It’s likely Earthlight Communications was New Zealand’s first Internet Service Provider (ISP). The Dunedin-based business started with just two modems. Earthlight now uses UFB and leading-edge technology to offer modern data centre-based services and more.

It’s likely Earthlight Communications was New Zealand’s first Internet Service Provider (ISP). The Dunedin-based business started with just two modems. Earthlight now uses UFB and leading-edge technology to offer modern data centre-based services and more.

They get there first down South – especially when it comes to entrepreneurial new technology companies. For example, Dunedin’s Earthlight Communications started with a flicker – a phone line and two modems – but owner Wayne Rodgers reckons it was New Zealand’s first ISP.

This was in 1993, when Planet.net was looking to set up a New Zealand service and get people to sign up, says Rodgers. “Local internet cafés and dial-up points were springing up all over the country, but we claim to be the first.”

The Dunedin ISP has come a long way since then. It now has hundreds of customers and covers Central Otago and Canterbury as well as Dunedin.

Dunedin has a long entrepreneurial history that goes back to its Gold Rush days. More recently, it has built a reputation for tech entrepreneurs. It is also now one of the best-connected places in the country thanks to Gigatown – the Chorus UFB project that saw Dunedin get gigabit fibre before the rest of the country.

Gigatown kicked off five years ago and gave Dunedin 1Gbps internet. Back in the 1990s internet speeds were a touch slower. Rodgers says Earthlight offered
“a blindingly fast 4,800bits/per/second” in the early days.

He says: “Back then, we had a phone number you’d dial, then one modem – there were two – would receive the call and the other would dial back to establish a link upstream. You’d send an email, get your mail and then disconnect.”

But the tiny business grew fast because PCs were growing in popularity. People also wanted to get online. Rodgers installed a Centrex-style system phone so Earthlight could offer concurrent connections. Some customers would stay connected all day.

And the evocative name? Rodgers confesses he didn’t choose it. An early internet fan – he had his own private four-wire data connection at home – he decided to buy Earthlight, a then tiny internet services company to move into the business. He already had a company called Distinctive Business Systems, but he adopted the Earthlight name because “it had a nice ring to it, and it feels even more relevant today with fibre – sending data over light.”

A TEMPORARY JOB THAT NEVER ENDED

Rodgers was just 18 when he took a six-month temporary job as a computer operator, planning to join the Air Force the following year. It never happened. He’d found his niche.

“I like knowing how things work. I wanted to be on the other side of the screens, behind the infrastructure,” he explains.

He spent his evenings programming using Applesoft Basic, the early computer language developed for home PC enthusiasts, and wrote two business applications. One program helped dentists run their practice, while the other was an insurance under-writing program. He sold both.

However, he says his main business has always been as a data-centre focused ISP or “computer bureau, as they used to be called.”

“Buying Earthlight gave us entry into this space, and then allowed us to scale up our operations.”

Even so, at first the company boasted just the two modems, but it soon grew to become an internet centre, where people could use Earthlight’s pool of modems, PCs and phone lines to access the internet and send emails. In fact, Earthlight’s email service remains a significant part of its business to this day.

 

 

STILL HANDS ON: Earthlight owner Wayne Rodgers helps upgrade a customer's service

Although the company now uses leading edge technology, Rodgers says the customer focus of the business hasn’t changed from those early days when people needed training and support and “help with everything”.

Nowadays, Earthlight provides high-speed UFB around the clock from its new Invermay data centre offices, in Mosgiel outside Dunedin. Services include email handling, data centre services, network cabling, Wi-Fi installations and support, and, increasingly, camera systems.

Security is also now a major part of their work as the internet and customers’ email systems have become increasingly vulnerable to attack. To combat this threat, Earthlight now offers “five-layer bank-like security”.

“We spend a lot of time keeping watch over systems and now provide protection software that comes with alerts and telemetry. We can see issues ahead of our customers even being aware of them,” says Rodgers.

He compares this task to the old-school business of maintaining a car like his dad’s Morris Oxford. “Whenever we went anywhere, he carried a big box of tools, and oil and water, so he could fix the car if need be. Modern cars don’t need that but the internet needs continuous protection. If it’s not protected, people are vulnerable.”

This we-can-fix-it attitude works in other ways for Earthlight too. Being a small ISP, by world standards, is challenging, but, Rodgers says, “we’re self-reliant in terms of equipment. We maintain our equipment and do our hosting ourselves. We find it easier to do business like this.”

The Earthlight team also works closely with others, such as Chorus technicians, to get a heads up on what’s needed before a job is undertaken. Rodgers says Dunedin got a valuable early start with UFB and what it can do for people.

First it got installation experience – having to come in from the street and maybe dig a tunnel is quite different from installing a new ADSL (Asymmetric digital subscriber line) router, says Rodgers. [ADSL is a lower-speed broadband service that uses the existing copper phone network.]

“It was a brilliant education process too. Things like smart cities were being talked about, and Internet of Things; technologies that an advanced network could support and that we are starting to see roll out. The most obvious was the Netflix effect – switching from television to video streaming over the internet.”

Rodgers reckons it’s now got to the point where some people prefer the internet to, well, hot water. He tells how a property manager client repaired the hot water system in a student flat, where it had been off for three or four days. In doing the repair he disturbed the internet connection. He was contacted immediately.

“People are quite happy to go without hot water for three or four days, but no internet – that’s riot material,” Rodgers laughs.

“You turn it off and you see people can’t do without it. It is used in every way and every part of their lives now.”

Earthlight’s customers are varied, says Rodgers. They include home and business owners, and many property owners. “They have all made an investment and require solid internet connectivity and services delivered locally to meet their needs.”

Some Earthlight customers are rural, so the weather can prove a challenge in getting to them. Rodgers says you have to phone ahead to see if a road is open in winter. He has experienced sunshine in the morning followed by a foot of snow by evening. But South Island weather has advantages too – more so in Mosgiel than Dunedin as its climate is more stable. “We can give you really good wind chill when the wind comes up from the harbour in Dunedin,” says Rodgers.

However, the cool Southern climate was good for the chocolate made at Dunedin’s now defunct Cadbury factory. It is also good for data centres. Both need to stay cool and need less air conditioning to do this in the  South. Earthlight plans to expand the data centre side of the business now it has a top-line, fully air-conditioned data centre service.

Earthlight moved to Invermay last year after out-growing its Dunedin home. It now lives at the Invermay AgResearch campus’ data centre.

“Invermay has power protection, solid physical and online security along with all the infrastructure needed. We already provide web hosting and email, now we can do more of this from a much better platform,” says Rodgers.

Earthlight also plans to expand its back-up service. This includes business continuity so, in the event of another earthquake, companies’ physical office and business systems could relocate to Invermay. “You’re not crossing water; you’re on-shore and under New Zealand law,” says Rodgers.

A LITTLE BIT GREEN

Earthlight also likes to give back and is involved with battery recycling. Rodgers hates e-waste. “It’s the bit of the green in me,” he says. He believes in product stewardship – taking back old equipment and re-using it.

“I don’t see the point of everything going into landfill when we can reprocess. Battery recycling is something we are tapping into with another company.
The batteries are sent to Australia, where they are reprocessed and turned into new batteries.”