Cathedral Caves & RBI2 Round 2 March 2020

Unifone has helped the Cathedral Caves in the Catlins offer their increasing tourist numbers EFTPOS and staff now have a phone line and wireless internet access. Making it a lot easier to keep tourists informed about tide times and any cave closures on the Cathedral Caves website. Working in conjunction with the Tautuku Block X Section 3C Trust, Cathedral Caves and Unifone have made wireless internet a reality for this part of the South Island.

The Cathedral Caves in the Catlins is one of the thirty longest sea caves in the world, located on Waipati Beach, south of Papatowai. The Catlins is a remote area of New Zealand, to this day, in 2020, the area only has about 1200 permanent residents, predominantly at Owaka. Tourist numbers are far above that, with over 70,000 visitors currently recorded each year visiting Nugget Point and Cathedral Caves experiencing over 10,000 visitors a year.

The area can be difficult for services and infrastructure with large areas of pristine protected dense native bush, often extreme weather conditions, and a landscape that, while incredibly beautiful, is logistically challenging.

Cathedral Caves is governed by a Māori land trust; Tautuku Block X Section 3C Trust, which was set up in 1996. Kate, who is part of the Tautuku X 3C Trust, got in touch with Unifone to see how they could help establish internet access and a reliable phone set-up for the Cathedral Caves.

Kate says of the project, “It’s been absolutely amazing because it means if there is any kind of safety issue, staff can react quickly and easily on the spot.”

The caves have short opening periods that can close at short notice due to unpredictable tides, weather conditions, and daylight hours (which change with cloud cover and conditions). It’s critical for staff at the Cathedral Caves to be easily able to update the website with open and close notices, make phone calls (particularly in emergencies), and to be able to offer tourists EFTPOS payments.

Talking to Kate, it soon becomes apparent that she cares about the staff working on-the-ground to support access to the Cathedral Caves. She says, “The phone line has been just amazing. Now they can ring someone up if they have any questions and staff can ring home if they need to. It’s nice that they can now check-in with family. It’s made such a huge difference.”

The Cathedral Caves wireless is not a normal set-up. The receiver is very tall to extend well above the dense native bush and the site is charged by solar panels as there’s no power to the remote site.

Kate says, “The overall process with Unifone has been very easy and it went really smoothly. Everything was delivered on time. We virtually discussed what we wanted and what we might require in the future, and they came to the party.”

The trust contributed to set-up and materials costs, while Unifone met most of the costs of putting in the solar set-up. Unifone supply the ongoing internet free-of-charge and so many minutes of local phone calls each month, as a way of giving back to the local tangata whenua.

Now tourists can easily pay with EFTPOS to visit the caves (which helps with maintenance and staffing costs), staff have a reliable phone service, and they can easily hop online and update the website – notifying potential visitors of any critical closures.

Unifone, with the help of funding from the government, has been able to put internet infrastructure into the Catlins area from Pounawea right down the coastline. With thanks to local farmers, the Tautuku X 3C Trust, and locals, this area now has access to wireless broadband and a reliable phone service.

Getting internet to the Catlins has been a local effort. Unifone used the services of a local civil works contractor to set-up the wireless broadband repeaters, as a way of supporting the local economy. The new network utilises private nearby farmland for infrastructure, with local businesses like the Whistling Frog Café now able to offer visitors internet access.

Increasing the Catlins Network is part of Round 2 of the government rollout. RBI2 Round 2 involves increasing the internet coverage in the Catlins and Clutha district, Cromwell, and Central Otago from Alexandra to Lauder and Cromwell. It also involves enhancing the internet coverage in the rural areas around Dunedin City and North Otago.

Getting internet access and a reliable phone service to this part of Otago has been a challenge, but it’s been incredibly rewarding, and as tourist numbers in the area look to continue to increase, locals and tourists alike will benefit from the generosity hard work that the local community have put into supporting the infrastructure in the area.

WISP September 2018

Chatting with Travis Baird and Glenn Hutton together in their functional but comfortable Balclutha office you can see why their business, Unifone, is so successful. They clearly get along well – there’s a mutual respect and recognition of complementary skills that has worked well for them since their separate WISP businesses merged in 2016.

Way back, while a student living at his parents’ home near Waihola, Travis saw his schoolmates using broadband while he suffered shonky dial-up Internet. With a bit of knowledge about wireless, and some help from his dad who was an electrician, he successfully beamed a signal from Milton to the family farm. The neighbours soon joined in.

Then when Travis went on to Otago University, he met a group of fellow students who were also into wireless. Soon Unifone was selling broadband connections to numerous student flats. Travis built the business on his knowledge of the market, and his understanding that struggling students can’t sign year-long contracts – a reality that eluded the mainstream telcos.

Over time, Unifone came to own the Dunedin student telecommunications market and a lot more besides.

Meanwhile, Glenn was leaving his role as a plant technician in a major corporate construction company in South Otago and looking for something to do. With a business partner, he started a new WISP; Rivernet. Rivernet announced its presence by setting up free WiFi in the main street of Balclutha and then went on to build wireless sites around south Otago.

So, by the time the two businesses merged, both had sizeable footprints – Unifone in the Dunedin-Milton area, and Rivernet centred further south in Balclutha. The merged business took the Unifone name and moved ahead as a single entity, with Travis still based in Dunedin and Glenn in Balclutha.

Glenn recalls that when the two were talking about merging he expressed doubt about the potential for any more growth in South Otago. Travis disagreed and said he could easily increase it, to which Glenn responded that Travis would have to be a genius to achieve that. In a very short time he did so, more than doubling the customer count.

By 2017 when the government’s Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI2) came into the frame, the merged Unifone was already on a strong growth track. Its successful bid will double the number of sites but increase the customer count by a smaller percentage – the RBI2 areas, by definition, are sparsely populated and hard to reach. Glenn says the big benefit of RBI2 was that it drove a more disciplined approach to the way the business is run. “We had to get more structured so as to reach the point of sign-off – we had to involve the lawyer and accountant, standardise our pricing, and get really serious about formalising safe work practices,” he says. “The process of getting to the point of government sign-off was a lot of work but it has made our whole business more sophisticated and robust.”

Unifone’s RBI2 rollout is well underway. Glenn is especially proud of one of the first sites, Tussock Ridge in the Waipori pine forest southwest of Dunedin. Residents there had no connectivity at all until June of 2018 – not even mail delivery. Now they have full Internet access, with 50% of the residents signing up in the first three weeks after the site went live.

Today, Unifone is growing steadily with around 60 wireless sites and 1800 customers as well as “white label” retail service providers. Most of the sites are owned outright by Unifone, although a handful are community or privately-owned sites. Unifone prefers to own the sites outright to keep the operation simple.

The northern boundary of the network is the Pigroot – the legendary State Highway 85 between Palmerston and Alexandra. In the south, it ends at Kaka Point in the Catlins. Westward, there’s a strip right into Central Otago including Middlemarch and the Maniototo region. Wireless hotspots abound on the Unifone network – in main streets, hotels, halls of residence and student flats.

Unifone customers are a diverse bunch. Dunedin is still a large part of the business and the company has never forgotten its student roots. “We compete on service,” Travis says. “The big anonymous telcos mail a broadband router out to the customer and never meet face-to-face. We make a house call and make sure they are set up – that’s consistent with our philosophy of being a local Otago company supporting local people.”

At the other end of the scale, most customers are outside the 50kmh zones. About half are farmers, mostly dairy. Not only the managers are Unifone customers – farmworkers need the Internet as much as anyone else, so there are numerous farm cottages connected. Some are paid by the farmer, and others directly by the employees. There’s a huge turnover in farmworkers but Unifone has noticed recently they’ve become more confident to sign up for two years.

Unifone is clear that rural areas are its niche. “We could go and compete for city businesses,” Travis explains, “but we’d have to take on a lot more resources."

Unifone’s team comprises about ten full-timers. Glenn drives the desk while Travis drives the technology and the money. Tom is Operations Manager, Chris is support technician and handles Customer Services, while Sarah (Glenn’s daughter) works part-time on the phones. Office Manager Viv handles payroll.  There are four technician/installers – Mitchell is the electrical and civil works technician, Troy and Kingsley are field techs based in Dunedin, and John is the field tech-based in Balclutha.

Unifone has three years of growth ahead with existing contracts. It also hopes to win a part in RBI2a – the next iteration of government funding. Whether that happens or not, the business is humming along and the future looks bright.

Bidding For Bulls On Broadband  September 2018

Julene and Garry McCorkindale have been customers of Unifone from early days – way back before the merger with Rivernet. Nowadays their Simmental bull stud boasts a variable speed wireless router in the stock handling yard. Its configured at a low speed for most of the year, but as sale time nears it is ramped up. That allows the sale to be live-streamed, and potential buyers from afar to bid remotely by contacting their stock agent on-site over Facetime or Messenger services.

“With high-speed broadband, there’s a whole new level of opportunity,” Garry says. His vision is to develop a fully online auction with its own app so that a group of buyers can watch live while communicating back to their agent and lodging bids.

Meanwhile, Julene uses the Unifone network to support her separate business – developing sales with prospective clients in the USA and UK using Skype and other platforms that enable all-important face-to-face contact.

Before Unifone came along connectivity was very poor and expensive. Now the couple enjoy excellent video and streaming services, from a supplier they describe as “very responsive.”

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