Although the gap between rural and urban has closed, it could open again as carriers roll out 5G networks.
Opensignal’s May 2021 mobile network experience report puts the improvement down to government-led initiatives.
Both the updates to the Rural Broadband Initiative and the Mobile Black Spot Fund have played a role.
Rural Connectivity Group kudos
Above all, credit must go to the Rural Connectivity Group. This is a joint venture between Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees set up to deliver rural network upgrades.
The three companies had government funding and invested their own money to build additional cell sites in areas needing extra coverage.
To date there have been 200 new RCG towers. Eventually there will be more than 500. If it seems like only yesterday there were 100 RCG towers, that’s because it happened less than a year ago.
RCG carriers share spectrum and resources. The towers are open access, other carriers can use them.
Opensignal’s analysis shows the programme is already delivering results. There is more to come as further towers are added to the network.
To measure mobile network performance Opensignal collects data from handsets. The business is UK-based and produces similar research in a number of countries.
UK-based Opensignal says the gap between rural and urban mobile experiences is closing.
In its May 2021 report Opensignal says while disparities between rural and urban mobile remain rural mobile is improving.
Time connected to 4G
It reached this conclusion by looking at the proportion of time users spend connected to 4G networks.
In recent months this figure has increased at a faster rate for rural users than those in urban areas. Although rural comes from a far lower base, it is catching up.
Opensignal takes a competitive view of performance. It also zooms in on applications like video and mobile gaming. Yet the interesting angle is how the urban – rural mobile gap is closing.
It ranks the three carriers against each other. If you’re wondering about Skinny, that’s a Spark brand with customers using the Spark network.
2degrees shows the greatest improvement, Vodafone the least.
Customers on the Vodafone network saw the gap between urban and rural time on 4G networks fall 4.8 percent. For Spark users the drop was 5.8 percent. At 2degrees it fell 7 percent.
Closing the gap
Opensignal says before the Covid lockdown 4G availability for rural users was close to 25 percent behind urban levels. Now it sits at around 17 to 18 percent behind.
The report goes on to compare the mobile experience with different types of use. It says only 2degrees urban customers enjoy an excellent video experience. The company’s rural customers do better than Vodafone’s urban customers.
Meanwhile the mobile games experience is underwhelming everywhere. The three carriers deliver a ‘fair’ gaming experience in urban areas. This drops to ‘poor’ outside the towns and cities.
Opensignal scores for rural download and upload speeds are a long way behind urban speeds. Spark is fastest overall. Its urban customers can download at an average of 41.9Mbps. In rural New Zealand, 2degrees’ customers get less than half that speed: 20.2Mbps.
5G can close or open rural mobile gap
The report concludes that if carriers use 5G on lower frequency bands in rural areas, the performance gap with urban mobile would close.
Eventually carriers will be able to use a range of frequencies for 5G.
The distance a mobile signal covers changes depending on the frequency. Lower frequencies travel further, higher frequencies cover a small area. There’s more bandwidth the higher you go up the spectrum.
Alternatively, if they focus on adding high capacity in urban areas, the mobile digital divide will widen.
To date Vodafone has concentrated on building 5G in urban areas. That’s where it sees the greatest demand, not necessarily the greatest need.
Spark started its 5G build in small South Island towns. Now it is building capacity in the main centres.
If the government wants to narrow the rural mobile experience gap, it may need to impose usage conditions on 5G spectrum in future auctions.