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According to The Times, the UK plans to form an alliance of democratic nations to create a 5G alternative to Huawei.

The Times says the group will include the G7 nations: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States as well as Australia, South Korea and India.

No doubt if the plan goes anywhere there will be pressure on New Zealand to join. It is the only Five Eyes intelligence alliance member not in the Times’ list.

Huawei top equipment maker

Huawei is the world’s top telecommunications network equipment maker. It has the most advanced cellular technology and is a leader when it comes to 5G networks.

Thanks to favourable currency conditions Huawei manages to make better 5G technology and, in many cases, sell it for less than rivals.

There are dark mutterings from the US that Huawei climbed to the top of the telecommunications market by stealing intellectual property.

Whether or not this is true, Huawei also enjoys significant tax breaks from the Chinese government and favourable trading conditions in the world’s second largest economy. Unlike western governments China is not frightened to intervene in key markets. The nation has long had an industrial policy to become a world leader in telecommunications technology.

Spying accusations

The headline reason Huawei has western democracies clinging together are reports the company either already does, or could soon start, giving Chinese intelligence agencies access to data carried on networks.

While there is no smoking gun proof this has happened yet, the potential for it to happen is real enough. And that’s before you consider the rising tensions between China and the US.

Behind the headline reason is a second, more nuanced argument. Huawei dominates telecommunications hardware.

Huawei’s main competitors still in the market are Nokia and Ericsson. Both are a fair distance behind Huawei. They can’t compete with Huawei’s rapid development cycles, they struggle to match Huawei’s price advantage.

Monopoly

Before the spying accusations became public the gap between Huawei and the also-runs was widening. There was a danger Huawei would move from dominance to something more like a near-monopoly.

Think of how Google dominates web search. Strictly speaking search is not a monopoly, but only one company matters.

Believe it or not, the world could manage without web search. It can’t manage without telecommunications networks. And much of the world would certainly would be in trouble if the only supplier of that network technology was based in an increasingly aggressive, potentially hostile country.

Crippling

So crippling Huawei before it reaches that position stops it from becoming a serious threat. Well, that’s the theory and the thinking behind the UK’s alliance plan.

There’s another angle to this. Huawei aside, Chinese companies dominate the supply chains for telecommunications hardware. Both Nokia and Ericsson have operations in China. Many of the chips and components they use come from Chinese factories.

During the early stages of the Covid–19 pandemic we saw the chaos that comes when supply chains shut down. The Chinese government could shut them down whenever it chooses. Sure that would come at a huge cost, but the risk cannot be ruled out.

Tensions between China and the West, especially the US, are higher than they have been for decades. Things have reached the point where even suggesting the formation of an anti-Huawei technology alliance will be seen as ratcheting up the tensions.

Precious little optimism

The UK plan may come to nothing. It’s possible tensions will reduce. But optimism in this area is in short supply right now.

Nokia and Ericsson are the most likely winners if the UK plan gets anywhere. Samsung and NEC also have 5G network equipment, but the two are even further behind and can’t offer a comprehensive suite of products.

Assuming it is Nokia or Ericsson or both the winners will get guaranteed markets and, presumably, buckets of government money. The move won’t be good for innovation and will reduce choice for mobile carriers.

On the other hand, it will bring much needed certainty to the sector. Everyone will be able to get back to building networks and stop worrying about the politics of what should be engineering or commercial decisions.

Vodafone’s rural broadband unit Farmside says a wave of new customers joined immediately after June 1. That’s Moving Day in the dairy farming calendar. The day when farmers traditionally move equipment, stock and people to new farms.

Farmside general manager Jason Sharp says the business has now passed 15,000 customers. Most connect via RBI fixed wireless but many Farmside customers have fibre or satellite connections.

Sharp says Farmside saw a 74 percent increase in the amount of data used by RBI customers and a 35 percent increase in satellite data during Covid-19 lockdown levels 3 and 4.

Farmside says it was able to continue connecting remote customers during lockdown and prioritised work for those who needed a physical installation.

Pandemic changed rural broadband

Earlier this year Sharp noted that pandemic had a huge effect on rural broadband.

He says: “As I reflect back on what was an incredibly busy period, it was also a turning point for rural communities forced to go online in ways never experienced before. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve. I also see lots of opportunity for the future of the internet in the country.

“In the past month we’ve seen stock auctions go online, our major agriculture exhibition become the Fieldays Online event and online discussion groups replace face to face gatherings. This comes with a broader reach in terms of markets – but also relies on good internet connectivity so that parts of the country aren’t left behind.”

Rural broadband challenge

That’s the challenge facing rural internet providers like Farmside. Despite continued government investment in infrastructure, the fixed wireless broadband technology used for most rural connections was never intended for the kind of intense use that has become an everyday fact of life.

When RBI was first planned about 12 years ago, the idea of streaming Netflix or interactive games to farms and other remote locations wasn’t in anyone’s sights.  And that’s before we get to streaming the Rugby World Cup.

At the time fixed wireless broadband looked more than adequate for most rural business applications. Since then the amount of data used to run a farm has exploded.

Sharp says: “… satellite connections have become even more important for those who aren’t within the 35km range of rural wireless broadband – or because the landscape renders line of sight to a cell tower impossible.”

New satellite options are coming online which should improve matters for the most remote users. And there are potential upgrades for fixed wireless that can improve data speeds and allow for larger data caps. Yet the best way to level the playing field for rural broadband customers would be to extend the reach of fibre networks further into the bush.

Working from home may mean you need a better domestic data networks. That way you can Zoom with colleague while others watch Netflix or give the Playstation a workout. Here’s what you need to know before you upgrade.

Basics

Before we get down to details, some basics. If you have a UFB fibre connection, this enters your house at something called the Optical Network Terminal. You may also hear people call it an ONT.

Most of the time, the ONT connects direct to your home Wi-fi router.

Chorus ONT
A Chorus Optical Network Terminal

If you have copper broadband, then you need a modem and a Wi-fi router, although these days the two devices often sit in the same box.

Fixed wireless broadband users have a box which may be called a modem, router or something similar.

A router is a specialised computer that switches data to and from circuits. Some people call them switches. Typically there will be one incoming port and four outgoing ports.

They all use something called Ethernet, which is a 40-year-old wire network technology. Ethernet is reliable and can run at speeds from a few megabits per second up to 400 gigabits per second.

Today’s home routers also offer Wi-fi. This is a wireless networking technology. It’s what most people use most of the time.

Wi-fi can be fiddly to get going at first, but once working tends to be the easiest way to move data around the house. As we shall see, Wi-fi is great, but has limitations.

Wired is best

If you can use wired network connections at home, do so. At a minimum this means a direct cable from your home router to your TV. If you have shared data storage connect that to your router with a cable too.

Ideally you’d connect a shared printed direct to your router using an Ethernet cable. That tends to be awkward given that most people chose to have their Onts and routers next to the TV, which is often not the best place for a printer.

Wire is fast

Wires will always give you better speeds and more reliable connections.

Modern home routers often, but not always, offer gigabit Ethernet. Some might only have a single gigabit port with the rest running at 100Mbps. Either of these will be more than enough to get data from your fibre connection to your TV.

Using wire connections is even more important if you have a gigabit fibre internet connection: see below.

Wired networks may offer the best performance, but there’s more to networking than raw speed. Sometimes a slower connection is the better option.

Ethernet

Ethernet comes with a couple of catches. First, running Ethernet around the house isn’t easy or cheap.

Paying someone else to do the wiring job can be expensive, although it can be wiser in the long term if that’s what you really need. In truth, you can almost always get away without going that far.

The second catch is that Ethernet may often be less help than you’d think. That’s because a lot of modern devices don’t use it. Your tablet and phone certainly won’t come with an Ethernet port.

Many modern printers made for homes and home offices don’t have Ethernet. Which is handy as it means you can put them where they are less disruptive.

So, like it or not, Wi-fi will have to do a lot of your home network heavy lifting.

Gigabit broadband, slowcoach Wi-fi

The problem with Wi-fi at the moment is that most home wireless networks can’t run at speeds faster than about 500Mbps.

That is if you are lucky. Typically you’ll see slower speeds.

To make matters worse, everything connected to Wi-fi shares the same bandwidth. What’s more, Wi-fi doesn’t travel too well through solid objects.

Wi-fi signals can usually get through the plasterboard walls in New Zealand house. Yet performance can drop off dramatically the further you are from the router or the more solid material there is between you and the router.

It’s not unusual for home network speeds to drop below 100mbps. Which is disappointing if you have a gigabit broadband plan.

Given the number of phones, tablets, computers, games consoles and other kit in a modern house, your devices might only get tens of megabits per second each.

The good news is that not everything uses the bandwidth at the same time.

Which means if you connect to, say, Speedtest, from a home computer connected to gigabit fibre but linked to your broadband port via Wi-fi and nothing else is running you might see speeds of 300Mbps to 400Mbps on a good day. Some connections will be slower.

One way to reduce congestion is to use a mesh network. These spread the wireless signals around

Wi-fi 6 will fix some of this

There’s a new version of Wi-fi that promises to fix some of these problems. Wi-fi 6, or 802.11ax as it is sometimes known, promises faster speeds, less congestion and less pressure on device batteries.

You need to be careful reading specifications for Wi-fi router devices. Read the marketing material for a router using the older Wi-fi 5 standard and you might see a claim it runs at 3Gbps.

This will be a theoretical maximum speed. You will never see anything like that. In reality individual device speeds top out at around 500Mbps.

A Wi-fi 6 router might say 10Gbps on the box. In practice you may only see a small speed increase if you connect a Wi-fi 6 equipped laptop to a Wi-fi 6 router when compared to Wi-fi 5 speeds.

Although there may be a bigger speed jump.

If you think this language sounds like hedging, it is. Like anything to do with wireless communications, speed depends on a number of factors. You may not be able to control all of them.

Congestion

While you should see minor, yet noticeable speed improvements with Wi-fi 6 on individual devices, that isn’t the technology’s main goal.

Wi-fi 6 is more about improving network performance when there are lots of devices connected. It does a better job of managing congestion.

As more and more devices connect to the network, congestion gets worse leaving less headroom for each individual connection. Wi-fi 6 lets a router communicate with more devices at the same time.

Security is the other advantage Wi-fi 6 has over Wi-fi 5. It uses a security protocol called WPA3 that makes it even harder for hackers to guess passwords.

Getting to Wi-fi 6

This all sounds great, but there is one huge drawback to Wi-fi 6. It isn’t a simple software upgrade, it is all about hardware.

To get its benefits you will not only need a Wi-fi 6 router, but you will also need new Wi-fi 6 equipped devices.

A new Wi-fi modem might be a few hundred dollars. New everything else will run to thousands.

Wi-fi 6 equipped devices are only now coming on to the market. Apple’s latest iPad Pro models have Wi-fi 6. At the time of writing no Apple Mac models do.

In fact, you will struggle to find Wi-fi 6 devices in general. When I checked I managed to find one new Dell laptop and one HP laptop with Wi-fi 6 support. If there are Wi-Fi 6 TVs or smart home devices they have yet to be announced in New Zealand.

This means unless you have one or more Wi-Fi 6 devices, it is pointless upgrading your router.

One last point. Wi-fi 6 delivers screaming performance when you have a mesh router using the technology. They are expensive at the time of writing, New Zealand prices start at around $1000, but they can flood your home with fast wireless.

UFB progress q1 2020

Crown Infrastructure Partners reports a total of 966,773 homes and businesses were connected to the UFB fibre network at the end of March.

A further 17,038 connections were added in the first three months of 2020.

Across the country UFB uptake is now at 58 percent. Rolleston remains the most connected town with a 76 percent uptake.

The extended UFB build, that’s the first and second phases, has reached 91 percent and is running slightly ahead of schedule.

Faster and faster

There is a clear move to the fastest UFB plans. CIP CEO Graham Mitchell says just under 22,000 homes and businesses moved to gigabit connections in the first quarter.

Around 82 percent of New Zealanders can now connect to the fibre network. It operated 169 cities and towns across the country.

Outside of urban areas the Rural Broadband Initiative increased its footprint by 3,078 homes and businesses in the first quarter of 2020. The network also connected 52 marae — if you are an overseas reader that’s a Māori meeting house.

A total of 27 new rural cellular towers began operating in the quarter. There are now 86 new rural towers nationwide serving around 46,000 connections.

How are we doing?

The big picture is positive. The fibre network proved its worth before the Covid–19 lockdown, but that only went to amplify its importance.

Fibre reaches a little over four-fifths of New Zealanders. Things are a little less clearcut when it comes to the remainder of the country.

Those rural users who live in sight of an RBI tower and are not waiting for a spare connection have a good fixed wireless experience. Performance can slow a little at times, but for most purposes RBI fixed wireless delivers.

Likewise people with the good fortune to be serviced by one of the Wisps — wireless internet service providers — are likely to get the broadband they need.

The problem comes for everyone else. That’s, perhaps as much as 10 percent of the population, probably more like six or seven percent. These are people who don’t have fibre, a capable Wisp or line of sight to a cellular tower.

Given the small number and the importance of decent broadband, it should be possible over time to fill in more and more of these gaps. The cost per connection might be high and it may be unrealistic to expect these people to pay the same as city folk. That is a decision for telcos and government policymakers.

Global sales of smartphones to end users declined 20.2 percent in the first quarter of 2020, according to Gartner, Inc. The global shelter-in-place combined with the economic uncertainty brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic led to demand for smartphones collapsing as consumers stopped spending on nonessential products during the first quarter.

“The coronavirus pandemic caused the global smartphone market to experience its worst decline ever,” said Anshul Gupta, senior research analyst at Gartner.

“Most of the leading Chinese manufacturers and Apple were severely impacted by the temporary closures of their factories in China and reduced consumer spending due to the global shelter-in-place.”

Source: Gartner says global smartphone sales declined 20 percent in first quarter of 2020 due to Covid-19 impact

We knew it was coming. Even so, the raw numbers are still dramatic. All the main phone makers operating in New Zealand suffered big falls. Samsung and Huawei fared worse. Apple, not so much. Gartner also reports people are hanging on to their phones for longer.

The worldwide numbers from Gartner are consistent with the fall in New Zealand device sales.

Gartner says the first quarter could have been worse for Samsung. It has a limited sales presence in China and doesn’t make phones there.

Huawei is the biggest loser with sales dropping 27.3 percent year-on-year. That’s its first decline. The company’s problems are less to do with Covid-19, although heaven knows that is bad enough. Huawei cannot use Google apps or the Google Play store with its new phone models. That is a huge turn off for customers outside of China.

Apple got off to a strong start before the pandemic hit. Garter says it may even have been on track to break records.