Probe regions expect more of Woosh

Project Probe representatives in regions Woosh has pulled out of are disappointed, but hope to see the wireless provider return.

Project Probe representatives in regions Woosh has pulled out of are disappointed, but hope to see the wireless provider return.

The representatives in Northland, Canterbury and Wairarapa say that even the threat of competition meant that Telecom pulled out all the stops to build DSL capability in the regions.

Chris Mathews, chair of the Far North Development Trust, which oversaw the Probe national broadband initiative in Northland, says he’s disappointed Woosh effectively changed its mind about its commitment.

“Having spent two years in good faith talking to them about the rollout, having many meetings and conversations with them about how it would work, to be told at the 11th hour that it wasn’t coming, didn’t go down too well.”

Woosh chief executive Bob Smith says delays to contract signings and the time needed to secure the resource consents and property acquisitions needed to get Woosh set up in the three regions meant it had to pull out.

Telecom stepping in to Woosh’s shoes in the three regions has generated controversy, but Mathews says it’s a better option than re-tendering the contract.

“We didn’t really want to re-tender, and under the RFP we issued we’re entitled to get an alternative provider.”

Northland and Wairarapa had already begun broadband projects when the government announced Probe in 2002 and subsequently joined up with Probe, as had Southland, which is continuing with its Woosh-Vodafone rollout.

Mathews says Telecom, which had been building infrastructure in Northland during the Probe negotiations, can provide “a solution that goes a great way towards the goals of the tender, ie 100% coverage and equitable and affordable pricing”.

Of Telecom’s work in Northland, he says “with the mere suggestion of competition coming in, JetStream has become available and lots of mini-DSLAMs rolled out across Northland, but it won’t be competing with an alternative infrastructure or supplier”.

Education minister Trevor Mallard agrees, saying he’s disappointed Woosh hasn’t delivered in Northland, Wairarapa and Canterbury but that he’s “slightly heartened” by the fact that Woosh’s initial awarding of the contracts prompted Telecom to build infrastructure in the three regions. “The pricing’s looking reasonable and the marginal cost of Probe will be less.”

Steve Canny, strategic projects and policy manager at Venture Southland, says from his region’s point of view, “we’ve already received huge benefits from having a potentially competitive environment in our region”.

Woosh has “made a very strong commitment and [is] working on 17 sites at the moment, at various stages of Resource Management Act planning etc. While there have been one or two delays relating to the consent process, we’re happy with their progress so far”.

So far, 32 of Southland’s 103 schools are geared up to receive the service if they choose, he says.

The Far North Development Trust hasn’t had a formal, written communication from Woosh stating the reasons for pulling out, Mathews says, but any suggestion that the contracts were taken away from them or that it’s the government’s fault “would be vigorously contested” by the regional Probe people.

He says he “first had an inkling” that Woosh might not deliver when he spoke to Woosh chairman Rod Inglis some months ago, who said he was having difficulties with his board.

Masterton District mayor Bob Francis says the area was “very disappointed” about Woosh’s withdrawal from the Wairarapa Probe project.

“We spent two years on it and put a lot of effort and energy into a solution that would give us what we wanted plus a potential voice application.”

When it looked unlikely that Woosh would meet the March 2005 deadline, “we got into discussions with Woosh and Telecom to see if Woosh could [meet the deadline] with Telecom’s help, but it fell apart”.

Wairarapa hasn’t severed all links with Woosh, he says.

“We’re still talking with them and we still think some competition in the region is needed.”

The region is holding out for Woosh’s nationwide rollout, set to follow its urban deployments, he says.

David Rycroft, economic development manager at the Canterbury Development Corporation, which is handling Canterbury’s Probe rollout, says he’s “quite disappointed” Woosh wasn’t able to meet its commitments in the timeframe it had to deliver.

He said the region was aware of the situation before it was public knowledge “so it wasn’t a surprise at all in many respects. We knew Woosh had been taking a far more commercial look at things re their urban rollouts”.

Of Telecom taking up the vacuum left by Woosh, he says, “I’m pleased government has taken the initiative”.

Southland’s Canny says he’s “sorry for the other regions” that Woosh hasn’t been able to deliver but understands why Woosh felt it couldn’t meet the timeline.

“It’s difficult to compare building a new [infrastructure] with using an existing and installing smarts in various locations.”

Woosh’s Smith says Woosh has “done the right thing” in getting out of the three regions when it became clear it wouldn’t be able to meet the timelines set by the government. “Some time ago we flagged concerns re the timeframes for delivering.”

Woosh worked with the government and the three regions “to try to come up with some solutions but in the end we agreed the best thing was to withdraw”.

Contracts had yet to be finalised for Wairarapa, Northland and Canterbury. Woosh is going ahead with the Southland rollout signed in December “because we came to an agreement with Southland much earlier and were more advanced with planning and deployment”.

Asked if he thought the pull-out would harm Woosh, Smith believes Woosh has been upfront about everything and decided to deliver what it could.

“We have a national network rollout planned and what Probe was doing was accelerating and extending that.”

The proposed national network will encompass Northland, Canterbury and Wairarapa, but getting the infrastructure built in those regions within the Probe timeline wasn’t realistic, he says.

“When you get into the practical reality of resource consents and property acquisitions, these things take time.”

Mallard declined to comment in detail about Woosh’s withdrawal, saying “I’m not going to get into a public argument with Woosh about it.” As for Woosh’s claims that it couldn’t meet the timelines, “in other regions, the deadlines are being met”, he says.

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