Gisborne. The first place in the world to see the sun, arguably the most remote city in New Zealand, prone to extremes of weather, one of the highest levels of poverty in the country, a population that is fifty percent Maori, an amazing tourist spot in summer and a sleepy hollow in winter, and home to a wireless Internet network that covers nearly 54,000 square kilometres, or twenty percent of New Zealand. All home grown.
This article first appeared in the print edition of the National Business Review on Friday 30th January 2014
Gisborne.net has been around for nearly two decades, providing the first local dial-up Internet service in 1995 and slowly growing into wireless connections that now span from south of Wairoa to the very top of the East Cape and penetrating deep inland across the Ureweras and up through the Motu. As well as servicing local urban areas in Gisborne city the backhaul reaches rural customers who are hundreds of kilometres inland. And it’s fast. Less than 10ms response times from the furthest point and download speeds are advertised from 5 – 20MB/s though actual speeds can push as high as 30MB/s.
The gear is state of the art and robust. The backhaul is powered by Aviat (previously Harris Stratex) with MicroTik 2.4 and 2.6 routers with 5ghz TDMA (time division multiple access) for the last kilometre endpoints.
The cost of this service is less than most major telcos at $65 – $75 a month, is uncapped, includes Global Mode, and comes with local support. Gisborne.Net has just over two thousand customers from home users in CBD’s to rural, and business users.
So how do two Gisborne boys, now with a staff of seven, end up covering twenty percent of the country with wireless Internet and doing what everyone else has pretty much failed to do so far, provide wide-spread, affordable, high-speed broadband to rural customers on a large scale?
Ronald Brice came away with a Bachelor of Science from Waikato University and studied ARPANET (the Internet before it was the Internet) during his time there. Dave Parker was a Telecom technician living in Gisborne. The two met and started a twenty-six year friendship and business partnership. The first business was a network consultancy in Gisborne and they eventually delivered the Internet to Gisborne in 1995.
Ronald is a typical Gisborne boy, easy-going, relaxed, sun tanned, still surfing, with a good sense of humour. Dave is a highly-entertaining, intelligent man, with a twisted sense of humour that any Monty Python fan could appreciate.
The first demand for wireless came from the Gisborne District Council. Dave and Ronald partnered with a guy called Laurie Colvin, a local radio communications specialist with his own company, Colvin’s Ltd. Dave and Ronald point out that without that relationship, the network wouldn’t exist. The first link was manufactured and established for the Council, which led on to sales of the solution to Hawkes Bay, Tauranga, and Taupo. The network had begun to grow.
It hasn’t been easy. The terrain is tough on the East Cape and the weather fickle with severe extremes of heat and rain. Access into and out of country is by gravel and farm roads. Travel times are very long and the gear takes a battering given that it is often on top of high, exposed hill tops.
One of the worst days for the network saw one of their towers heat by a massive lightning strike, a regular occurrence given where they are located. The power of the strike was so intense that took out the fence, a nearby telco’s tower, and boiled the earth under the concrete pad, which ejected in a massive geyser of super-heated mud.
The company is growing at an estimated twenty to twenty-five percent a year though it’s not all about the money. The company is altruistic and has supplied free wireless to the CBD, for example.
Ronald tells me that “The co-location and sharing of resources with other organizations in the community, creates cost benefits to all parties and has made it affordable for us to setup and maintain the network at the current level.” It’s that new business model in action, collaboration, not competition.
Working with government on funding broadband initiatives took six year to pay off. Initially, central government was more interested in fibre. Now, as an example, the network includes connections to thirteen very remote schools from the Cape to Wairoa. This initiative was supported by the Eastland Community Trust and Douglas Birt, a former Telecom district manager, and retired CFO for the Council, has supported these community based initiatives strongly. Central Government has seen the light as well, and continues to support the rural connectivity that is so much needed. The community is an important part of the network and it is excellent to see the local Council right behind the initiative.
It’s all onwards and upwards from here. In 2011 Gisborne.Net was confirmed as a Network Operator which has allowed them to resell Chorus UFB. This will be an area of focus and growth for the company this year.
Prior to the last election, around $100M was promised for the further development of rural broadband. According to the “Hills Holes and Poles” initiative, Spark and Vodafone immediately went in to lobby for this money, suggesting it was best spent with them. “Hills and Poles” have been tasked to find out how the rural sector is currently been supported.
They initially looked at the South Island and found that Gisborne.Net was mentioned frequently, so they travelled to the Cape to understand what was happening. The feedback that set Gisborne.Net apart from other smaller providers, was the sheer scale of the network, the strength of the backbone, the resiliency (using industrial strength steel towers for example), and the fact that frequencies were licensed, the equipment was top-grade, plus the network included a high-degree of redundancy to deal with failures.
Gisborne.Net wishes to secure some of that $100M that has been made available in that pool, retailers are not excluded from going after that money, the government is interested in outcomes, and less interested in how it happens.
As Dave Parker says “This has got to be a better solution for last mile rural, than a few extra cellphone towers.”
The Internet is important for Gisborne. It’s physical isolation and young, low socio-economic population need real choices and a connection with the world. Generations of welfare-dependant families need to be able to connect to the rest of New Zealand for education. The town itself needs to support local business and allow it to compete on a New Zealand, and global scale. All of that requires significantly strong infrastructure to achieve.
This is a Gisborne success story. A high quality Internet service that covers one of the most rugged and inaccessible parts of the country, an area that covers twenty-percent of New Zealand delivering a service that will help the economy of the region.
But it’s more than that. It’s a potential solution that can be used anywhere in rural areas in New Zealand that we can’t get fibre. In fact, it is a solution that could be used anywhere in the world that has the same geographic challenges.