WISPS – our time has come

A guest blog from Matthew Harrison, Chair, Wireless Internet Service Providers Association of NZ as part of the RBI2 bids blog series

This blog post is the second of a series and was written in response to InternetNZ's blog post: RBI2: Who wants to make a bang with the bucks

While the mainstream Telco’s have a habit of beating their chests noisily in the public arena, wireless ISPs or WISPs have traditionally kept a low profile.

All that is now changing.

WISPs have always been well known in our local and regional areas. We provide high quality broadband in those hard to reach places which the big Telco’s shy away from because of low population density and challenging topography. But nationally our collective scale has gone unrecognised for far too long. That’s why we recently set up a national group, WISPA-NZ, to represent and promote our interests collectively.

RBI2 – the second round of the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative, was a major driver of the new Association. Special provision has been made within RBI2 for bids by smaller regional telecommunications operators like us, and that has spurred our members into action.

While we don’t know precisely how many WISPs have bid in the RBI2 process our estimate is up to 20. There is no collective bid and each WISP’s bid is independent, although some of the WISPs have collaborated in putting bids together because they are unfamiliar with the process for lodging bids of this complexity, and we all recognise the merits in having as many complementary bids as possible – it will be easier for Crown Fibre Holdings to work with a significant number of WISPs covering the majority of the target area than just one or two.

Our technology involves taking backhaul from wherever we can and then ‘bouncing signals from hilltop to hilltop’ using radio technology far cheaper than the cellular companies but every bit as robust. Where we can’t get mains power we deploy imaginative combinations of solar and wind power, battery backups and standby generators. We earn the respect and goodwill of local farmers who help us with power, battery servicing and access, often in return for getting broadband and phone far better than they could get from any of the national service providers.

In the RBI2 build some of us will be partnering with electricity lines companies for supply of backhaul, using the new “deemed access” arrangements for fibre over power poles that went through parliament in April.

While we are commercial small businesses, we are seen very much as a part of our communities, we are born and bred here, we know our areas the best and we know what our communities need.

We are a natural choice for RBI2. Collectively we already have around 40,000 customers across rural New Zealand on high quality, reliable broadband. WISPs have achieved this impressive scale by investing our own money – we have not featured in any earlier rounds of UFB or RBI funding.

Contrast that with Vodafone’s reported 23,000 rural broadband customers after an injection of $80 million of the taxpayer’s funds. WISPs collectively are second only to Spark in the rural broadband market. Tell me who can mount the more credible case for the RBI2 money.

Then of course Chorus threw its hat the ring – curiously promising to polish up its corroding rural copper and install VDSL. That’s a technology that can stave off the demise of copper for a year or two in high density urban areas, but is hardly a credible offer for rural areas in 2017 where the copper is on its last legs and very few premises are within the desired 500 metres of the cabinets.

Our people take a huge pride in our resilience. In at least two recent national emergencies, in isolated Minginui in the Bay of Plenty, and earlier in Kaikoura, the local WISP stayed on line without interruption and for a time was the sole lifeline to those community’s.

WISPs deserve to win. Rural New Zealand is our natural home. We know the high sites because we have climbed them – not sat in an office looking at a computer image of them. We know the rural customers because we mingle with them daily. We know the technology because we are small businesses and when something goes wrong the owner is personally involved in the fix.

Farmers and businesses, families and students, or any kiwi in the remote corners of New Zealand can look forward to new or better access to broadband once the funding is allocated. We are looking forward to our ever-increasing role in continuing to bring the best rural broadband to New Zealand.