In 2014, Dunedin won the Gigatown competition – a Chorus-run social media campaign to give one town UFB speeds of 1 gigabit per second. But for City Council CEO Sue Bidrose, the work was just beginning. Now she had to work out what to do with New Zealand's fastest internet speeds.

DUNEDIN'S BID to be New Zealand’s Gigatown (since rebranded as GigCity Dunedin) wasn’t led out of the council, but we got involved, and then when we made it through to the last five, we got intensely involved. I was part of a team that visited the world’s first gigabit city, Chattanooga in the US, and we then realised what getting gigabit speeds could do for the city.

There was a huge sense of people coming in behind the bid - for the last few days I was sleeping about three hours a night; the rest of the time I was on social media, pushing our bid. I sent 21,490 tweets in all, and in the final morning of the campaign, the entire city responded – there were 235,000 Facebook comments, and 135,000 tweets. That’s in a city of about 120,000 people. 

Winning ‘the Gig’ has huge implications for Dunedin. As part of the prize, Dunedin gets gigabit speed connectivity at the entry level UFB retail price, plus $700,000 funding from Chorus for entrepreneurs and community groups to kick-start fast fibre-related projects, plus a creative business ideas incubator series. There’s also an additional $250,000 funding from council. And interestingly, one of the most exciting aspects has been a big shift in attitude from people here about the attributes Dunedin already have and how access to the Gig will help us shape a new future.

Mostly we are still in a connect-up and development phase, but already there are some exciting projects happening.

One of the first things is getting free high-speed Wi-Fi internet access through the Octagon area in the centre of the city – and we’re planning a wider corridor in the coming months. Users get plenty of data a day; enough to download a movie or TV show, or catch up with family overseas via Skype or local equivalents. I look out of my window and I see students, tourists, locals in town, business people on their lunch break, all using the Octagon Wi-Fi. Then when the cruise ships come in I can see some of the older people sitting outside the i-SITE (we had to put new benches there!) talking to their children, letting them know they are okay, that they are having a great time; I love to see that.

From live camera footage at the Otago Peninsula albatross colony –

“I look out of my window and I see students, tourists, locals in town, business people on their lunch break, all using the Octagon wifi.”

Sue Bidrose

City planners in other places around the world are thinking about the potential to use video to connect residents to councils. Instead of ringing the call centre, you’d be able to see the person you are talking to. Or you could introduce video into planning consent processes. Then there’s the potential for using cameras to keep people safer. In Dunedin we are exploring video drop-ins, and we are looking at sensor technology for things like wastewater, or parking.

Meanwhile, a change to local government legislation allows local councillors to Skype into council meetings. Combined with a good quality video link, that will make a heap of difference to councillors who live a distance out of town - we’ve got one in Middlemarch, an hour away.

The potential is really exciting - people are coming up with so many ideas. For example, a few weeks ago the Department of Conservation put a camera near one of the nests at the albatross colony, live-streaming a pair of birds brooding a chick*. And we thought, we’ve got the Gig, why not stream it into the i-SITE. So now visitors can go and check out how the chick is getting on; and it might encourage them to head out to the colony.

So far, we’ve got UFB to the gate for 60% of premises in Dunedin, and nearly 24% of people that could connect to fast fibre have done so – ahead of Chorus’ expectations. That’s almost 9000 households or businesses on UFB, with 42% of these on a gigabit plan.

I see our GigCity status as another thing that makes Dunedin unique. Our vision statement says we want: “to be recognised as one of the world’s great small cities, renowned as a confident, competitive knowledge centre; a community where enterprise and creativity support a productive and sustainable city”. We want creative people to choose to live and work in Dunedin, students to stay after they finish their degree, and local innovators to be working together.

The Gig helps make that happen.

* Warning: This link could seriously impact your at-work productivity. Watching an albatross sit on a chick – live – is remarkably addictive.