-metre steel towers, sporting several large antennae dishes, to single-panel solar sites that serve just three or four houses.
“Gisborne’s east coast is a really difficult area to serve with all its little valleys and pockets of communities, rather than big flat regions where you can have one tower that serves many,” says Brice.
Small towers can be sited on hillsides to give line-of-sight, so everyone can be reached. People now enjoy Netflix, but they also use the internet for business, says Brice. They access YouTube for research and farmers use it to run Xero, the online accounting package.
HOOKING UP EAST CAPE MARAE
However, it’s the marae that are making the biggest use of this new fast internet connection, transmitting live video of events to iwi members around the country and even abroad. “They have teams of people and make really good, professional videos. They do a lot of these now, so we get them to ring a couple of days before, so we can switch the bias around on the links and have a high upload capacity,” says Brice.
While Rocket Lab may be Gisborne.net’s highest profile customer, Ngāti Porou, along with the district council, are its biggest. How the marae use the internet gives Brice a lot of satisfaction. “The whole community uses it. Up in Pōtaka, I saw silver-haired old ladies with their laptops Facebooking their mokopuna.”
Ngāti Porou is really forward-thinking, he adds. “They have rural health clinics with free Wi-Fi. They want to get people to come in – they often don’t until a health problem is extreme – so they want to make the environment better. They bring the kids along, and now they’re occupied.”
Having proper internet makes a “huge difference” to rural people, says Brice. “Women will say, ‘My kids want the internet.’ We want to ditch satellite and get the internet.” Gisborne.net is still quite small. It has just eight full-time staff and a further eight contractors, although these work nearly full-time for the company. But there are plans to grow. Brice reckons the company now has 85 percent of the local market. He wants to increase this and then expand out towards Napier and Taupo. However, he also wants to stay local and personal. “Once you get too far beyond your base that gets difficult.”
“We have 400 on fibre in Gisborne and we promote this because wireless has limited capacity and fibre is such a good service”
WIZwireless – a wild rural tale
WIZwireless chief executive Bridget Canning started her Wairarapa high-speed wireless internet company because it was the only way to get decent broadband to the family farm at fiercely wild and windy Castlepoint. The tiny town is 65kms from Masterton and its landmark feature, the 162-metre high Castle Rock, gives you an idea of the difficulties telecoms companies face.
Back in 2005, Canning’s job was training Computer Concept accounting software users and she was facing internet issues. “People would have queries after I left the office [in Masterton] and say: ‘Can I send our data to you?’ And I would have to say, ‘sorry, no, we have really poor internet out here at home’.”
Canning approached a local ISP (Internet Service Provider) only to be told they would have to pay upfront, then pay a monthly fee for a service that might not work. Frustrated, Canning and her farmer husband decided to connect themselves up – Canning has programming know-how, so had the necessary ability. They got 20 neighbours on board, took out a bank loan and then…
“Telecom decided to liven up the exchange at Tinui. We suddenly had just three customers and all this money we’d borrowed from the bank against the farm. So we decided we should form an internet company. We went around and spoke at Field Days… I would speak to anyone who would listen to me, and that is how WIZwireless got started.”
Such is the demand the company has “been growing like topsy ever since”. Canning says her earlier home business helped. “I had a data bureau for farmers and businesses, training people how to use Outlook and spreadsheets, and developing little farm applications, like how to move stock from one paddock to another.”
It wasn’t long before the local Wairarapa schools came on board too, along with rural businesses and farms. More recently, WIZwireless secured an RBI2 (Rural Broadband Initiative phase 2) contract and this has allowed the company to either upgrade or build new sites. It now has 74 sites across the Wairarapa. We could have done this through cashflow, but the government help speeded everything along, says Canning.
“I'm a rural person myself and that's where I want to be - solving their problems. We've been there. We've lived it.”
WHEN THERE IS NO LINE-OF-SIGHT
A big problem with rural wireless broadband is line-of-sight. The Cannings’ farm in hilly Castlepoint provides a good case study. WIZwireless could have put its radio wireless tower on a hill-top, instead it uses the middle hill-range as many houses wouldn’t otherwise have line of sight. They are close to the river, says Canning, because in the early days people would get their water direct from the river.
Canning says RBI2 funding has helped greatly with making internet access available to hard-to-access sites where few people live. “We couldn’t commercially build a solar site and all the infrastructure necessary otherwise.”
WIZwireless’ towers are nearly all powered by solar and battery. This is not only green, but also makes for greater reliability as the Wairarapa is prone to power outages.
WIZwireless can now provide a 25Mbps internet service (basic plans are 8–10 Mbps) but a few customers need 100Mbps, says Canning. The basic service is more than enough to stream Rugby World Cup games – Netflix requires 8Mbps, the same as the rugby tournament.
The company’s wireless network is connected to a broadband fibre network in Masterton, where it is based. It also has two other fibre sites for its big customers, and another to provide it with reserve backhaul (data transmission to the public network).
“We have a few customers on fibre, but we’re really focused on terrestrial wireless for rural areas,” says Canning. “I’m a rural person myself and that’s where I want to be – solving their problems. We’ve been there. We’ve lived it.”
KEEPING BUSINESS PERSONAL
WIZwireless is small – just five staff, plus two more who can be called on when necessary. Canning has been putting her mind to growth recently. Until now she has been committed to not having to travel more than two-and-half hours from Masterton, to be able to offer a same-day service. But, Canning says, newer customers will come from beyond the Wairarapa. How do we manage this – franchises; satellite offices? she asks. Her big concern is: “Will the people we are going to be working with have the same philosophy of bending over backwards to help customers?”
However, although she dismisses it, Canning seems to confidently overcome challenges – being left with a hefty bank debt after losing most of her initial customers is just one example. She seems to have thrived in male-dominated industries – farming, computing and telecoms.
“I’ve always worked with men around, either out on the farm or at Computer Concepts. I don’t expect special treatment because I’m a woman, but I don’t expect to be looked down upon either.”
Canning’s background is in programming. “I love playing around with computers. I love the development of the programs and what they can do, and that they become an extension of your brain,” she says. Her technology enthusiasm, as much as WIZwireless’ success, is probably why she recently won the Rural Women New Zealand Business Award for Innovation 2018. It was the latest in a number of accolades Canning and the company have won.
Getting rural NZ online for Rugby World Cup
New Zealanders are already gearing up for the Rugby World Cup in September. On the East Cape that often means buying a smart TV. Gisborne.net is in demand helping set these up.
“We didn’t realise it was such a struggle for a lot of people,” says MD Ronald Brice. “We’re in demand because we’re local and can help them.”
The company is so busy it is planning to put a newsletter out telling people how to set up their new televisions, but Brice is pleased. “It’s all new to them, but it’s probably going to push them into using the internet and email.”
Brice first realised just how unconnected many rural people were at a recent family funeral in Wairoa when older people kept coming up to him and asking for help.
“It would be the same in any rural area. I thought about it and realised the local providers are really going to be able to help them achieve what they want.”
For Gisborne.net, this has included boosting network speeds and upgrading the company’s towers where necessary with the help of RBI2 funding. The company has 240 sites, which deliver speeds from a low 2 – 4Mbps up to 100Mbps. The slower speeds are often delivered by small towers in the most remote areas.
“But we will have everyone on 10Mbps by mid-August in time for the rugby,” says Brice.
Further south, in the Wairarapa, WIZwireless’ customers are already well set up to watch the games as they all enjoy at least the 8Mbps speed needed.
As the company started life 10 years later than Gisborne.net – in 2005 – its network speeds were consequently higher to begin with. “Our basic plan is 8 or 10Mbps. So long as you have a reliable internet connection, you will be absolutely fine to watch the games online,” says WIZwireless chief executive Bridget Canning.
Nearby, in Palmerston North, Inspire Net is quickly upgrading its wireless network. With 518 towers – the network travels out from Palmerston North to Taihape and to Norsewood – it has a big job. RBI2 funding is helping.
Like Gisborne.net, it started out early, in 1998, so needs to upgrade 85 of its towers before August. As some present speeds are pretty low, the company has been helicoptering in gear to sites, to speed the work up, rather than using its usual quad bikes.
HOOKING UP TARANAKI
Taranaki next door is home to the three All Black Barrett brothers, so there is a big interest in rugby, says wireless operator PrimoWireless’ MD, Matthew Harrison. Rural areas tend to be quite traditional, so ensuring everyone can watch the big games is very important here, he says. A big issue is that not everyone realises all the games aren’t going to be on television as previously but will be streamed through the Spark Sport app.
However, he says, if people can stream Netflix there shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, Netflix effectively acted as a trial run. Interest in it prompted network operators to upgrade so people had the necessary speed to watch Netflix, says Harrison.
“We put in a lot of effort to ensure our rural users could stream, because when you go from satellite delivery and a very small data cap, one of the first things people do is watch video. They jump on YouTube and they also use the apps on their smart TVs.”
PrimoWireless doesn’t connect rural users who don’t have line-of-sight, but farmers have recently been paying the company to install small repeater towers. “These grab the signal from our main network and bounce it down to the house through the little solar-powered tower now on their hill-top,” explains Harrison.
Having a decent internet connection helps them run the farm. Watching the Rugby World Cup will be the icing on the cake. But, Harrison says, Spark needs to educate people that it’s not just going to be on TV as normal but will be mainly delivered through its platform.