Russell Brown travels to Rotorua, Whakatāne and Gisborne to see what data is doing in the regions.
For 650 years, people have been hushed by the sunsets of Ohinemutu.
The hills to the west of Rotorua, as if gently parted by hand, let the light stay longer and lower here. It sends a blush up the walls of the old timber church of St Faith’s and lends a warmth to the gleaming white war graves of the urupa that extends out over Lake Rotorua.
Landward, there’s the living village, where it has been for six and a half centuries, the seat of Ngāti Whakaue. Tama te Kapua, the whare named for the captain of the Te Arawa waka, in whose carved walls he lives now, the paepae where royalty have been greeted, the communal bathhouse.
Except for the chuckling and murmuring of the earth around, which never stops, it is quiet here. Memories linger.
“If there was a spiritual centre to New Zealand,” someone says on Twitter, “I reckon it would be Ohinemutu.”
“We’re telling an old story in a new way,” says Tony James (Ngāti Whakahue), the following morning. “It’s software storytelling now, not kapa haka and hangi. We’re the next phase of taking our people into the future. We want to be part of linking our data back to where it should be – in our own hands.”
Four years ago, James, a builder, asked his wife what she thought about him enrolling in a new digital animation course in Rotorua, now that their kids were grown. Go for it, she said.
Now, as part of the development shop Four Company B (“it’s a tribute to our koros that served together in B Battalion in the Army”), he’s building a tourist experience centred on the bath house at Ohinemutu, his ancestral village.
“The bathhouse experience is going to be all technology-driven, projection-mapping shows at night and VR experience tours through the day,” says James. “Combining the two, you have a night and day show. We’re going to tell stories through the apps, using geospatial beacons around the reserve, so the guests get to take stories home, and then they come into our cultural experience inside this digital wonderland.”
James and his Four Company B colleagues are also playing their part in a very contemporary story. Last year, according to Chorus figures, Rotorua used more internet data per capita than any centre apart from Auckland and Porirua. Whakatane, in the eastern Bay of Plenty, and Gisborne are seeing something similar. Per capita data use in Gisborne jumped by nearly 50% in 2018 – more than anywhere else in the country.
Broadband use is both an enabler and an indicator of what’s happening economically in the region. Fibre is the supply side and the demand comes from tourism, established extractive industries, the glimmer of a regional tech sector – and an emerging sense of Māori enterprise.
But there’s a story too in where James and his colleagues work: the co-working space Digital Basecamp. These spaces seem vital in regional centres. Rotorua has two (the new, smaller Firestation is around the corner from Basecamp), Whakatāne has Lightning Hub and Gisborne has The Launch. When the translation company Straker Group began the move of its head office from Auckland to Gisborne last year, it opted to set up initially at The Launch. (Ironically, the key rationale for the move – so staff could afford to be homeowners – is already being eroded, as property prices start to rise.)
These hub spaces all have fibre connections. Basecamp has a gigabit link – and even, effectively, an in-house ISP. Murray Direen works as a field tech for the Napier-based company Now New Zealand and has a desk at Basecamp. He says he’s seen “enormous” change in the local internet space over the past five years, “mostly in the speed available to both individuals and businesses, but also the quality of the equipment, especially wifi equipment.”
Basecamp enjoys a “quite sophisticated” wifi setup, he says, but so do many tourism businesses: “Now, if you don’t have free wifi in a motel, nobody wants to stay there. You don’t go to a coffee house now that doesn’t have good wifi. Which means that when the wifi goes down I get emergency calls!”
The change in expectations is embodied in the AirBnB we’ve booked in Rotorua. It not only has a strong 25Mbit/s wifi signal through the house, there’s a TV with Netflix and YouTube built in and connected. And on every bedside table there is a four-port USB charging hub. (Progress is not universal, especially in the more traditional part of accommodation sector; and the next evening when I drop my bags at the Whakatāne Hotel, the wifi isn’t even good enough to register a speed test.)
Basecamp isn’t the only internet action on Rotorua’s Hinemoa Street. This one short stretch is also home to the regional network cores of Spark and Vodafone. And across the road, there’s Digital Natives Academy.
Potaua Biasiny-Tule, a longtime champion of wired culture, was a co-founder of Basecamp, but when he realised that the kids he wanted to work with weren’t necessarily a good fit with the business culture of the original space, he opened DNA – a hangout and cultural space across the street that looks like a gaming café but teaches digital animation and other skills to the young people who come in the door.
“Rotorua was in the doldrums, on the edge of the digital empire for ages,” Biasiny-Tule says, explaining the setup. “In my school, we had one computer. But the thing we had as kids was the spacies parlours. That was the one place a kid could escape, get out of the house, engage with a new world.
“The digital divide was what kept us apart in Rotorua. But now we’ve got the digital connectivity, we’ve got the devices, we can create our own content. I think it’s our affirmation of tino rangatiratanga.
“Hospitality has Eat Street,” he says, referring to the city’s highly-touted restaurant row. “So why can’t all the geeks, the nerds, the gamers, the creators have Geek Street?”
But shared spaces are also about human connections. Upstairs at Basecamp sits Claire Mahon, an international human rights lawyer who runs a non-profit organisation that works with the UN and local advocates in a dozen or more countries. She moved home from Geneva to Rotorua last October and now does her face-to-face talking by video-conference – at whatever hour of the day or night it takes.
She’d tried to work part of the year from Rotorua before, but “the infrastructure, the internet was simply not good enough to do that. It just wasn’t sustainable. Now I can manage my business here online, because the technology exists to make that physically possible.
“And then also, spaces like this, co-working spaces. Coming here, I knew that I’d have to re-engage with people. Having a place where I could connect with people doing different kinds of work, but also where it made the infrastructure easy.”
Ngāi Tūhoe’s “living building”, Te Kura Whare, in Taneātua, 13km from Whakatāne, is more than a building: it’s a symbol of the independence at the heart of Tuhoe culture. It generates its own power through rooftop solar panels and deals with all its own waste. But it’s on the grid in one important way: it connects to the Chorus fibre that runs past its front gate.
Attention to connectivity is not new for Tūhoe – I spoke to iwi members investigating a wireless mesh network for Te Urewera 15 years ago – but, being Tūhoe, they think of these things differently.
“For a long time our view has been that technology is a friend to Tūhoe,” says Tūhoe spokesman Tamati Kruger. “But often people make the mistake of thinking we are reaching out for the technology to resolve a problem of isolation. That is not the case. We didn’t see the problem as one of isolation – it’s part of our sense of belonging and character.
“When we use connectivity, we use that word in the broadest sense. Connectivity also talks about your connection with your identity, you sense of belonging, who you are. It’s also a connectivity with your values, your morals, virtues. Your connectivity socially, politically, culturally. So the technical, digital, digital application of it – we don’t see that as something else.”
There are more business fibre connections to come: reaching further into the four rohe of Te Urewera (“the cost is humungous, but we’re thinking in terms of generations”). Independence applies internally too, so use of the technology will be a matter for individual tribal offices and the marae they represent.
But the whare is the gathering place: 30 or 40 people are working there on any given day, it hosts weddings and conferences and those who wish to use the research library in the Whare Pure. The Tūhoe diaspora checks in from as far afield as Russia and Scandinavia. And in the evenings, the people come and park outside.
A 25mbit/s slice of the whare’s 200/200 fibre connection goes out 24/7 via the café’s free wifi. People come and sit in the carpark – or even out on the main road – and download what they need. (I ran a speed test on the wifi and clocked a 7 millisecond ping time that would be the envy of many urban dwellers and we’re in Taneātua!)
“The neat thing is, they don’t graffiti the place, or hoon around or break in, they come here and do their stuff,” says Kruger. “There are no gates or fences here.”
Or even wifi passwords.
Back in town, Tristan Vine sits down in one of the meeting rooms at Lightning Hub, Whakatane’s burgeoning co-working space. He was born and raised here, did his secondary schooling in Rotorua and spent most of his business career in Auckland, where he moved from heavy industry to business development, tech startups, marketing consultancy and mentoring. In 2014, he moved home – and soon noticed one unexpected difference.
“We’d been battling to get fibre at home in Auckland – then we moved down here and there’s fibre everywhere!”
Vine founded Lightning Hub, which is poised to take up a second floor of the building it occupies in the town centre. It offers office space, meeting and seminar rooms – and, increasingly, a business ecosystem. It’s home to Ake Innovation, where Vine is a director, which provides financial and consulting services and specialises in working with Māori entities. And, of course, to a 200/200 fibre connection.
That internet connection is used by some interesting people. One member is an audio editor on major Hollywood films. She works from her rural home and, when she needs to, comes into Lightning Hub to upload multi-terabyte files. Another is a World Health Organisation coordinator, who comes into videoconference with colleagues.
“We had another tenant who was working on analogue microchips for Samsung Galaxy smartphones and contracting for big manufacturers overseas. Her requirements for the contracts were that she needed secure, high-speed fibre with no drop in connections, 24/7. She’s pumped out a whole lot of work through our connection.”
Vine says the 60 to 70% of Lightning Hub’s customers have moved to Whakatane from the cities, many of them coming home the way he did. Some can work from their own homes and offices, but pay the membership fee simply to be part of a positive business community.
“It’s really, really fun,” Vine grins. “We get up in the morning and love coming in here.”
The drive up the coast of the East Cape from Gisborne is one of New Zealand’s most beautiful sections of road. It’s a journey that Manu Caddie, CEO of Hikurangi Cannabis Company, makes regularly between his home in Ruatōria and Hikurangi’s office in Gisborne. When the company’s medicinal cannabis processing facility in Ruatōria opens, the two places will be connected in other ways.
“Connectivity is essential to our business,” explains Hikurangi’s Chief Financial and Information Officer Hamish White. “We’re a split team over Gisborne and Ruatōria and the communication piece is going to be critical as our business grows and develops. We’re using lots of communications tools amongst ourselves at the moment and that’s only going to grow.”
The Gisborne office is already on the biggest fibre plan available and Chorus fibre runs past the site of the Ruatōria facility.
“It’ll be hooked up as soon as we start getting that facility ramped up,” says White. “We’ll be connecting fibre straight away. It’s going to be an essential part of the business.
“Every plant will be tracked and traced right through the production system and when we implement that system across the business, we want it to be top of the range. There will be handheld scanning devices feeding back into master information systems and ERP systems that tie back to everything.”
Moreover, the Ruatōria facility will house special equipment not directly supported in New Zealand. Some of it will be monitored and controlled in real time, so network latency won’t be an option. And then there’s security: once the company moves into production of high-THC cannabis, crops will need to be under the watch of security camera systems.
For now, says White, there is the job of global communication.
“I do a lot of Skyping and Zooming. We’re always talking to the US, Canada, Asia. It’s really key to make sure it works straight away. When you move into global business, you are online all the time. It loops into these 24-hour work days.”
There are many other signs of vitality in the city long regarded as the end of the line. Late last year, the Gisborne Herald reported that job vacancies in the city were up 40% on 2017. The day before I visited, the paper led with the news that tourist spending in the city grew by three times the national average in 2018.
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But not all the business growth, or the appetite for data, is on a grand scale. Much of it happens over the kitchen table. And some of it – another thing these three centres have in common is a higher-than-average youth population – is not about this generation, but the next.
If you want to see where things are heading, keep an eye on that data. It tells many stories.
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