Dunedin Wisp growing fast in the South

Unifone contracts manager Glenn Hutton (left) with technician John Gillespie. Photo: Supplied
Unifone contracts manager Glenn Hutton (left) with technician John Gillespie. Photo: Supplied
Unifone contracts manager Glenn Hutton spent three days in Waimumu, outside Gore, last week, talking to Southland and Otago farmers about their broadband options.

"This is our second time at Southern Field Days. Either the word is getting out, or being near the tractor pull was a drawcard, because we were a lot busier this year."

It was probably a mix of both.

The Dunedin-based wireless internet service provider, or Wisp, has been gradually building up its Otago and Southland broadband network since it was founded by Waihola local Travis Baird in 2008.

The former University of Otago student started by selling broadband connections to student flats in Dunedin, knowing that students were not keen to sign up to 12-month contracts.

That gave the company a competitive advantage over larger telcos and while Unifone continues as a dominant player in that market, the company really kicked up a gear in 2016 after it merged with Balclutha-based Rivernet.

It now employs 11 staff in Dunedin and Balclutha and has a number of contractors, helping support about 2000 customers and other retail service providers through its 60 wireless sites.

Mr Hutton said the current network covered an area bounded by the Pigroot in the north to Kaka Point in the Catlins.

"That puts us in the niche 5% of the market and we are able to thrive because we can move quickly. So us being at field days or rural shows makes sense, as it is about building up personal relationships in our key areas."

Mr Hutton said the plan was to expand into North Otago after its work in Central Otago.

To that end, the company had received two rounds of funding under the RBI2 programme.

"For us, a few hundred thousand dollars makes a big difference; we couldn’t have expanded to the extent we did without it."

Mr Hutton said farmers had the same requirements for broadband as other businesses.

"Outside of the farm office there is an increasing demand for connectivity around the farm, so we have field technicians out there connecting sheds, pumps and monitoring elements."

Another growth area was the emerging farmstay, B&B and local motel segment.

He said while personal plans — which varied from $59 to $89 a month — would generally suffice for the farm, farmstays or motels would generally require faster speeds.

These range from $79 a month for Wi-Fi at 5 Mbps to $199 for 20 Mbps speeds.

"We don’t have data caps, so we sell our plans on the basis of speed. International visitors to farmstays really don’t understand there is no fibre connection, but fast connectivity is a major point with them."

He said one area the industry could do better in was providing the link between the user and the service provider.

"Rural connectivity is not the big hurdle it once was. We are owned and run by technicians, so we either have or can develop a solution for almost any geography."

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