Categories
mobile telecommunications

Kudos Vodafone for launching 5G, now about that $10 surcharge

Hats off the Vodafone for building New Zealand’s first meaningful 5G network.1

It’s a big step for New Zealand telecommunications and an even bigger step for Vodafone.

A year ago it looked like the company would be starved of the resources needed to make a significant 5G splash. That changed when Infratil and Brookfield fund a $3.5 billion split from the UK-based parent company.

100 Vodafone 5G sites open today

Today there are 100 sites. While this sounds good, in practice it means scattered pockets of 5G in a sea of 4G mobile coverage. Vodafone says it will upgrade the 4G sites to 5G-like speeds and increase the number of 5G sites to around 1500 in the next few years.

Performance on Vodafone’s initial network is impressive. This morning social media was full of screen shots showing handsets downloading at speeds of around 500mbps. Actually the screen shots showed download test sites, which amounts to the same thing.

Even so that is not the gigabit speeds that 5G companies have promised. In a media statement, technology director Tony Baird explained why this isn’t happening yet. He says:

“We’re using 3.5GHz spectrum to launch 5G, and our current radio spectrum holdings will mean that Vodafone customers see an uplift of up to 10 times current 4G speeds.

“However to reach the one gigabit speeds that we’re seeing internationally, we’ll need approximately 100MHz of 3.5GHz spectrum so will continue to work with the government on the early allocation and auction processes.”

It’s worth remembering today’s 5G is uncluttered. There’s almost no-one using it. That’s going to help early performance. The technology should cope better than 4G with lots of traffic, but we’re months away from that happening.

New 5G handset needed

You can’t just walk into a 5G zone and get high speed mobile broadband. You need to buy an expensive new handset first. There are two models at the moment. Both are from Samsung and both are Android models. If you can live with Android you’ll be good to go.

If other 5G equipped phones from other brands are on the way to New Zealand, the companies making them are keeping quiet about it. Realistically there won’t be a wide choice, and certainly not suitable iPhones until at least this time next year.

Premium price

By then Vodafone will charge a premium for 5G network access. The company says suitably equipped customers can use the 5G network at no extra cost until the used of June. From then they will need to pay an extra $10 a month for the service.

This echoes what happened in the early days of 4G. Although the premium didn’t last long once competition kicked in. This time Vodafone has at least six months start on its competitors, maybe much longer.

It may have been reasonable to ask 4G users to pay a premium, they got a noticeable performance upgrade. The practical benefits of upgrading to 5G will be less obvious to most phone customers.

Yes, they will see faster speeds. Videos will download faster. On paper you can browse faster.

Yet there are no practical mobile applications for ordinary users  that need extra speed. Not yet. 4G mobile has plenty of bandwidth to watch high resolution video on a handheld device. And when was the last time you hit a bottleneck browsing on 4G?

Gamers

Gamers may find something worth paying a premium for. They won’t see higher resolution, but they should see lower latency from using 5G.

That’s good, but $10 a month just to get a better gaming response seems a bit steep for all but the most hard-core gamers.

Unlike 4G, most of the benefit of 5G goes to Vodafone and its enterprise customers. The technology means many more paying customers can use cellular at the same time, which gives Vodafone an opportunity to sell more. It also gives the company shiny new things to sell, like network slices and internet-of-things services.

In that sense charging mobile users a premium is like asking supermarket shoppers to pay more because a new Pak’n Save is opening down the road.

If Vodafone is going to get non-business customers to upgrade their mobile and pay more, it needs a better reason than fast. Phones already do fast-enough with 4G.


  1. Spark’s handful of South Island fixed wireless sites pales in comparison. ↩︎
Categories
mobile review

I’ll give you my Airpods Pro when you pry them from my cold, dead hands

They sound great and last for hours on a single charge. Apple AirPods Pro pack impressive noise cancelling into a tiny space. At NZ$450 the price is competitive if you are looking at more traditional noise cancelling headsets.

Apple AirPods ProApple’s original AirPods were a surprise hit. You see them everywhere. Almost everyone who has a pair loves them.

Reports say they account for six of every ten wireless earbuds sold worldwide.1

My old AirPods are the second generation model. They fit my ears and work better than you might expect.

Airpods Pro are a step up in every dimension. Apple added active noise cancellation to an already successful recipe. It then improved the fit and upgraded the functionality. They look like another hit.

AirPods Pro wake-up

My first AirPods Pro demo was in a noisy cafe with hard floors and background clatter. We connected them to an iPhone.

From the outset the earbuds blocked out most of the noise. They allowed me to hear music with an unexpected clarity.

It got better fast.

That’s because there is a built-in feature that lets you check how well the earbuds fit in your ear. Unlike the original all hard plastic AirPods, Apple uses removable soft tips. Three sizes of removable tip come packed in each box. Mine needed changing. This is a little fiddly, but only takes a minute or so.

After swapping, the new tips block even more of the background sound. The sound quality is astounding for something so small.

Later, I listened again on the bus ride home. The experience was even better than the cafe. I’m not sure I’ve heard such outstanding crystal clear sounds while on public transport.

At home I can be blissfully unaware when helicopters pass overhead or if the Royal New Zealand Airforce takes off from nearby Whenuapai,

Both types of music

AirPods Pro work well with all kinds of music, which is good because I listen to all kinds of music. One acid test I use to gauge loudspeaker or headphone quality is high quality recordings of piano music. Both the classical and jazz tracks I tested came out near perfect… on a bus. You don’t get a bass boost, which may not be your taste.

I’ve enjoyed noise cancelling for a few years now. When I reviewed the Sony MDR-1000X headphones, I liked them so much I bought a pair. They proved their worth on long distance flights.

There is some colour to the MDR-1000X sound. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They sound fine when listening to my favourite music. In comparison, the Airpods Pro have a much flatter, more accurate sound.

In the past I’ve always thought the MDR-1000X-style over-the-ear form is more comfortable if you use them for hours, say on a trans-Pacific flight.

I haven’t been on a flight since getting the Airpods Pro, but I have enjoyed long listening sessions. The earbuds don’t get uncomfortable if you wear them for a few hours. They are certainly much easier to drop into carry-on luggage. I expect them to replace my older style noise cancelling headphones.

On most measures the Airpods Pro are the better or equal to the Sony headphones. It feels like the Sony controls are easier to use, but that could be familiarity; I’ve only had the Airpods four days.

The flat response is so good that I can use them as a reference when mixing music tracks on my iPad without waking the house. They are that good.

During testing I never heard any lag or had trouble connecting. Although, if you pull the AirPods Pro out to talk to someone the music will pause. This isn’t always necessary as we will see later. I found Apple’s Music didn’t have a problem, but some other non-Apple apps can stop altogether and need a restart.

Controls

AirPods Pro have smaller stalks than the older AirPods, but are a fraction heavier. Not that you’d notice. They come in a slightly larger snap-top box.

You can store AirPods in the box when they’re not in use. The box charges the AirPods, you can use a lightening connector or wireless charging. When charged, the box carries its own reserve of charge, so you can top-up the AirPods Pro charge between sessions.

A single charge gives around four hours listening time. Depending on how you use the box, Apple says you can get up to 24 hours before needing a recharge. This more or less squares with my experience, although my record keeping while watching the battery life wasn’t perfect.

There’s a squeezable control surface. Squeeze once and the music or other audio will stop playing. Squeeze twice and you skip to the next music track.

Squeezing and holding either fires up Siri or turns off noise cancelling. You can also start Siri by saying “Hey Siri” and have your text messages read. It also uses the microphones to deliver external sounds. You might want to do this if, say, a flight attendant wants a word.

One of the magical features is the way AirPods Pro pair with your other Apple devices. Once they have met one Apple device, all the others can find them. Open the box close to an Apple device and you’ll see a message telling you how much charge is left.

Apple AirPods Pro Verdict

AirPods Pro show off Apple technology at its best. They feel a little magic. It’s rare for someone like me who has been looking at new gadgets for decades to break out even a modest smile. The AirPods Pro left me grinning.

They are comfortable, sound good and have battery life to see you through everything except a long haul flight. The noise cancellation is excellent, on a par with headphones costing much more. You can use them if you have an Android phone or Windows device. Best of all, they fit into a tiny pocket.

While the price tag looks expensive, you get a lot of value for the money. Decent noise cancelling technology is never cheap.


  1. This success came at the moment Apple’s iPhone sales stumbled. ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

Before you get excited about 5G fixed wireless broadband…

Vodafone’s 5G network is about to launch. Soon you’ll see marketing for 5G fixed wireless broadband marketing. Spark will no doubt follow.

Let’s step back for a moment and take a reality check.

There’s a lot to be said for 5G. It’s fast, energy efficient and has low latency. Carriers can pack in many more connections per square kilometre.

Most of the benefits of 5G will go to industrial users and to organisations that can make use of network slicing. That’s the ability to set aside bandwidth for private use. The other main beneficiaries will be the cellular companies who can sell more connections and cut running costs.

Machine to machine 5G

5G is ideal when machines talk to machine. It will make the internet-of-things sing and dance.

Yet it isn’t always the best broadband product for residential users. Many people will be better off sticking with wired connections.

In theory 5G can deliver fibre-like speeds. Overseas users see 300mbps or even a little higher. This is plenty for streaming video and other high bandwidth applications, but not enough if you have a digital household with many people sharing the same connection.

There’s another catch. Wireless connections are nothing like as reliable as fibre. If you need a consistent connection, say you have a monitoring application, you’ll soon run up against limitations. There are also stories of Netflix buffering like crazy in prime time when everyone on a tower goes online.

Line of sight

One other point, 5G is a line-of-sight service. There are nuances, but in general you need to see the cell tower to use it. In some cases overseas a connection that works fine in winter can stop working when there are leaves on the trees if those trees are in the wrong place.

You should consider 5G fixed wireless if:

  • You live near a 5G tower and can’t get fibre. You may be down a right of way or in an apartment where people are bloody-minded about running cable to your place.
  • You are off the fibre map1.
  • You have light broadband needs, don’t need a lot of bandwidth and reliability isn’t essential. Your home will struggle to run multiple streaming video sessions or handle big downloads at the same time.
  • The address isn’t permanent. Students and other short term residents might prefer a connection that can be up in seconds and taken with you when you leave.
  • You live in shared house and a shared broadband account is too hard to organise.

The irony is the New Zealanders who would most benefit from 5G fixed wireless broadband, that’s the people living on low density fringe areas and lifestyle blocks not served by fibre, are unlikely to get it early. They may get 5G later, but don’t hold your breath.


  1. Although, for now, that probably also means you off the 5G fixed wireless map ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

NZ chief science advisor 5G site not up to the job

Good on the Professor Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, for setting up a web site to address 5G fears.

It counters much of the disinformation in circulation.

Sadly the presentation is awful. It is so poor that the message doesn’t stand much chance of reaching ordinary folk.

Some of the campaigns and disinformation sites attempting to undermine the science are so much slicker.

Not engaging

Take a look at the home page. Web sites don’t get much less engaging.

chief science advisor 5G site
The Prime Minister’s chief science advisor 5G site

It has large blocks of text across a very wide measure. That makes it hard to read. While the text is broken up into blocks lower down the front page, there is a daunting slab of text to get through at the top.

The second paragraph is over 100 words long. You need a Year 12 reading age to comprehend the text. That’s way too high, beyond the majority of readers. Even people are able to read such dense material, tend not to bother.

In other words it reads more like academic or government writing than, say, newspaper or magazine copy.

When official equals boring, unreadable

Now there is a case for this. It is, after all, an official government science response. Yet, it is up against disinformation campaigns that know exactly how to reach the target audience.

It’s good that the designer1 uses links in another colour. This breaks up the blocks giving the reader’s eye signposts as they wade through the dreary text.

Even the text chosen here is wrong. It should be larger, although I’m impressed that it uses a bold typeface, that helps with accessibility for readers with poor eyesight.

What we have here is important. The site contains the information people need. In places the language is clear enough. I like this part:

“The currently available scientific evidence makes it extremely unlikely that there will be any adverse effects on human or environmental health.”

For a scientist it is reasonably tight. Although the journalist in me says this could also be clearer:

“Scientists think it is unlikely 5G will harm you or the environment”.

Commercial alternative

Compare the chief science advisor’s page with this page from Vodafone group out of the UK.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone 5G safety page from UK

It’s unambiguous, straight to the point and easy to read. Even though it gets technical and deep in places, it still does a better job of explaining the issues.

Of course, you might be thinking that it is one thing for a chief science advisor to tell the 5G safety story and another thing entirely for folk that are flogging the technology to tell the story. You’d be right.

Yet the New Zealand government could have made an important piece of public information more engaging. Look at Vodafone’s 5G infographic below. It packs a lot of complex information into a simple, easy to understand image.

The funny thing is, New Zealand’s often doesn’t have this problem with other public information campaigns when it hires an advertising agency to get the message across. Maybe that’s what’s needed here.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone’s 5G infographic makes an otherwise hard to explain concept easy to understand.

  1. I’m assuming it was designed and not just templated together, but I could be wrong about that. ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

Norton 360 Premium: Security overkill for Apple users

This year’s Norton 360 offers the most comprehensive set of cross-platform computer security tools. It is a safe choice. Yet it is expensive and is not necessarily the right choice for everyone. It’s a poor option for Apple users who don’t get all the benefits.

Norton 360 is aimed at consumers, people who work from home, freelancers and sole proprietors. You might buy it if you have a handful of vulnerable devices to protect. If you run a bigger operation you should look elsewhere for an alternative built for business or corporate users.

Even if you fall into Norton’s target market, it may not be necessary to buy security software at all. In fact, I recommend you don’t unless you are in a group that needs extra protection.

Should you decide you want protection, then Norton 360 is a safe choice. It’s popular. According to Norton there are 50 million users. It wouldn’t stay popular if it didn’t deliver benefits.

Norton fails to deliver on Apple kit

If you run Windows, it’s a solid option. In practice I found it was overkill for my Apple-centric home business. You might find otherwise.

Norton 360 is a comprehensive suite of security tools covering Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS devices. Here I only look at the product on MacOS and iOS.

According to the marketing you get anti-virus and anti-spam software, a full VPN, a firewall, parental controls1 and back-up.

Because these are a family of tools, they all dovetail neatly with each other. That’s not always the experience when you mix and match security components from multiple sources.

LifeLock

There’s also a feature called Lifelock. This promises to help protect against identity theft, although it can feel alarming to use.

I didn’t test LifeLock because the first rule of privacy protection is to not hand over important personal details to every Tom, Dick and Harriet who come asking for them. If you read on, you’ll see why I’m not planning to maintain the kind of long-term relationship that might make LifeLock worthwhile.

Norton 360 comes in an array of versions, each includes a different number of licences. You can buy a single licence product, or two or three or five or ten.

The price rises as you go up the levels. Spend NZ$100 and you get a single licence, spend NZ$250 and you get ten. Keep in mind these are subscriptions for a single year’s use.

Slow start

Getting started on a Mac isn’t as easy as Norton wants you to think. The process takes 30 minutes, a lot of that is waiting around for things to download even on a gigabit fibre connection. Clearly Norton is not geared up for fast download speeds, that doesn’t make me confident about using the back-up feature.

There’s a moment in the install process where the software directs you to change the MacOS Security and Privacy settings in the General Preferences. After this, you then have to reboot the computer and then, ridiculously go back to the settings and do it all over again.

Maybe it is necessary. It certainly grates.

I should also point out Norton doesn’t explain why you should change these settings. It may seem obvious, but that’s not good enough. Security is about trust. Expecting customers to unlock the gates without offering a good reason goes against good security principles.

This all seems irritating and time consuming, but it would be a small price to pay if Norton made a Mac safer. And that’s the problem. It’s not clear that Norton 360 makes much difference. It’s also not clear it adds NZ$200 worth of value.

My Norton

Once everything is loaded, there’s a My Norton home page with five tabs. These are: Device Security; Secure VPN; Password Manager; Parental Controls and Cloud Backup.

Let’s run through the feature list and see where there is value and where there is none.

Top of the list is Device Security. This includes malware scanning and a firewall. There’s no indication that Norton’s firewall is an improvement on the free, built-in MacOS firewall. No obvious value there.

This is less clear cut with the malware scanning. I’ve owned Macs for seven years and have never seen any malware on any of the Apple devices in my home2. At one point there were eight devices when all the family had Macs and iPads.

You might have a different experience or indulge in riskier behaviour that lets malware in. While there’s no value in malware scanning for me, I accept it may help others.

VPN the highlight

Norton’s Secure VPN is excellent. Earlier standalone versions nagged you if you attempted to use Bittorrent, even legal torrents. And it didn’t like some legitimate streaming services. There is no longer any of that nonsense. At least not in the time the VPN has been running.

The Password Manager does nothing for me. Similar functionality is part of Apple operating systems and there are excellent tools such as 1password that do a better job. Again, other people may find it helpful. I don’t.

My children have grown up and left home, so parental controls are not needed. It turns out that they are not part of the deal for Mac users although it does work with iOS.

Back-up missing in action

Norton’s cloud back-up is also missing in action for Mac users. In theory you get 100GB of online storage to play with on the NZ$200 a year plan. If you are a light Windows computer user this may be enough to back-up your files. You can get extra storage if you buy a more expensive plan, but the price seems high if that’s all you want.

Either way, there is no MacOS back-up software.

There’s an option to buy what Norton calls the Ultimate Help Desk for another $150 a year. It’s not clear from the website if that is US or NZ dollars.

It’s hard to love the way Norton wants a hefty up-front NZ$200 and then charge more for extras which you might reasonably expect to be part of the deal. But sadly that’s the way of the world, consumers seem to tolerate apps with in-app purchase, so may be I’m out of touch for even mentioning this.

What’s missing?

In a package of this price and complexity, I’d expect to see something for protecting users against ransomware. Maybe that’s in there somewhere, but I haven’t found it.

I wasn’t a fan of parental controls when my children were young, they don’t seem to guard against the biggest risk which is online bullying. Yet not having a Mac version wipes some of the perceived value of Norton 360 for Apple users.

The lack of back-up also detracts from the product’s value for Mac owners. In effect only three of the five main feature groups are available for Mac owners. You have to wonder why these features are shown on the MacOS version of the MyNorton home page if they don’t exist.

From a MacOS point of view, Norton 360 is an expensive disappointment. The brightest spot is the Secure VPN. You get five one year VPN licences for $200. Norton sells a stand-alone VPN product, five one year licences purchased that way cost NZ$140, you have to ask yourself if the firewall and malware protection are worth another NZ$60. I’m not convinced they are.


  1. See what I mean about it not being aimed at business users? ↩︎
  2. This is not 100 percent true. We have seen Windows malware in email spam folders. But that’s not a concern for a Mac user. ↩︎