It’s remarkable that Vodafone ever thought it could get away with calling its HFC cable network FibreX. It always look like the exercise would end in tears.

This was a law suit waiting to happen. And boy did it happen.

At the New Zealand Herald Chris Keall writes Vodafone pleads guilty to some FibreX charges, will contest others

Vodafone has pleaded guilty to nine charges brought by the Commerce Commission over its “FibreX” service, but will contest a further 18 related to allegedly misleading marketing.

That’s total of 27 charges. In other words this is a big deal.

A rose by any other name

Most, but not all, the problems stem from the name.

I questioned the name when FibreX launched. A Vodafone executive explained with a smile that the name comes from the full version of HFC: hybrid FIBRE coaXial. He knew it was pushing things a bit.

HFC uses both fibre and copper cables. The network was first built almost twenty years ago. There are networks in Kapiti as well as parts of Wellington and Christchurch.

Vodafone inherited the network when it acquired TelstraClear in 2012.

Performance woes

Readers with long memories may remember that the cable network had appalling performance at that time. Yet it was capable of delivering television signals along with broadband data connections at a time the copper network would often struggle with video.

From outside it looked as if TelstraClear had under invested in the technology and even neglected the network.

The TelstraClear acquisition was a mixed bag for Vodafone. It accelerated the company away from being a mobile phone carrier into enterprise and fixed line markets.

It didn’t do much to grow Vodafone’s market share. The company’s overall market share in 2018 is the same as it was in 2009, despite swallowing a sizeable rival.

Potential millstone

In some respects the HFC network became a millstone around Vodafone’s neck. It was a support nightmare and hurt the company’s reputation.

In order to recover some of its value, Vodafone beefed up the technology moving to a new, far faster version of Docsis. While this could put it on a performance par with UFB fibre in theory, the practice proved somewhat different. HFC networks can suffer from congestion in ways the UFB network does not.

Nevertheless, it looked like a plausible alternation to UFB fibre.

FibreX vertically integrated

There is something else. Vodafone’s FibreX network is vertically integrated. The company doesn’t need to pay anything to a wholesale network provider. Vodafone gets to keep all the monthly subscription.

Vodafone launched FibreX launched a the peak of the nationwide UFB fibre build. It priced it at much the same level and its marketing went out of its way to present FibreX as a like-for-like replacement. It’s not.

The fibre networks being built by Chorus, Northpower, UFF and Enable send photons along a length of glass fibre. There are fast, reliable and modern. Some FibreX users report UFB-like performance. Others don’t. What’s clear is that it is not as consistent as fibre.

Dodgy tactics

There are stories of customers calling Vodafone asking for fibre connections being told FibreX is the same thing. There are stories of customers asking for fibre being told the only upgrade available to them is FibreX.

A lot of the Commerce Commission charges are to do with the way Vodafone sold FibreX.

Vodafone is no stranger to the Commerce Commission. Over the years the company has consistently pushed at the boundaries of ethical, legal marketing of its services.

The senior executives responsible for many of those incidents have now left the company. A new team has been left the task of cleaning things up. That’s going to take time. A good place to start would be coming clean about FibreX.

Chorus fibre broadband buildingChorus says it now has 500,000 Ultra-Fast Broadband connections on its network. The wholesale network company also announced plans to cut wholesale prices for the fastest connection speed.

Fibre demand has accelerated in recent months. It took Chorus five years to connect the first 100,000 fibre customers. The most recent 100,000 joined in six months.

In September, Crown Infrastructure Partners released numbers showing there were 605,000 connections nationwide for all Chorus, Northpower, UFF and Enable. That total would be higher today.

Connection speeds rising too

Customer connections are rising fast, so are their connection speeds. Chorus says customers are moving from entry-level plans to higher speeds. In order to speed the move up-market, Chorus will cut the wholesale price of gigabit fibre broadband connections for home users.

From the middle of 2019 the wholesale price for a home gigabit connection will fall from $65 to $60. Chorus promises a  futher drop to $56 in the middle of 2020. This will reduce the price gap between a standard 100mbps plan and a gigabit plan, making the latter a more attractive proposition for many customers.

While dropping the wholesale price sounds like good news for consumers, it is up to retail service providers to decide whether they pass some or all of the savings onto customers. Some may do this, others may use the cut to fatten their margins.

Strange times at Spark

Writing at Stuff Tom Pullar-Strecker reports that Spark described the price cut as a step in the right direction. The company went on to say something quite strange;

…the wholesale price of fibre-optic broadband remained “far too high” and the retail prices Spark charged didn’t “allow for anything like an acceptable margin”.

This is bizarre as Spark is free to decide on its margin. If it thinks margins are not acceptable, it is free to raise prices. Any constraint on pricing comes from market competition, not the wholesaler.

The unvoiced subtext here is that Spark is annoyed that the Commerce Commission regulates fibre pricing. This means they have no leverage to demand a sharper wholesale price than other service providers. By law Chorus and the other fibre companies must offer the same wholesale price to everyone.

Unwelcome competition

Given that Spark accounts for getting on for half the retail broadband market it might normally expect to get a lower wholesale price than smaller competitors. In effect, you can interpret Spark’s complaint as it doesn’t like facing its competition on a level playing field.

This is all the more odd, because some parts of Spark are hurtling towards the fibre era with gusto.

In the company’s media statement, Chorus CEO Kate McKenzie says fibre broadband demand has been rapidly increasing. She says: “…even more so now as more content moves online and New Zealanders prepare to live stream the Rugby World Cup and other sporting events in 2019. The irony here is that Spark is starting to dominate streaming sport. Presumably the margins on Spark are ‘acceptable’ for the company. But they wouldn’t be achievable without ubiquitous fibre.

Chorus hits half million fibre connection milestone was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

Bill Bennett edits The Download magazine for Chorus. He also writes a weekly telecommunications newsletter. That doesn’t mean he wrote this post On Chorus’ behalf, nor does it necessarily reflects the company’s option, although it might. It’s all my own work, blame him if you don’t like it. 

iPad Pro 12.9-inch 2018 with PencilThree days in to using the latest Apple 12.9-inch iPad Pro as my main computer I canned plans to buy a 2018 MacBook Air.

The new iPad Pro is all the mobile computer I need for journalism on the move.

It’s light. It’s always on and ready to go. It goes all day and then some on a single charge.

Add a SIM card and it’s always connected.

At a pinch it can take photos and video. There’s something uncool about holding up a magazine-sized glass-metal slate to take shots. Yet it works a treat.

The iPad Pro also does a good job recording audio. You can do that without looking like a dork.

Writing, editing

There are great iOS writing tools that work so much better on the 12.9-inch iPad Pro than on smaller iPads or iPhones.

While I prefer a Markdown editor for my writing, most of my clients prefer to get Word documents. Converting Markdown to Word is easy enough. But on the iPad Pro it’s easy to work in Word and not stuff around with converting files.

For some reason I’m yet to fathom, Word works far better on iOS than on MacOS anyway. On the iPad Pro it’s a far better experience than on any MacBook. At least for my work.

Worth buying

If you think I’m enthusiastic about the new iPad, you’d be right. It’s rare for any new hardware to capture my imagination as much as the last two 12.9-inch iPad Pro models.

They are amazing. Despite the high cost, we’ll come back to that point, they a good investment. I get a fast productivity pay off. So might you.

For my first two days with the iPad I was out-of-town working from a hotel room and cafès. That gave me an opportunity to road-testing the iPad with the kind real tasks that make up my bread and butter. I had a newsletter and a feature to write.

Before going further, I should point out an older 12.9-inch iPad Pro has been my main mobile computer for a year. There have been times when I needed a Mac, few times, but enough to mention.

I’m familiar with the basics of living an iOS only existence. Much of the rest of this post is about my first impressions moving from one 12.9-inch iPad Pro to another.

iPad Pro 2018 showing orientations

Size matters

Size is the most visible change. As the 12.9-inch name makes clear, the screen is exactly the same size as before.

The edges around the screen; bezels in geek-speak, are smaller. This means the iPad is smaller. When looked at in the portrait orientation, the 2018 model is only about 5mm less across its width. It’s height is around 20mm shorter.

In practice this is a bigger deal than you might expect. At the airport on the way home I had to unpack the iPad to go through security. Taking a dozen or so millimetres off the case means I could slip it in an out of my bag with less fuss than my older iPad.

Space is at such a premium when flying that this helps. The smaller 12.9-inch iPad Pro size works better on Air New Zealand tray tables.

It is a few grams lighter too. If, like me, you watch streaming sports coverage on an iPad, it means you can hold the device for longer in a single hand.

I spent part of Thursday and Friday moving from place to place, often cafès, carrying the iPad. It felt more comfortable.

iPad pro 2018 thin

Powerful

Apple uses a faster A12X processor in the newer iPad Pro. You may see this referred to elsewhere as a system on a chip. It is getting on for twice as fast as the processor in last year’s iPad Pro.

You wouldn’t buy an iPad Pro based on something as esoteric as processor speedtests. I’m not going to waste your time discussing benchmarks, they are meaningless for most of us.

Even so, you might choose the new iPad based on what that faster A12X chip means for your productivity.

Raw speed doesn’t make any difference to my writing. I don’t type a Markdown or Word document any faster with a better chip.

The speed comes into its own if you do photo or video editing. Next year, Adobe plans an iPad version of Photoshop. That will push the A12X harder than anything I’m using at the moment.

For now, one bonus of the faster processor is that it runs the Face ID software at a clip. It works in no time.

This means you don’t need a home button, hence the smaller bezels. It also means security is less of a productivity burden. At times I still instinctively reach for the home button, but I suspect that won’t last.

Smart Folio Keyboard

The Smart Keyboard Folio is better than the Smart Keyboard Cover used with the earlier iPad Pro. It still lacks backlighting, which I find essential on a night-time plane flight even though I’m a touch typist.

Speaking of which, I can touch type all the alphabet characters without a problem. Yet I struggle to find the apostrophe key without peeking. In touch typist circles, that feels like cheating.

Likewise, I need to look at the arrow keys use them. The keyboard is exactly the same width as on my old, 2012 MacBook Pro, but shallower.

Keys have a pleasing amount of travel and a comforting click. The typing experience is good. This is more important when you consider Apple’s new MacBook keyboard comes in for criticism. I prefer using the Folio.

Kickstand tease

I’m not excited that Apple now offers two screen angle positions. Microsoft Surface users will jeer that Apple hasn’t gone down the kick-stand route. Long-term happy iPad users will wonder what the fuss is about.

The back part of the Keyboard Folio covers the entire back of the iPad. It would be a little harder to remove in a hurry than the earlier KeyBoard Cover. That’s not a bad thing, my old Keyboard Cover often detached when I didn’t want it to.

Also I slipped and bashed my older 12.9-inch iPad Pro. If that had happened with the newer Folio, it would have protected my tablet.

New Apple Pencil

Apple’s new Pencil is marvellous. I like the way it looks and feels in my hand more than the earlier one which was too shiny and slippery for my taste.

The new Pencil has a far less awkward charging mechanism. You sit it on the top of the screen when the iPad has its keyboard attached in the landscape orientation. While it is there, the Pencil will also pair with the iPad. It feels almost like magic.

When the Pencil is in this place, a strong magnet holds it to the side of the iPad. I walked about 5km around Wellington in windy, wet conditions. The Pencil stayed stuck in place.

Sounds good

Apple has done something remarkable to the speakers. When I first heard them cranked up during a demonstration the clarity surprised me. It’s amazing given the small amount of space the engineers have to play with.

Later when I listened alone, the wide stereo separation was more obvious. There’s enough sound here for two or three people to watch a movie or sports game on the device in comfort.

12.9-inch iPad Pro Issues

I’ve run up against a couple of frustrations. Using WordPress is hard work on the iPad Pro. The WordPress iOS app is incomplete and inconsistent. I usually prefer to use the web to edit and manage my site, but this is difficult on a touch screen device.

WordPress has a poor designed for touch screen users. There’s a simple fix for this, find an alternative to WordPress.

Not having a Touch ID home button presents a minor, very minor challenge at first. I use a couple of apps which don’t always switch off when they are in the background.

With the old home button, clicking it twice gets a screen showing all the active apps. Swipe the misbehaving ones up and they would stop. If I didn’t they chewed through processor cycles or battery life.

Now there’s no button, the double swipe-up gesture is a little harder to use. It could be a case of getting use to it.

iPad Pro 2018 with smart keyboard folio and pencil

Value for money

Make no mistake, the new 12.9-inch iPad Pro is not cheap. The basic model is NZ$1750. That version only comes with 64GB of storage, which is less than most people will need.

Few users will need to go all the way to the MZ$3049 model with a terabyte of storage. To me even the 512GB for NZ$2350 seems excessive. The sweetest spot is the NZ$2000 model with 256GB.

Adding cellular capability adds NZ$250 to the price. This seems a hefty premium given that you can tether an iPad to a phone in a jiffy. After all, no-one goes out without their phone these days.

Is this a lot to pay? That depends on what you want it for.

If it makes you more productive and lets you work where you otherwise might not. If it makes better use of your travelling time then its a bargain. You’ll recover the price premium in no time.

When you compare the price and performance of an iPad Pro against any laptop, they don’t look like a bad deal. The same goes for comparisons with the Microsoft Surface. For a while I could have gone Surface or iPad Pro. My recent experience puts me in the iPad Pro camp, but, remember, my needs are not your needs.

If you think you can’t justify the price, there’s always the non-Pro iPad. It does most things its big sister can do at a fraction of the price.

Prices start at NZ$540 for a 32GB model. I recommend you either find a little more and get the NZ$700 version with 128GB or accept you’ll move plenty of data on and off your tablet.

There was a time when I always carried a laptop in a backpack. I needed to. Laptops were hefty. They weighed a few kilograms. They were big and thick. Their batteries didn’t last long, That meant you also needed to lug a power brick wherever the laptop went.

Then I got a MacBook Air. It was thinner, lighter and, most important of all, could run all day on the smell of an oily rag.

There was no longer a pressing need to carry the power brick. In the case of the Air, the power supply is tiny anyway.

My laptop backpack went to the attic to gather dust. It’s still there. Today I can fit all the computer I needed into a light leather briefcase with room to spare.

Thinner, lighter laptops were bad news for Targus, perhaps the best known computer bag brand.

Rebooting the laptop backpack

Targus rethought people’s needs. One of its updates on the laptop bag theme is the Work+Play Fitness Backpack.

Targus work play fitness backpack laptop grey
Targus Work+ Pllay Fitness Backpack.

The fitness element of the name doesn’t come from carrying hefty weights to and from the office. The idea is that the bag can carry all you need for the workplace along with your gym gear.

In itself, that’s not a new idea. Back when I carried my laptop in a backpack, I’d also sometimes carry my fitness gear. The problem with that was everything would get mashed together. It could get smelly.

To avoid this, the Work Play Fitness Backpack has compartments to keep everything separate. I counted 11 different compartments on the first run through. While writing up this post I found two more. There may be others. It wouldn’t surprise me if I found a door at the back that leads to Narnia.

Fitness Backpack that works for you

Targus has labelled many bag sections with icons so you don’t have to guess what to put where. There are no hard and fast rules. This is all about what works best for you.

On the outside there’s a zipped pocket for a phone. It’s way bigger than a standard phone so it can take other stuff as well, maybe cables. There’s an obvious laptop pocket with some padding to protect the computer from knocks.

A waterproof barrier separates the computer part of the bag from where you’d store dirty football boots or whatever.

Targus work play fitness laptop backpack grey showing compartmentYou’ll also find a waterproof toiletries pocket and bags to take dirty laundry. There are hooks and stretch bands to hang thing off. There are a couple of external mesh containers which could carry a water bottle or a flask of whiskey if that’s how you roll.

Perhaps the nicest thing about the Fitness Backpack is that is comfortable to wear. There is padding on the shoulder straps, a clip to tighten it across your stomach and stop it from moving around. There is also padding in the rear so you shouldn’t be too bothered by a computer digging into your kidneys as you walk.

The bag is spacious. Targus says it can take a laptop with a 15.6 inch screen. That sounds ridiculously  precise, but there you go. It also says the bag can carry 27 litres, which is ample for most needs.

Poor documentation

It sounds a little crazy, but I felt users need some documentation from Targus on how to get the most from this bag, There are a cryptic picture clues on the packaging, but that’s it, you’re on your own. I’d like to know, for example, if the removable bags are washable. That would be important with muddy football boots or sweaty gym T-shirts.

The bag I looked at is black and grey. There’s another version that’s black and bright, almost fluro, yellow. Both cost NZ$140.

While the bag looks fine, it’s not that pretty to look at. It doesn’t say ‘loser nerd’ like some bags, but nor does it say ‘stylish’. Most people will focus on the practicalities, but there will be a market segment who’d prefer something with a touch more panache.

One last point. As the name suggests, Targus sells the bag to carry a laptop and gym gear, but it is also idea for overnight trips. You can get your work gear into the back plus a clean change of clothes and pack it all into an airplane overhead locker. I tried this myself and found it works a treat.

Nokia 7.1 phone You can spend the thick end of NZ$2000 and get a premium Android phone. Or you can spend NZ$600 and get the Nokia 7.1.

Either way you’ll get a good phone. One option will save you a small fortune.

As far as hardware is concerned, the Nokia 7.1 is not far behind more expensive Androids. Nothing vital is missing.

While the Nokia 7.1 hardware comes close to matching Android phones costing three times as much, its Android One software is arguably better.

 

Design nods at iPhone X

Like many other 2018 phones, there’s a whiff of the Apple iPhone X about the Nokia 7.1 design. It has the same almost all screen front. When the display lights up there is a notch. The rear is made of glass.

Despite this, you wouldn’t mistake the Nokia 7.1 for an iPhone when it’s in your hand. Although there is more than a passing external resemblance, if there is one area where the 7.1 falls short of any 2018 premium phone it is in the feel. Mind you, it doesn’t fall far short.

According to HMD Global, the company that makes Nokia-branded phones, the 7.1 has a gloss steel finish. In other words metallic sliver with copper highlights. It is also shiny looking.

The colour of the case visible under the Apple-like glass back is almost identical to the colour of my iPhone XS Max.

There’s a pleasing solidity to the phone in your hand. But it is rougher around the edges. The machining and build is great, but not quite as smooth as more expensive phones. The edges don’t taper, they are squared off.

Mid-range power plant

One area where Nokia saved money is the processor. A Qualcomm Snapdragon 636 chipset powers the phone.

It’s a year old mid-range phone processor. It won’t win races against more expensive phones. Yet you could say a lot of today’s high-end handsets are overpowered.

Unless you are a serious phone gamer or use a demanding app that shouldn’t be on a mid-range phone anyway, you are unlikely to bump up against any speed limits.

The 3,060mAh battery is a little less than you’ll find on a top end phone. While this is the weakest link in the 7.1 chain, it isn’t that weak. I found the phone could go all day with plenty left in the tank so long as I didn’t hammer it. Few phones do better in this department.

Like many other late 2018 phones, the Nokia 7.1 will charge fast through its USB-C port. There’s no wireless charging here, what do you expect at the price?

Camera

It has a dual camera and can take bokeh portraits. This last feature now seems to be standard everywhere.

The 12 megapixel main back camera is not up to the standard of more expensive phones, but the gap is so small that causal phone photographers may never notice. Cameras seem to be more important to phone makers than most customers

My only gripe is that contrast can be poor in low light conditions.

My favourite aspect of the Nokia 7.1 is that it uses Android One. This means regular software updates and security patches, something most Android phones still can’t manage.

It also means an absence of clutter. Most Android phone makers load up their devices with apps that no-one really wants or needs. Their software overlays do not add value. Some detract from the phone experience.

You might not choose to put the Nokia 7.1 at the top of your list if you are a keen mobile gamer. The processor may not have the necessary grunt.

Nokia 7.1 verdict

Despite the handful of minor niggles mentioned here, the Nokia 7.1 is great value for money. Those niggles are when comparing the 7.1 with phones costing more than twice the price.

If you don’t want to pay for cutting edge features that you may never need, this would be a good choice.

The Nokia 7.1 is only available from Spark in New Zealand. It’s an ideal choice for someone looking to get more phone for less money. If you buy phones for employees or for younger family members this will stretch your money further, with few compromises.