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The WISPs come in from the cold

Ernie Newman, Guest post. 18 April 2017, 6:34 am
The WISPs come in from the cold

RBI2 - the next round of the taxpayer-funded Rural Broadband Initiative - is shaping up as a three way battle among Chorus, the three mobile companies, and the WISPs.

Chorus is in the red corner. Its bid seems to be copper-based using VDSL. This seems a strange choice. VDSL is at its best in urban environments where the premises are close together. General wisdom is that VDSL starts to slow 300m from the cabinet and is ineffective at about 1km. Sadly the planners who laid out our farms and rural homes a century ago overlooked designing around VDSL.

Chorus has been talking up vectoring as a means to extend VDSL's reach, yet it seems the markets where vectoring has been tested are in places like Belgium, Austria and Turkey. These have demographics and population densities very different to rural New Zealand. Its hard to see VDSL, no matter how it is enhanced, meeting the needs of the scattered farms, horticultural properties and life style blocks that are our reality. 

So the red corner Chorus offering sounds a bit like the immortal inventor of the steam locomotive, George Stephenson, bidding to build the next iteration of high speed trains for the Channel Tunnel.

In the green corner stand the Three Mobilteers - Spark, Vodafone and 2Degrees. These guys are trying to smile, but look uneasy. They are more at home punching each other's lights out in the market than playing happy families together. They may have also entered individual bids, but the joint bid is the one they are talking up as "the most cost-effective means of creating what would be a shared wholesale wireless network, open to internet service providers to sell to farmers."

All very well, but history is not on their side. You and I as taxpayers handed Vodafone $80 million for the first round of RBI. In return Vodafone took several years to deliver just 23,835 customers according to the latest official figures. Vodafone claims that was the fault of the government for over-engineering the towers. Whatever the cause, few would defend RBI1 as an optimal use of public money.

In any case, no matter how good cellular services might be for mobile voice, they are not the right long term solution if we aspire to the scale needed to get Netflix, You Tube, educational applications and games to rural homes and businesses at urban speeds.

So in the gold corner - gold because they are the good guys - are the WISPs. Famous locally, but until now unknown nationally. Collectively they already service 40,000 customers, arguably making them second only to Spark in rural broadband and significantly bigger than Vodafone. 

Rural New Zealand is their home - where the WISPs live, work and play. They are small businesses who know their regions, their topography and their markets intimately. They are creative, practical and thorough. Like most small businesses they swamp their customers with service. And as practical people they know how to build solid infrastructure at keen prices.

And they are fast. A half decent WISP can get a new wireless site installed, tested and operational while a big cellphone company customer is still waiting for the call centre to answer.

A WISP is also a great partner in an emergency. In Kaikoura, and again this month in Minginui, the local WISPs performed flawlessly through civil emergencies and were the only channel of communications on line without a break.

Many WISPs are known to have bid for RBI2. Some are partnering with their local lines companies. Fibre over power lines with WISPs at the extremities is a very logical, cost effective platform for RBI2. The new "deemed access" provisions which passed their final reading in parliament last week will shave millions of dollars off the legal bills for fibre across existing power corridors - Northpower alone has said it will save $100 million in paperwork as a direct result. 

WISPs are proven, solid, responsive, and thorough. Rural New Zealand is their home turf. They can build sites at a fraction of the cost the cellular companies boast - Vodafone's statement that the cost is down from $500,000 to $50,000 for a cell site is still way higher than what many of the WISPs can do.

That's why Crown Fibre, on behalf of the government, should go for gold.

Ernie Newman, former CEO of TUANZ, writes on behalf of WISPA-NZ, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association


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