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Bill Bennett

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Covid–19: Fixed wireless broadband not up to the job

Spark and Vodafone sell fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fibre. The service is far from rubbish. Yet it isn’t up to the demands New Zealanders will make of it while spending more time at home during the Covid–19 outbreak.

Companies are asking employees to work from home. Schools haven’t yet sent students home, but may. Because of social distancing people stay at home instead of going to the movies, the pub or other activities.

All this means people will be more reliant on broadband connections. For work-from-home employees, broadband is their livelihood. For everyone else it is a useful communications tool. It also delivers entertainment needed to stave off the boredom of stopping at home.

Insufficient data

All those examples need data. A lot of it. That’s one thing fixed wireless broadband can’t do. Most fixed wireless broadband plans come with data caps that limit a customer’s data. Which leaves people with a problem if broadband is the main Source of entertainment during the outbreak.

There are two other issues that suggest fixed wireless broadband is not up to the demands people will make of it.

First, fixed wireless is prone to congestion. A fixed wireless tower shares bandwidth between users. If there’s only one user at a given moment, connection speeds can be good. If everyone is online at once, the performance drops. It can drop below the level needed to sustain a video stream.

Swampy Covid–19

During the Covid–19 pandemic most people will spend the evening at home most of the time. The demand may swamp fixed wireless towers.

Spark slowed fixed wireless broadband sales in the run-up to Rugby World Cup for this reason. It knew customers would not have a good streaming experience.

With everyone at home, the data traffic is set to beat the highest Rugby World Cup levels.

The second part of this is that with congestion, some users may not be able to connect at times. It’s one thing to miss the last 15 minutes of a movie. It’s another thing to have your main channel to the rest of the world shut off during the Covid–19 pandemic.

Which brings me to the third problem. Clogged fixed wireless broadband networks can impact mobile wireless reception and coverage. The mobile network is our vital lifeline. Few people still have copper voice line connections. If busy fixed wireless broadband towers make it hard to make phone calls we are all in trouble. We will need phones more than ever during the outbreak.

What should the telcos do?

First, stop selling fixed wireless broadband where fibre is an option. Get customers onto fibre where possible. Where there’s a mix of fibre and non-fibre premises, leave fixed wireless for people who can’t yet get fibre.

Where fibre is not available, it makes sense to give towers a capacity upgrade. Move to 4.5G or a higher technology. And then do a better job of managing the capacity. Which, means not milking the network too hard.

Fixed wireless has a role to play in the broadband mix. Pretending it competes with fibre diminishes its overall value.

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37 thoughts on “Covid–19: Fixed wireless broadband not up to the job

  1. Most calls still go over the 2G/3G networks (aside from the few people who have VoLTE enabled), so 4G loading shouldn’t affect call quality/ability (happy to be corrected on that if I’m wrong)

  2. I’ve got VoLTE and most modern phones support it, but most Kiwis don’t have a modern phone, and Prepay isn’t included (at least on Vodafone, not sure about Spark), but the good thing is, you can disable it

  3. According to Chorus, landlords must give permission for the fibre installation to go ahead and landlords can simply decline. There is no current recourse for tenants.

  4. I saw many cases of this when I was in the industry along with some where refusing consent was deliberate for competitive reasons. The consent process is streamlined but I believe there’s still an out for landlords.


  5. “Where fibre is not available” The solution is to make it available.

    We can no longer oblige some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable to make sacrifices you highlight to ensure the profitability of LFCs.

    Passive infrastructure from roads, power poles and water pipes have been shamefully neglected and the bill is coming due.

    Let’s not see that happen to fibre. Let’s simplify and homogenise our data network foundation and be future ready.

    The post-Covid rebuild has not addressed universal provision of this new, cost-effective infrastructure, optical fibre, at all that I can see. It is still in the hands of profit seekers, and the myth of fixed wireless competition is exposed for the fraud it always was. And let’s not even speak of satellite.

    With intrafibre competition, regulation is no longer required beyond the conventional cartel prohibitions.

    But this has all been known for some time, and it made no difference.

    Even the salience and strength of the lesson Covid-19 delivered doesn’t seem to have been sufficient to shift the thinking away from a little bridging finance, mostly recovered, and toward a public infrastructure model with commercial competition on top.

    Minds too set in the model of vertical integration and ideologically obsessed with profit driven private sector exceptionalism continue to ensure the cash is OK and the people suffer.

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