This is the second post in a series looking at how the reality of 5G might differ from perception. The first, Don’t expect a big bang, boils down to how in many cases the move from 4G to 5G technology will be almost seamless.

Author William Gibson summed up a lot about technology when he said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

That’s how it’s going to be with 5G mobile.

America’s Cup 5G

Spark New Zealand’s 5G plan is a good example of how this works. Managing director Simon Moutter has repeatedly said that his company aims to have a 5G network operational on Auckland’s waterfront in time for the 2020 America’s Cup yacht races.

His idea is to showcase New Zealand technology to the world. Or at least the part of the world that watches yacht races. At the same time it will send a powerful signal to New Zealanders about Spark’s capability.

The company has a nationwide mobile network. Its 4G coverage extends to places where more than 97 percent of the population live, work or play. There are hundreds of 4G towers.

The 5G network pencilled in for 2020 is likely to be half a dozen or so sites. It won’t even cover all over central Auckland. There’s nothing wrong with this. It makes sense to start with a modest network build and then extend it to reach elsewhere.

For guidance look at 4.5G

Spark has done exactly this with its 4.5G network. At first there was a single site in central Christchurch. Then another, then another and so on. Although we’re on the cusp of 5G, the 4.5G technology still hasn’t rolled out across New Zealand. It’s there in some towns and cities, not others.

New Zealand is not alone with this. Very few countries are building national 5G networks from scratch. The upgrade is expensive and the higher bandwidth, lower latency 5G offers is not essential everywhere. At least not yet. It will be over time.

It will take years, if ever, for New Zealand to get uniform nationwide 5G coverage. There’s a clue for this in Spark’s capital expenditure plans. Simon Moutter has previously said the company will fund its 5G roll out from its existing 5G budget. In other words, the company doesn’t plan to spend up big in year one rolling out new hardware everywhere. It could take a decade.

There’s another aspect to this uneven distribution which we’ll look at in another post: it’s possible different places will end up with different types of 5G.

Vodafone 5G MWC Barcelona 2019.jpegVisitors to this year’s Mobile World Congress were bombarded with messages emphasising that 2019 is the year of 5G mobile. At the giant Huawei stand and a mini-conference the day before the main event the slogan was 5G is on.

Many carriers announced they had either started their 5G roll-outs or will soon. Hardware and systems companies showed off the fifth generation mobile network kit they hope to sell to carriers. There was even a smattering of 5G enabled handsets.

At times it was impressive. Often the stories told were fascinating and informative, but the most important messages were not on any flashy displays or in any official press releases. The subtext to the conference tells a different story.

5G will bring changes, eventually

Yes, 5G mobile going to change communications… eventually. What we’re not going to see is a big bang. At least not in terms of service. We’re almost certainly going to see a big bang in terms of marketing.

The transition from 4G to 5G is, in effect seamless. Carriers installed the first 4G networks a decade ago. At the time and in the run up to the first 4G launches, many in the industry talked about LTE or Long Term Evolution.

That name is a clue about what is happening now with the move to 5G. I’m going to explain this without getting too technical.

The next generation

5G is the fifth generation of the mobile phone standard. About 20 years ago the mobile phone companies agreed to standardise technologies around the world. Over time networks have increased performance, call quality has improved. The amount of data shifted through the same amount of spectrum has increased.

Things kicked off for real with 2G. This was the start of digital mobile calling. 3G pushed more data through the air. 4G was, essentially a move to an all digital service. Its designers optimised the network for all digital, all the time.

Each generation upgrade from 2G to 3G to 4G mean the way data pushes though the air used a new basic technique. 5G didn’t do this. In the strict technical is really 4G with hundreds of small incremental tweaks to improve performance. There is no Great Leap Forward. Think of it as the next Long Term Evolution step.

More capacity, much more capacity

From a telco point of view 5G is more efficient. Over time it will make it cheaper and easier for mobile phone companies to add capacity. For now, that demand for more mobile capacity seems unlimited.

At first 5G will use existing radio frequencies. But it will allow carriers to add more spectrum at higher frequencies. The physics of wireless means higher frequency signals don’t travel as far, so there will be denser networks of smaller towers to add future capacity.

This will cost a fortune to build. The price of a tower is coming down, but the number of towers will go up. At the same time 5G should be cheaper to run… at least cheaper per gigabit of data. It also allows telcos to slice up their networks and sell them in different ways. They might sell services to driverless car companies or Internet of Things users.

Eventually 5G will use more spectrum. Last week the government announced it will auction some 3.5GHz spectrum. But some carriers, Spark would be one, Vodafone could be another, already have enough spectrum already to deliver a basic 5G service.

In recent years carriers have moved some sites from 4G to what is often called 4.5G. This is, in effect, an upgrade of 4G to offer faster speeds and greater capacity. Quietly, in the background, the technology has improved more than one since then.

We don’t generally use the terms, but there are people who talk of 4.6G, 4.7G and so on. This goes all the way to 4.9G and from there can go on to 4.95G or 4.99G.

Incremental

Marketing and industry hype aside, the move from here to 5G is incremental. Or, more accurately, it means lots of incremental steps. This is exactly what is happening overseas with some carriers rebranding advanced 4G networks as 5G purely for marketing reasons.

Most handset users are not going to notice the change. If your phone already downloads at 30 Mbps there aren’t many apps that need faster speeds. Even high quality video streaming will struggle to use all that bandwidth.

This is not to say there aren’t mobile phone apps that will one day need more bandwidth. We’re just not using them yet. As far as mobile users are concerned, it will be hard to spot much change as networks move from 4G to 5G. However, as we’ll see in a later post, phone users on the move are not the real focus for 5G networks.

Ken Hu Huawei cyber securityAt Reseller News Rob O’Neill covers a speech by Huawei rotating chair Ken Hu. Hu says the world lacks a global, common understanding of cyber security.

… In Brussels yesterday, Hu said what the industry needed was a mutual understanding of security to build a trustworthy environment. Huawei was now operating on an “ABC” model for cyber security, he said.

The A stands for “assume nothing”, the B for “believe nobody” and the C for “check everything”.

“Both trust and distrust should be based on facts,” he said. “Facts must be verifiable and verification must be based on standards.”

Government and standards bodies needed to work with all stakeholders on developing such standards, he added. The implications was that a standards-based environment, would help defuse current tensions by creating a vendor-neutral environment.

Hu’s ABC is a beautiful, simple way of getting to the heart of a sensible security strategy at any level. 1

The speech was at the opening of Huawei’s “cyber security transparency centre” in Brussels. With the company under pressure to show that it is not a threat and not a puppet of the Chinese government, Huawei has gone on the front foot.

As the company’s top communications executive Joe Kelly told New Zealand journalists a week earlier at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it’s hard to prove you’re not doing something.

Cyber security as part of a bigger picture

Which explains why Huawei is stepping up its rhetoric to argue against accusations while at the same time maintaining a charm offensive and investing in projects like the Brussels centre.

It was clear at Barcelona that there’s enough high quality business selling communications network to the rest of the world outside of the US and allies like New Zealand who express fears about security issues.

Yet Huawei knows, in the long-term, respectability and trust will get it further. Pushing a cyber security agenda is a good way to get attention. Building centres like the one in Brussels will help build trust.


  1. It is also a great summary of the basic tenants of good journalism. Reporting also needs to be fact based. ↩︎

Huawei Mate X

Huawei’s foldable Mate X was the highlight of this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. At the show it eclipsed Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.

It even outshone the event’s main message: that 5G mobile networks are now ready.

Foldable phones are the most innovative take on mobile hardware since Apple’s iPad.

Until now phones and tablets have been distinct devices. Sure, there is a point when big phones are like small tablets1.

Yet the moment a phone is big enough for serious tablet work, it is too big to fit in a jacket pocket.

Pocket-sized

Mate X gets around that. While some might see it as a phone that folds open to become a tablet, you might equally see it as a tablet that folds shut to fit in a pocket.2

Phone makers love to talk about innovation. Most of the time they use the word to describe small improvements. In the world of marketing hype, bigger screens, faster processors, more camera lenses are improvements.

It’s all good. Today’s phones are a huge improvement on earlier models. But there has been precious little innovation.

For the last decade or so phones have been monolithic slabs of glass and metal or plastic. The Mate X and its kind break with that model.

Huawei Mate X — first generation

This year’s foldable are the first generation. They are expensive. More about that in a minute. Impressive as the Mate X is, you can see a line on the screen where it folds.

I’m concerned that the screen is on the outside where it might get scratched. It’s a little bulkier than a non-folding phone. It feels heavier in the hand than you might expect.

Yet for all these shortcomings, it is impressive. In your hands it feels almost magical. That’s an acid test for exciting innovation.

By the time the Mate X reaches New Zealand it could cost the thick end of four grand. That’s a lot for a phone, more than twice the price of a non folding Android phone and considerably more than the most expensive flagship phone from any brand.

Phone prices have climbed faster than inflation in the last few years. Much of the extra you get when you spend more on a phone is more of the same old features, more screen, more memory and so on.

Expensive, but could be worth it

Folding phones may be a lot more expensive again, but you are getting something significant and different for the extra money.

It is also more expensive than any tablet. The price seems especially high when, at first sight, it can’t do anything that can’t already be done with other, cheaper devices.

Even so, there are many people who can justify the expense because it opens new ways to work. Looking at documents while sitting on a train no longer means squinting at a tiny screen.

Travelling on business no longer means lugging a laptop. You can carry one less thing. There is less to charge, fewer cables to think about. And so on.

There will be a market for folding phones and not just among the geeks who have to buy every new toy.

The start of something bigger

If the idea takes off, it could be that most premium phones will have a similar folding format within a year or two.

Soon the difference between folding phones and everyday phones could be like the difference between smartphones and so-called featurephones.3

There were other foldable phones at MWC. I spotted a TCL model on the Alcatel stand. If the as-yet unnamed Oppo foldable phone was on show, I missed it as I ricocheted pass the company’s comparatively dull-looking stand. It features, with others, in this long report on foldables that debuted at the show.

Huawei’s Mate X is the first of its kind. If you’re old enough, think back to the first iPhone. That wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t cheap. And yet within a few years it evolved to become the must-have device of our times. This is the next generation.


  1. We don’t welcome words like phablets around these parts ↩︎
  2. I say pocket here because I’m a bloke. It also fits into a handbag. ↩︎
  3. It’s daft that phones with no discernible features are given that name, but there you go… marketing. ↩︎

Certain western governments might be uneasy about buying Huawei kit, but phone buyers flock to the brand.

The latest phone sales data from Gartner shows Huawei has won market share from Samsung and Apple. In the fourth quarter of 2018 Huawei sold a shade over 60 million phones. This compares with Apple’s 64 million and Samsung’s 71 million units.

The fourth quarter is usually the most important period for phone sales.

Huawei growing fast

Huawei sales grew nearly 40 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Huawei’s success is that it is, in effect, locked out of the USA.

Gartner senior research director Anshul Gupta says; “Beyond its strongholds of China and Europe, Huawei continued to increase its investment in Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East, to drive further growth”.

Much of the company’s success came from lower price phones. Gupta says: “Huawei also exploited growth opportunities through continued expansion of the Honor series in the second half of 2018, especially in emerging markets, which helped Huawei grow its market share to 13.0 percent in 2018.”

Both Samsung and Apple sold fewer phones in the period than the same time a year earlier. Both companies had falling market share.

Samsung, Apple stumble

Apple suffered a year-on-year fall in sales of almost 12 percent. The company previously said this was largely due to falling sales in China, although numbers fell everywhere except North America and the wealthier parts of Asia-Pacific.

Samsung’s high-end phones failed to turn buyer’s heads. The company strengthened its mid-range models during the period.

Chinese brand Oppo, also enjoyed growth. It is now the world’s number four phone brand by unit sales. It has a market share of 7.7 percent.

The phone market has stopped growing. In the fourth quarter sales were 0.1 percent higher than a year earlier, essentially flat.

Gartner says the mature Asia-Pacific markets (which includes Australia and New Zealand) declined 3.4 percent.

While raw unit numbers excite many phone industry observers, the more important question is which brands are making money.