Rural providers shaking up telco scene

WISPs find strength in increasing numbers’s Wheatstone Road site, which sends the signal from the outskirts of Gisborne to Mahia for Rocket Lab’s Wheatstone Road site, which sends the signal from the outskirts of Gisborne to Mahia for Rocket Lab

As telecommunications enters the next phase in its evolution – the advent of 5G, the Telecommunications (New Regulatory Framework) Amendment Bill before parliament – a new voice in emerging on the New Zealand scene.

Wireless Internet Service Providers, collectively known as WISPs, are small providers based in rural areas, many of whom have banded together to form their own association WISPA NZ (Wireless Internet Service Providers Association NZ). The group first came to prominence when some of its members were awarded $8 million in the second stage of the Rural Broadband Initiative, (RBI2). This funding hardly compares to the $250 million allocated to Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees, who have formed the Rural Connectivity Group to roll out the bulk of RBI2, but it shows that the Government is taking WISPs seriously.

Interest in the Association is growing fast, says Ernie Newman, who manages its secretariat. In the past week, five new WISPs – from Horowhenua, Te Kuiti, Timaru, West Coast and Nelson District – have applied to join the association. Current membership is 23 WISPs located around the country.

According to Newman a WISP typically employs five to six people, deploys its own infrastructure (although some also resell services from the large telcos as a side business), and provides wireless connectivity to rural households that is “every bit as good as you’d get in town”.

He says many WISPs began with people living in rural areas, who had a technical background and became frustrated with poor internet service, and like Ronald Brice from, saw an opportunity to provide better service at a cheaper price.

Brice’s company, which began in 1995, now has 3500 customers, including 49 marae and the company Rocket Lab which uses for its internet services at its Mahia Peninsula launch site. “When it has high demand for bandwidth during a launch other customers’ traffic is diverted via Wairoa so that nobody’s service gets downgraded,” Newman explains.

WISPs can compete with the big telcos because they don’t have the same costs. According to Newman, for the same price as a cell tower installed by a telco, WISPs can build 100 sites. There is also low maintenance, with some sites not visited for five years at a time. Newman says they are solar-powered and often the farmer whose land the site is on will check it themselves.

Marketing is mainly of word of mouth, and Newman says many a WISP has begun with a town hall meeting attended by a few farmers, who are encouraged to sign up on the spot for the fledgling services. “You can start up with as low as three customers, but more often its 10-12 customers to reach critical mass.”

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