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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 UFB

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.

A group of Rakon shareholders are getting impatient with its undervaluation and want directors to put the company on the block.

In Tech company shareholders frustrated at low value RNZ reports:

A group representing 14 percent has written to the board asking it to immediately market the company to international investors through a tender, amid reports that some Australian investment funds have been showing interest.

“[We] believe the company is significantly undervalued and the company is failing to highlight this value to outside investors,” the letter said.

The story doesn’t carry a byline.

Rakon’s disgruntled shareholders want the company sold to international investors as a way of unlocking their investment. They make it clear they don’t think they will get a big payout from what should be a boom as the 5G mobile telephony market gathers momentum.

Waiting for 5G acceleration

RNZ goes on to quote Rakon chief executive and managing director Brent Robinson. He says:

“As 5G accelerates, so will Rakon and its financial position will be more attractive.

“Be patient, it’s early days for 5G and I believe Rakon’s performance should improve a lot, as far as profits are concerned over the next few years.”

Rakon is a 50 year old New Zealand technology company. It makes frequency control components including quartz crystals. Telecommunication accounts for over half the company’s revenue.

On paper, Rakon is well placed to profit from the worldwide 5G roll out. It appears to be the kind of company New Zealand’s economy needs.

Mobile carriers are spending billions building 5G networks and will continue spending vast sums for the best part of a decade as they build out 5G further and further. Rakon sells its components to 5G equipment makers like Huawei and Nokia. It should be a bonanza.

Not fast enough

The problem is that despite the huge investments in 5G, the roll-outs are not proceeding at the predicted speed. Asia is moving fast. Vodafone has already built a network here, Spark is about to follow. Other countries are not moving as quickly.

It doesn’t help that Rakon’s customers are caught up in a trade war, possibly an espionage row, between the US and China. It is possible that Rakon can supply one team, but not the other. That would hurt its market.

Rakon’s share price has languished to the point where it is a possible takeover target. The shareholder letter suggests at least some of Rakon’s owners want out.

 

Google doesn’t like to talk about it, but there’s one type of Android hardware you really shouldn’t be buying.

Writing at Computerworld JR Raphael reveals: The Android hardware truth Google won’t tell you.

Before we go further, note that Raphael writes a regular Android column. This isn’t an attack from outside the tent.

He says:

“Google’s priorities and the desires of the companies making the bulk of the devices don’t always align. And that forces Google to do a delicate dance in order to push forward with its own plans without saying anything that’d go directly against a device-maker’s interests.

Well, it’s time to stop beating around the bush and just say what Google won’t openly acknowledge: You should not be buying an Android tablet in 2020. Period.”

Long wait for Android tablet OS updates

It’s a long story well worth reading. The gist boils down to Google having some good ideas about how Android should work with tablets, then it lost interest for a while. That while turned out to be too long.

Now we’re in a position where Google isn’t updating the tablet version of its operating system at anything like an acceptable pace. Raphael points out Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 got Android 10 eight months after the software was first released. And that’s the Android tablet with the best OS upgrade record.

He says:

“Plain and simple, buying an Android tablet is setting yourself up for disappointment — when it comes to both performance and capability and when it comes to the critical areas of privacy, security, and ongoing software upkeep.”

Get a Chromebook instead

Raphael recommends people who want an Android tablet would do better to buy a convertible Chromebook.

All this is one reason why Apple continues to dominate tablet sales with iPad and iPad Pro models. The only other serious player in premium tablets is Microsoft with its Surface range. These two brands run iOS and Windows. The Android tablet market skews towards the low end with a lot of low value, undifferentiated tablet models.

Sure, plenty of people are happy with these devices. No doubt many reading this love their Android tablets. Yet the Android world hasn’t got its tablet act together enough to mount an assault on the premium market. That’s odd considering how, outside of the US, Android has a huge share of the phone market.