Spotlight on Dunedin: What does it mean to win Gigatown?

Free gigabit wi-fi | Development funds | Timely, the ultra-distributed poster kids for Ultrafast Broadband.

See: NBR Special feature - Spotlight on Dunedin

I have to admit Chorus’ Gigatown competition drove me a little crazy as various towns, small cities and suburbs competed for attention on social media. And in the final rounds, as more substantial proposals were put together by communities, I felt for Porirua whose council spent $100,000 in its presentation only to miss out.

Still, moving right along, Dunedin was eventually named the winning Gigatown.

What does that mean in practice?
First off, it means Dunedin homes and businesses can get “Gigatown” internet plans, or superfast 1000 Megabit per second or 1 Gigabit per second Ultrafast Broadband (UFB) fibre connections for the same cost that most of us pay for a mid to high-end UFB plan that offers a tenth of that speed (many Gigatown home plans are in the $79 to $99 range).

The UFB is designed for a top speed of 1Gbit/s, but at the moment, and for some time to come, residents in most areas are restricted to a top speed of 100Mbit/s or 200Mbit/s.

Some see a 1Gbit/s connection as a little over-the-top for a household connection. Even if you have one family member mainlining Netflix, another internet gaming and a third high-def video conferencing, you’ll still be under 100Mbit/s. And here at NBRTowers in Auckland, we happily share a 100Mbit/s fibre connection among 30 staff. It’s mind-blowing stuff. Dunedin homes can now get the kind of internet speeds and bandwidth that only a couple of years ago were only available to the likes of Fonterra and other large companies.

Still, the Gigatown competition helped focus attention on what fibre can do for a community, and its advantages over older copper (or DSL) connections. Those include that fibre can run at full speed in both directions (copper plans are typically very slow for uploads), doesn’t degrade with distance (a major problem with copper), is more reliable and doesn’t suffer anything like the peak-time congestion of copper.

Rebranding as GigCity
John Christie, who heads the council-owned Enterprise Dunedin, is driving the city’s Gigatown initiatives.

He says the council spent $100,000 on its Gigatown bid. It’s also chipping in $250,000 of its own money on Gigatown-related projects this year. To that pot, you can add the $500,000 the council received for a Gigatown Development fund from Chorus, and $200,000 for a Gigatown community grants fund from Chorus and Alcatel-Lucent.

It’s still very early days for Mr Christie’s Gigatown plans but the first major initiative went live on Wednesday: the GigCity Gigabit Wi-Fi public network, initially available around the Octagon,but slated for expansion. It’s a joint venture between the non-profit Digital Community Trust, Chorus, Dunedin City Council and Unifone, a Dunedin-based ISP.

It’s the first venture under the city’s new GigCity branding.

Public wi-fi networks are nothing new but often speed is lousy, or you have to pay for decent bandwidth. Often there’s a poor “backbone” or landline connection between different wi-fi hotspots.

Dunedin’s GigCity network, on the other hand, is free and offers 1 gigabit/s wireless internet. It’s billed as the fastest free wi-fi network in the southern hemisphere. And it can probably take planet-wide honours in terms of the fastest free wi-fi network.

Funds for business and community
A second major development is the establishment of the GigCity Community Fund. Applications for grants of up to $20,000 open on October 10 (if you’re a local, check out www.gigcitydunedin.co.nz for details).

Wicked Networks’ Stu Flemming is already eying the funding. The local ISP owner says even at a knockdown Gigatown price, many homes can’t afford a UFB connection.

His plan is that if broadband can’t be taken to the people, then bring the people to the broadband. He’s planning a series of community centres that will have 1 Gigabit/s broadband on tap but also teach coding and other computer and internet-related skills, along with fun stuff like robotics and drones.

Timely: Gigatown poster kids
Mr Christie says even during these early months it has helped firms already in Dunedin recruit and retain staff.

One of the poster companies for talking full advantage of Gigatown is Ian Taylor’s Animation Research.

Another is Timely, a maker of cloud-based appointment-scheduling software for hair salons, clinics, gyms and the like. It’s also used by everyone from music tutors to personal trainers to (whisper it) members of the oldest profession.

Chief executive and co-founder Ryan Baker says his company now has 4000 customers in 70 countries. He wants hundreds of thousands in quick-time, worldwide.

Timely was founded in Dunedin and has 15 staff in the city, as well as nine in Wellington and one in London.

The company has a very 21st century setup: all 25 staff work from home. There is a central office but Mr Baker says it’s more of a boardroom for occasional meetings. A lot of communication is done by video conferencing, which Timely uses intensively, day in and day out.

While you don’t need a fast fibre connection to videoconference, the Timely boss says quality was frequently lousy. The advent of the UFB and gigabit connections means not just video chat but all kinds of remote collaboration is now seamless.

Not perfect
Mr Baker notes only some of his staff are covered by Gigatown so far, and international connections can be a bottleneck at times (an oddity of the current government’s $2 billion spend-up on fast internet infrastructure is that only $15 million was made immediately available for bolstering international connectivity).

Chorus is 53% of the way through its UFB rollout in Dunedin (vs 54% of the way through the project nationwide). That’s ahead of most metro areas. Crown Fibre Holdings figures released earlier this week put Auckland at 39% and Wellington at 35%). But it still means for just under half the city, fibre isn’t in reach yet. And among those who can connect, only a modest 2300 homes and businesses have taken a 1 gigabit plan so far, close to a year since the city won Gigatown.

Rollout will be accelerated
“We expect to see that figure really grow in the next 12 months as we continue our UFB build work in Dunedin,” Chorus chief commercial officer Tim Harris says.

The UFB rollout is scheduled to be completed in the city by 2019 but NBR understands that deadline will soon be brought forward.

“Otago now has the fastest average broadband speeds in the country – almost double that of other centres – which is a consequence of Dunedin winning Gigatown and end users opting for the Gig. Our latest data shows that the average sync speed in Dunedin is 41Mbit/s, compared to the national average of 18Mbit/s, Mr Harris says.

“And overall, UFB uptake in Dunedin overall is amongst the highest in New Zealand. In fact, UFB uptake has more than doubled in Dunedin during the last 12 months [21% as of September].”

He adds, “We’ve handed out more than $50,000 in grants for the Gig-Start Fund for some really exciting initiatives over UFB, with even more money to be made available through the fund in the coming months. It’s exciting to see so many great ideas coming out of Dunedin making use of gigabit ultra-fast broadband.”

As an example he gives a local branch of Cycle World, which has a system for capturing a 3D image of a customer on a test cycle to optimise their setup. A 1Gigabit/s connection is used to share the intensive app’s data with the chain’s head office.

Mr Christie says the education and health sectors are another point of focus. The WellSouth Primary Health Network is using a 1Gibt/s connection to securely network 85 practices.

Expect to hear a lot from the GigCity in the months ahead.

“We’ve been careful not to let the cat out of the bag too early,” Mr Christie says. Enterprise Dunedin and other parties involved have been careful to get a coherent plan in place and everything working before making a lot of noise.

But soon his agency will be spreading the word about his town’s low-cost, superfast broadband, and how it can help industries that are very dependent on the speed of internet, from gaming to movie post-production. He says he’s already aware of people relocating to Dunedin simply because it’s the Gigatown. He’s expecting that to accelerate.

 

Gigatown at Dunedin Stage 2 from National Business Review on Vimeo.

A video made by Animation Research Limited to galvanise support for Dunedin’s GigaTown bid

 

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