Inspire Net’s CEO and founder, James Watts, combines a vision of where the internet is going with a robust can-do attitude. He talks about the company’s 20 years of pushing against the edge of technology

“I spend two days a week on a hill-top mixing concrete, putting in poles, talking to farmers, putting fibre in. What I enjoy is connecting people and changing their lives”

James Watts, Inspire Net's CEO and founder

The winds that buffet Manawatu’s remote farms test the sturdiest wind turbines.  

Inspire Net recently installed two ‘indestructible’ turbines, to power its most remote wireless broadband towers. They broke. CEO James Watts told the 'indestructible' manufacturer: “They’re dead”. He went on to help him design a more robust one.

Using wind turbines to power wireless broadband stations is still new, but Inspire Net is already using quite a few.

This bold, practical approach is typical of Watts. He talked to The Download about Inspire Net, which recently celebrated its 20th birthday.

Watts always seems to have known which way the wind is blowing – and often worked this to his advantage. For instance, Inspire Net was born in 1998 when he began charging $35 a month for a dial-up service, while Telecom was charging $279.\

“I was fixing my dad’s computer one night and on hold to Xtra for nearly four hours, and I said, ‘Ah, scrap this, I’ll do it myself.’ So, I got some phone lines, a modem bank and a connection to the internet, and started selling it to all my neighbours.”

Watts has always been a technology buff. He built his first simple computer when he was

eight. Later, while working as an electrician at Massey University’s Palmerston North campus, he got early internet access.

 

“I was using it before it was commercialised. I knew that connectivity changes lives. But people couldn’t afford to connect. I had a vision of where the internet would go before the average person thought it was cool.”


This combination of foresight and can-do attitude saw him build a city-wide fibre network in Palmerston North in 2003. Watts wanted to connect Inspire Net with Wellington’s Paradise Net (run by a friend) but Telecom wouldn’t sell them the lines, so Watts took advantage of the city centre’s re-development that was underway.


“The roads were being dug up, so the [service] trenches were open. We’d doddle along with a six-pack of beer and ask if they’d lob our pipes in. We did that for two years and everyone kinda laughed. Then we employed a digging contractor to join all the bits of pipes together. We had a whole city network a month after that.”


Inspire Net ended up partnering with Palmerston North City Council and building the council’s CCTV network. In return the council put Inspire Net’s fibre in the ground.


This was opportunist too, albeit it for a sad reason. “One of our staff members was assaulted in the square and lost partial vision in one eye. The city couldn’t afford to build a CCTV network,” says Watts. “So, for us, it’s a very symbiotic relationship.”


In another twist, the university and the army, whose students and recruits would often come to blows in the city square after pub closing time, are also now big customers. Watts says the CCTV-covered square is much quieter these days.
Inspire Net installed Wi-Fi on the university campus for both its students and the army recruits there – the army worried about its student-soldiers feeling isolated.


Inspire Net now has 2,700kms of fibre. It starts in inner city Palmerston North and goes out to Taihape. It also travels from Norsewood to Masterton. An important part of this network is rural schools and remote farms. These are connected by fibre and by wireless broadband when the former is impractical. In fact, Inspire Net’s wireless network with its 518 towers (wireless stations) is as important as its fibre network these days.


Hooking up schools is also a big part of Watts’ vision for connectivity. “You can educate people and give them access to knowledge. The internet is probably the ultimate way to do this,” says Watts.


Inspire Net was a pioneer in connecting up schools. “We did this well before government had ideas that schools should have fibre.” Indeed, former Prime Minister John Key was so impressed that he ‘cut a ribbon’ at one rural school, Watts says.


Cockies and schools
Then there are the farmers – the “cockies”, as Watts calls them. “They are hard to get on board but once you do they’re loyal ever afterwards,” he says. They were reluctant at first. Then Inspire Net started a community partnership programme, called Community Champions. This involves farmers banding together to get connectivity.


“If there are 10 of them we build a tower for free and hook them up based on future revenue. Then they’ll go, ‘There’s Sue down the road who has two children and they need the internet. How do we connect them?’ After you do this, they are loyal forever because you’ve invested in their community.”


It was servicing this dispersed rural community that led to installation of those robust wind turbines that now power the more remote wireless stations. This happened when Inspire Net found solar wasn’t powerful enough to transmit radio signals as far as they needed to go in some areas.


The robust turbine developed has “a full autonomous power system. This means we can install small wireless repeaters and go places people say it’s not possible to go,” says Watts.


Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) funding of $1.7 million is helping fund the upgrade of the network. It will see 85 towers upgraded between now and September in time for the Rugby World Cup, to ensure even the remotest fans can enjoy shouting at their teams. Inspire Net has even been helicoptering in gear to sites, to speed work up, rather than using the usual quad bikes.


‘Things I hated doing’
Watts’ aim of connecting people lies at the heart of his business. And, at Inspire Net’s Palmerston North base, they take helping customers very seriously indeed on the 12-strong help desk.


“We have humans who answer the phone,” says Watts. “The person who answers isn’t a scripted flow-bot. We have 98 percent customer satisfaction because we employ on people skills, not computer skills, which are easy to teach.” The WISP received a 98 percent score from Consumer NZ in 2016, and 99 percent for customer service. The average was 50 percent.


Despite this emphasis on the customer, Watts recently handed over the general manager job to his brother Paul, who, he says, was managing 100 staff before coming on board.


“The things I hated doing were HR and managing people. I decided I should take all that away from me for the good of the company and work on the business instead but also do the things I enjoy.


“I spend two days a week on a hill-top mixing concrete, putting in poles, talking to farmers, putting fibre in. What I enjoy is connecting people and changing their lives.”


Clearly a vision man, what’s next for Watts and Inspire Net? Surprisingly, a mix of old and new technology services. The company is building a digital Citizen’s Band network for its farmer-customers, to ensure their safety.


New regulations mean remote workers must be contacted every 30 minutes to ensure they are okay. But there’s no cell-phone coverage for two-thirds of the places we go, says Watts. The solution – a tier-two digital mobile radio (DMR) network that effectively has GPS tracking and can call out to the cell-phone network if necessary.


And, when it comes to newer technology, Watts is interested in Internet of Things (IoT) applications – with reservations.


“We can put 500 sensors on a farm, but unless someone collects the data in a usable form it’s pointless. The question is: do we collect the data and give farmers a view of it, or do we partner with the likes of Microsoft, who will be building solutions for farmers to do this?”


Watts has concerns about the way big data is currently collected. It’s being abused because data ownership isn’t clear, he says.


On a more positive note, he is excited about the next stage of technology development now that fast broadband is in place. “We have a problem in New Zealand,” he says. “The population isn’t big enough for the big, fun things, so we tend to build for the American and Chinese markets.


“I have a few ideas where we are going next,” he adds, but won’t elaborate beyond his comments on IoT’s possibilities – and big data dangers.


Sounds like a case of ‘watch this rural space’.