The last bastion of hopelessly slow dial-up internet, the Chatham Islands now boast fast wireless web access, proving that there is hope yet.
Tom Linn and Bill Smale (of Smales Farm fame) aren’t shy of a challenge. In an effort to reach an isolated market of only 650 customers, they would have logistical nightmares and trials of remoteness and a lack of infrastructure. The prize would be a greatly appreciative customer base that would finally have access to wireless broadband at speeds rivaling households in Auckland and Wellington. And so they jumped right in.
The result was Wireless Nation and its modern ‘point-to-multi-point’ network infrastructure, which consists of four strategically placed wireless access points on the Chatham Islands and a satellite ‘backhaul’ link to Auckland. Subscribers receive a small in-building wireless unit, which is easier to install and configure than a satellite dish, and less prone to problems in adverse weather conditions.
It sounds simple when described like that, but Wireless Nation founder Tom Linn says the project was beset with challenges.
“While vastly beautiful, the Chatham Islands are very remote, and that makes getting work done there quite difficult,” Linn says. “We consulted with local experts and completed thorough site surveys, but we couldn’t physically be on site so we had to work through remote logins or collaborate over the phone with local technicians.”
The total lack of a mobile phone network was problematic, but the locals were determined to see the project come to fruition.
For the majority of Kiwis who have never visited the far-flung islands, some of the logistical issues would involve things we take for granted when engaging in business projects, such as the scarcity of electricity.
“There’s only one flight a week to the Chathams, so if there’s a slight delay in acquiring equipment then the whole project gets held up by an entire week,” says Linn.
“There are no major shops on the islands so even getting the basic tools can be a challenge – we needed to send every fixture that would be required for installation.”
The small scale of the Chathams did have many positive effects as well, as these managers can safely say they know each and every one of their island customers – and these are clients who aren’t afraid to give them helpful feedback.
Many, however, are just happy to be getting high-speed, high-value internet.
Island local John Griffiths says digital satellite internet was far too expensive, while dial-up was frustrating.
“If I wanted to do simple tasks like sending emails, I would have to suffer with hopelessly slow dial-up,” Griffiths says. “Now I can do things like placing grocery orders online and they get packed and shipped immediately – no more faxing to Timaru.”
With the roll-out in November covering 25 percent of dwellings on the island and a second stage to cover 50 percent in the works, Linn and Smale remain upbeat and proud of their work to bring the Chatham Islands out of the dial-up dark ages.
“If it was easy, someone would have done it before, but if it can be achieved in the Chatham Islands, surely it can be done just about anywhere.”