Giga-gains not evenly shared (+ video)

Dunedin residents celebrated the Gigatown victory with shrieks of joy, but, nearly 18 months on, the sense of triumph has been replaced by frustration for some. Photo by Peter McIntosh
Dunedin residents celebrated the Gigatown victory with shrieks of joy, but, nearly 18 months on, the sense of triumph has been replaced by frustration for some. Photo by Peter McIntosh
A digital highway is spreading across Dunedin, but the rise of GigCity is not without its own traffic jams and frustration. Chris Morris reports.

It was heralded as the biggest step forward for Dunedin since the Gold Rush - a high-speed digital highway linking Dunedin to the world, helping turn a city with a declining manufacturing base into a hub for a new wave of high-tech companies.

But nearly 18 months on from the ear-splitting shrieks that greeted Dunedin's victory, the Gigatown party is over.

In its place has come a tale of two cities - some companies surging ahead, while others trail in their wake, and some residents logging in to warp speeds while others are left to wait.

It is a story of haves and have-nots that has turned two of Gigatown's biggest champions into its most vocal critics.

Ali Copeman, a Dunedin businesswoman and Otago Chamber of Commerce president, says she is now "completely disillusioned'' after frustrating delays trying to connect to the network.

And Dunedin businessman Ian Taylor, of Animation Research Ltd, says the city has squandered its opportunity, and the Dunedin City Council is to blame.

"I will never forgive this council for wasting that opportunity.

"It's on their heads. They have absolutely been missing in action.''

It is a charge Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull denies and, as the dust settles, there are some signs the Gigatown promise is beginning to deliver results.

The city has a new brand - GigCity replacing Gigatown Dunedin - free gig-speed WiFi in the Octagon, and a smattering of cash in the hands of community groups and companies with digital ambitions.

More is promised, including 12 more free gig-speed WiFi zones and a hub to demonstrate the power of the service.

There are signs fresh talent is being lured to Dunedin - look no further than gaming studio RocketWerkz, the brainchild of former Oamaru man Dean Hall, which is growing rapidly on the city's waterfront.

His is one of a growing number of businesses and homes across Dunedin choosing to flick the switch and connect as the network continues to spread.

Chorus figures show 64% of the city is now wired for ultrafast broadband (UFB), offering faster speeds, including gigabit at the top end.

But signs the roll-out is gathering pace provide only one part of the GigCity story.

The other side is the growing frustration of those left behind, forced to crawl along at more pedestrian speeds, or in some cases without any internet at all.

Chorus figures showed UFB uptake - those opting to connect to the network - stood at 24%, or 8519 connections, while gig-speed connections amounted to just under half that, at 4048 connections or 12%.

Up to 2000 people with access to gigabit speeds were still caught in the pipeline - living in apartments with technical challenges, waiting for final connections to be installed or unaware they already had access if only the switch was flicked.

It was a problem encountered by Wicked Networks owner Stewart Fleming, of Dunedin, who said he had dealt with "about 100'' business and residential customers since January who had faced long delays.

Most delays lasted up to a month but the worst examples dated back to November and December last year and were yet to be resolved.

The unpredictability of a switch-on date for the service meant some customers were left without any internet at all, or forced to pay for two connections at once, he said.

He had encountered problems in North Dunedin, where the Chorus network appeared to lack capacity to accommodate in-fill development by landlords, Mr Fleming said.

One example of the headaches was found at 542 Leith St, where two recently built neighbouring flats shared a wall - but not the benefits of GigCity.

The students at 542A Leith St have access to gig-speed internet but their neighbours at 542B have been waiting since November.

Nursing student Alex Clark (18), of Christchurch, said she had expected the process to be "easy going''.

Instead, she and her five flatmates relied on a prepaid 4G modem delivering a fraction of GigCity's promise, while flats around them were connected.

"We can't really study because you can't download all your notes or watch your lectures or watch videos to help you.

"It's quite frustrating.''

Chorus spokesman Steve Pettigrew acknowledged the company had "work to do'' to tackle delays in Dunedin but denied lack of capacity was contributing to problems in North Dunedin.

Instead, the "explosion in demand'' for fibre connections, fuelled by the popularity of sites such as Netflix, was outstripping expectations, he said.

Some internet service providers (ISPs) were choosing not to notify people when they had access to gig-speeds, leaving them unaware that they could switch over, adding to the slow rate of uptake, he said.

The UFB roll-out was not simple and the work was more akin to a home alteration than simply flicking a switch, he said.

"I think one of the major hurdles to fibre is lack of understanding of how big a job it is to do,'' he said.

Each home or building presented different problems, in Dunedin and elsewhere, but apartment buildings and properties sharing common access posed a particular challenge, he said.

All owners needed to consent to UFB work before it could proceed, even if they were overseas or out of contact, potentially adding to delays.

Legislation due later this year would address that by permitting Chorus to proceed with implied consent if owners could not be contacted, he said.

Chorus wanted to see as many people in Dunedin as possible get ‘‘the full benefit of Gig'', and urged customers to check with their ISPs.

Across town, RocketWerkz staff are already enjoying their Steamer Basin view and a rapid-fire gig-speed connection from inside the Jade Building.

Mr Hall launched the company after the runaway success of his zombie survival game, DayZ.

He was based in London at the time, but decided to return to New Zealand and faced a choice between Queenstown, Wanaka or Dunedin.

The Lakes district suited his outdoor lifestyle and offered international air links but Dunedin's 1Gbps internet - coupled with the promise of cheaper office space and housing - sealed the deal, he said.

Gig-speed internet at work meant the days of waiting hours for software updates or uploads were over and gig-speed at home helped the company offer flexible working conditions, he said.

"That really adds to the productivity a lot for us,'' he said.

Dunedin was already reaping the benefits as the company grew from six full-time staff to 24, with three more poised to start and plans to grow to between 50 and 80 staff.

RocketWerkz was already recruiting University of Otago graduates, as well as staff from Auckland and overseas, he said.

"We've been sort of reversing the migration loss a little bit, in our own way.''

It was an about-turn for Mr Hall, who last year slammed the Gigatown victory as a "total joke'' as he was struggling to find a gig-enabled office.

He later backtracked and now says the network is proving to be "pretty awesome'' and a "fantastic opportunity'' for the city.

"There's a few people losing out on the Gigatown promise ... but I know it's getting easier,'' he said.

RocketWerkz is not alone.

Companies such as ADInstruments, NHNZ, Education Perfect and MixBit have all sung the praises of Dunedin's developing high-speed internet infrastructure.

But MixBit's Dunedin office manager, Meg Garner, expressed mixed feelings about the rise of GigCity - excitment at its potential, but not the pace of the roll-out.

The video-sharing software company, formed by YouTube co-founder Chad Hurley, did most of its work from Dunedin.

The city's high-speed connection helped provide an uninterrupted video link between the company's offices in Dunedin and San Mateo, California.

The spread of the giga-speed network would allow more people to use the company's product, she said.

But, where RocketWerkz was expanding rapidly, MixBit's head-count was holding steady at nine permanent staff in Dunedin.

And, while enthusiastic about the "massive'' potential of GigCity and the latest WiFi and hub projects being discussed, Mrs Garner believed the roll-out needed to move faster.

"I don't know whether it's red tape, but it seems a bit slow.

"I remember when we won it, there was lots of positive talk . . . I haven't heard anything directly, anyone directly wanting to come here to Dunedin to start up.''

Mr Fleming, of Wicker Networks, agreed, saying he was seeing few signs of businesses coming to Dunedin.

"I haven't seen a lot of ribbons being cut in new offices, put it that way.''

But while the focus for most was on connection dates, businessman Ian Taylor said GigCity's real potential was as a brand, and the city's chance to cash in was "gone''.

Mr Taylor travelled the world and, from London to New York, people he met were "blown away'' when shown Dunedin's internet speeds, he said.

But the push to make the most of that branding opportunity needed to start immediately and be led by the council, he said.

Dunedin International Airport should have become the gateway to GigCity as soon as the competition was over, with giga-speed internet to blow the socks off passengers touching down, he said.

From there, the arrivals should also been directed to a GigCity hub right in the heart of the city, to show off its potential, he said.

Instead, the city's response had dragged on, confused and initially unfunded, until the GigCity brand and giga-speed Octagon WiFi was eventually unveiled in October last year.

It was declared "Day One'' for GigCity, but came nearly a year after the city won the Gigatown competition, and its spoils, on November 26, 2014.

Those spoils included three years of subsidised giga-speed internet at entry-level broadband prices, and $700,000 in cash from Chorus and Nokia to distribute.

Chorus later extended the subsidy by a year, and accelerated the roll-out of the city's UFB network, from December 2019 to December 2017, which Mr Taylor accepted had helped the city.

But other centres were also progressing their own UFB roll-outs and projects, and in some cases - such as in Queenstown - were already finished, he said.

Dunedin had a chance to leave a legacy for the next generation, by stamping its GigCity brand on the world, "and we never used it'', he said.

"The greatest disappointment for me is our council and our economic development unit.

"I just despair at their lack of vision and their failure to grasp the opportunity.

"It is the highway to the world ... and they've wasted it - totally wasted it.''

Dunedin Mayor Dave Cull disputed that, although he acknowledged the aftermath of the Gigatown victory had been challenging.

The roll-out of branding and projects would have been better "the sooner we did it'', and the council could be accused of "poor planning'', he said.

But it was "probably a bit much'' to except initiatives to be implemented immediately or exactly as Mr Taylor wished, Mr Cull said.

The city's focus had been on winning the competition and not on preparing for what came next, "since there was a good chance we wouldn't win'', he said.

Since then, $173,000 of Chorus and Nokia funds - a $500,000 community fund and a $200,000 "GigStart'' fund - had been distributed, with more to come, to help support digital entrepreneurs and groups.

The council had approved $250,000 of its own annual funding to support GigCity, including $150,000 a year for new projects.

Already, $80,000 had been allocated to the Living City Hub planned for the Dunedin Public Library and $30,000 for GigCity branding, including at the airport.

Plans for 12 more free giga-speed WiFi hotspots around the city would be funded by the council, which has signed a three-year, $430,000 contract with Spark.

The Digital Community Trust, tasked with delivering the GigCity plan, had taken "a little while to get traction'' but it needed to strike a balance between marketing GigCity abroad and rolling out the benefits for residents, Mr Cull said.

"You could argue they [the trust] were a bit cautious . . . but they wanted to make sure whatever they did was robust and credible and would get results, and that took a while to do.''

Asked if the city had missed its chance, Mr Cull would only say: "I don't know the answer to that.

"I'm not sure that we will for some time.''

Despite the criticisms, Digital Community Trust chairman John Gallaher and GigCity project co-ordinator Lesley Marriott believed the city's perception of GigCity appeared to be improving.

Mr Gallaher said GigCity's progress was "a bit like an iceberg'', as complex issues needed to be resolved behind the scenes before projects could be rolled out.

That took time but more effort was being made by all parties and IT sector entrepreneurs, in particular, appreciated the progress being made, he said.

The wider public would, too, as more people connected to the giga-speed network, he said.

Q: What is Gig-speed internet?

● Fastest broadband in New Zealand; speeds of 1024 megabytes per second (mbps) when downloading and 500 mbps when uploading.

Q: What does it mean?

● No more "buffering''.

● Extremely fast uploads/downloads.

● Massive advantages for cloud computing and gaming.

● Encouraging business innovation.

Q: How is Gig being rolled out?

● Contractors installing ultra-fast broadband (UFB) fibre, including Gig, in streets.

● 64% of rollout completed; rest by December 2017.

● Individual homes connected on request.

● Uptake 24% for UFB; half of that Gig-speed.

Q: How do I connect?

● Contact internet service provider (ISP) and ask for connection.

● Most ISPs offer range of fibre speeds, from 30mbps/10mbps (download/upload) to Gig-speed.

● Must specifically ask for Gig-speed connection; not just fibre.

Q: What happens next?

● Chorus "ABC'' process (agree, build, connect) begins.

● Agree - Technician visits to discuss/agree installation work plan.

● Build - Contractors install fibre from street to outside of house.

● Connect - Technician connects fibre from outside to inside house.

Q: How long does it take?

● All going well, 2 to 4 weeks.

● Delays if work requires consent from multiple owners (apartment buildings, shared accessways).

Q: How can I test my speed?

● Websites like www.speedtest.net are recommended.

● Actual speed slightly lower 1024mbps; about 980mbps normal.

● Older equipment and WiFi arrangements can further reduce speeds.

Q: What if I'm hooked up to fibre but not getting the Gig-speed I thought I would?

● Ask your ISP to switch it on.

● Gigatown subsidies mean Gig-speed costs same as lowest-speed fibre.

Source: Chorus



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