Spark says it is on track to begin rolling out a 5G mobile network in 2020. The company says services will go live later that year. This confirms the date the company has already said it would begin its next generation network build. It depends on the spectrum becoming available, then an auction or other form of allocation taking place in the next 18 months or so. The confirmation comes after the company conducted trials earlier this year. Spark says the Wellington outdoor trial was a success with customers getting download speeds of up to 9 Gbps. An indoor trial in Auckland saw speeds as high as 18.2 Gbps. While some telcos overseas are building new networks from scratch, Spark says it will start by adding 5G services to its existing 4G and 4.5G networks. Spark says it will extend this when there is enough demand. With existing cell sites there’s a smooth upgrade path. At least there is if a carrier sticks with the same equipment supplier. Spark managing director Simon Moutter says the company is working on mapping expected cell site densities to learn where there is a need for new cell sites. He says: “We have already begun a build program to increase the number of cell sites in our existing mobile network – which will enable us to meet near-term capacity demand as well as lay the groundwork for network densification required for 5G.”
No extra CapExThe company says it is expects to fund its network through its existing capital expenditure programme. This does not include buying any extra spectrum needed for 5G. Spark spends around 11 to 12 percent of its revenue on capital expenditure. Spark’s 5G briefing paper says:
As Spark responds to demand we will be investing just ahead of it. Cost efficiency that will deliver ever-greater output with the same investment inputs is the primary driver of early 5G deployment. By 2020, we expect our wireless-network specific capex to be between 25-35 percent of Spark’s overall capex envelope. This implies intended annual wireless network investment of approximately $100m to $140m, compared with an average of just over $100m for the past five years. This excludes spectrum purchases and any material move towards widespread rollout of new cell sites using mmWave band spectrum. During this period, we expect our total capex (excluding spectrum) will remain in line with our desired range of 11 to 12 percent of revenues.This is something of a surprise. 5G network equipment tends to be less expensive than 4G hardware. But to deliver the next generation network’s full promise, a carrier needs more spectrum and at higher frequencies it will need more small towers. Many of these towers will be smaller than existing 4G towers – in some cases they can fit on lamp posts or telegraph poles, but even so, Spark’s comment about capital expenditure suggests one of two possibilities.
It won’t happen overnightThe first possibility is that Spark’s network roll out will be incremental and relatively slow. This follows the pattern of the company’s roll-out of 4.5G. It is two years since Spark first installed a 4.5G tower in the centre of Christchurch. There are more today, but coverage is far from nationwide. It looks likely the 5G roll out will begin before Spark has upgraded every worthwhile cell site to 4.5G. Presumably many sites will go straight from 4G to 5G. The second possibility is that Spark isn’t aiming for the same high density network being planned for large urban centres elsewhere in the world. At least not at first. Neither of these are important in the short-term. Indeed, today’s mobile phone users can’t tell the difference between using a 4.5G tower and a 4G tower. There’s no pressing need to upgrade the network on their behalf. And places like Eden Park in a test match aside, New Zealand doesn’t have the density of people you might find in Hong Kong or New York. Spark may want to push forward on plans to offer 5G-driven fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fibre. It already does this with 4G. This is a strategic business decision. If there’s enough demand for more fixed wireless then the internal business case for increased capital expenditure is easy to make.
5G innovation labSpark plans to open a 5G Innovation Lab later this year in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter. This will let companies test their applications on a private 5G network before the full roll-out. The company says:
“Providing early access to a pre-commercial 5G network through our global relationships with leading equipment vendors like Huawei, Cisco and Nokia will give our local partners a competitive boost, fast-tracking these businesses’ 5G developments.”Significantly Spark has not named the network equipment provider it will work with on the programme. The company used Huawei to build the 4G network and has previously worked on 4.5G and its test site with the Chinese equipment maker. Huawei has to be in consideration for the contract despite the political problems the company faces getting business in the US and Australia. Yet Spark deliberately named Nokia and, surprisingly, Cisco. The latter is not known as a technology provider for cellular networks. This could be a way of putting pressure on Huawei in order to get a better deal. Spectrum is a potential concern. In a briefing paper Spark called on the government to make more spectrum available. All the carriers are pushing hard. They have a case. This is already in motion, but the company wants this done in time for the new network to be running ready for the 2021 America’s Cup in Auckland. Hence the earlier comment about the need to get this wrapped up in the next 18 months or so. Spark says it needs large blocks off spectrum in the C-Band, that’s 3400 to 4200 MHz. It says it needs at least 80 MHz blocks and preferably 100 MHz blocks to build networks with 5G performance. It also calls for even larger blocks at higher frequencies.