Skinny Broadband is a low-cost alternative to fibre internet. It is fixed wireless broadband, piggybacking off Spark’s 4G mobile data network.
Sometimes this approach is known as BoLTE: broadband over LTE.
You get the same basic data service as a Spark mobile phone user on the 4G network, but to a fixed position. A Skinny Broadband connection only works from the address where you register the account.
In many ways, Skinny Broadband is a nationwide version of the service Vodafone and Spark use to connect remote customers to their fixed wireless rural broadband initiative networks. It even uses the same fixed wireless broadband modem.
Skinny is Pak N Save to Spark’s New World. A low-cost no-frills brand that hits important competitive markets without harming the corporate mothership’s upmarket reputation.
Which explains why Skinny Broadband uses Spark’s 4G network. This is important, Spark owns more 700 Mhz spectrum than any other carrier. So it out-performs its direct competitor. It also means Spark has spare capacity to support Skinny Broadband.
At NZ$55 a month plus a one-off $200 for the modem Skinny Broadband is one of the cheapest and fastest ways of getting online.
For when a fibre connection is too much
Skinny Broadband is a great option for users who feel they don’t need a fibre firehose blasting vast amounts of data into their homes.
Another advantage is that Skinny allows casual contracts — that makes Skinny Broadband an ideal back-up or an option for a bach or second home. Once you’ve paid for the modem, you only need to pay for the months you are using the service.
Broadband for dummies
Skinny Broadband also happens to be one of the simplest ways of getting online. Immediately after the courier dropped off a fixed wireless modem, I was on the phone to organise a review account. I was connected within 20 minutes of the delivery.
There is no waiting for engineers to install anything. No hanging around for remote provisioning.
Skinny sent me a Huawei LTE modem. Some rural wireless broadband customers get the same device. It is not as pretty as my Netgear modem and the Wi-Fi isn’t as fast, but it comes with four gigabit Ethernet ports so you can plug in your network devices. There is one bright yellow Ethernet cable in the box.
You’ll get the best broadband performance if you plug your PC into one of the Ethernet ports. But that’s optional. It needs to be as many modern devices don’t include Ethernet ports.
Not the best Wi-Fi
The router has Wi-Fi so you can connect all your devices: computers, phones, tablets, TVs and so on without the need for cables. The documentation says it will handle 32 devices. It doesn’t say how well it will handle that many.
It supports the 802.11 n version of Wi-Fi. An 802.11 ac device would be better. You can’t use your own device, the Huawei kit is locked to the network.
The router needs a mains power socket. It comes with a cable that’s about a metre long. This could be a problem. Skinny’s technician told me to put the router on a window sill — luckily there’s a suitable one — we’ll come back to that point in a moment — within a metre of my distribution board.
The instruction leaflet that came with the modem mentions optional extension antennae, there were none in my box.
These extra antennae might be useful. My home has only moderate Spark 4G coverage. I never noticed this with my phone.
If I choose to keep the Skinny Broadband account I’ll start hunting for the antennae.
Performanace is a mixed bag
When I first connected I saw a speed of around 18 Mbps down and 7 Mbps up. By moving the modem unit around I managed to get this to 21 down and 7.5 up. I could get a better speed if I cheated and taped the modem to the top of my office window, but that is not a good look when visitors come to the house.
Performance is far more sensitive to the modem position that you might imagine. When out cat jumped on the window sill and moved the modem about 100 mm, the speed dropped 5 Mbps. This lead to an hour hunting for the optimal, non-taped spot, which, luck would have it, was my first choice.
Skinny Broadband’s support engineer, who lives in the next suburb to me, told me he regularly sees 40 Mbps. At first I thought this might be part of the company’s marketing spiel, then I noticed a comment from Geekzone owner Mauricio Freitas who says he also got 40/17 Mbps.
If I could get that speed, I’d be sold on Skinny Broadband today. I tested other places around my house, 22 Mbps is the best I can get unless Spark does something to my local tower.
My existing VDSL account is consistent at about 40/9 Mbps. It may bounce around but only by a few percent. The ping time to Spark’s Auckland service is 9ms on VDSL, with Skinny Broadband I was getting 20ms plus for pings to local servers.
In contrast, Skinny Broadband’s speed varies over a wide range. On Friday I was nudging past 20 Mbps. Saturday it was topping out at 17. Early Sunday morning — there’s a reason for this, read on — it was back above 20. By Sunday evening it was just 12 Mbps.
While that speed is disappointing, it is still useful. Sunday and Monday mornings I watch English football on my iPad Air with Premier League Pass. VDSL handles the streaming video with aplomb. I was interested to see how Skinny Broadband coped.
On the day Skinny Broadband didn’t miss a beat. For two hours the sound and vision streamed a glorious Retina image without missing a beat. I also used it for a Facetime conversation to Paris, again without a glitch.
I suspect that I would struggle to get that performance if anyone else in the house was online at the same time. But for me, that’s my most demanding regular internet application. Skinny Broadband passed the test.
The monthly NZ$55 fee buys 60GB of data. That’s enough for day-to-day browsing, emails and basic Internet use. There’s even headroom for some streaming video although binge viewers of HD quality video might hit the data cap.
Extra data costs $20 for 10GB. This is far cheaper than buying extra 4G data for a mobile phone account. In part Skinny can sell its broadband for less than a standard 4G mobile account because it is fixed. The network operators know where the users are located and can provision their service accordingly. With mobile data this becomes more complex and expensive.
Skinny Broadband’s price is on a par with Spark and Vodafone’s rural wireless broadband services. Both companies sell their basic service for $105 a month. That money gets rural users 80GB of data and unlimited national calling. To get 80GB with Skinny you’d pay $95, add $10 for a VoIP service and you’re looking at the same price.
Beyond the copper tax
Because Skinny Broadband and rural broadband offered by Vodafone and Spark used fixed wireless connections, they avoid the copper tax. That’s the roughly $40 a month ISPs have to pay for Chorus to deliver services over copper or fibre.
This goes some way to explaining why Skinny Broadband is one of the cheapest options on the market. Dial-up is cheaper but useless. Trustpower has a $75 for 50GB ADSL plan and a $49 unlimited plan, but that means buying other services from Trustpower and signing for a 24-month term.
The catch is the $200 upfront for the modem. If you stick with Skinny Broadband for a couple of years you’ll definitely be ahead over the long term. Although, in effect, that’s the same financial burden as signing a contract. Otherwise you’ll need to weigh up that cost. If fibre is coming down your street in the near future, it may pay to wait.
Who should buy Skinny Broadband?
Fixed wireless broadband isn’t for everyone. If you need lots of data, perhaps you’re an avid TV viewer, then get a terrestrial connection. It’ll be cheaper in the long term. The same applies if you run large online backups or similar applications.
Likewise, if fibre is available and you need consistency and speed, then that is usually going to be a better choice. I’m not a gamer, but I suspect the latency in a terrestrial connection will be more to your taste if you are.
Everyone else, and that’s the majority of users, should at least consider Skinny Broadband. It will change life for people who live in fringe areas at the edge of fibre or copper networks, but still close to mobile towers. I think it is an especially good choice for moderate internet users who want to keep costs under control. That probably doesn’t apply to many readers — but you can influence your friends and family members.
What I’d like to see with Skinny Broadband
The router is fine, but basic. I couldn’t log in to the admin page, which won’t worry most users but is a concern to me.
I’d also like to see support for faster Wi-Fi. It would also be helpful if Skinny could supply the add-on antennae, even if that means an additional cost.
Also not clear from the documentation is whether it is possible for Skinny or Spark to tweak the antennae on towers to improve performance for individual users.
Skinny doesn’t offer a VoIP option, that’s a shame because, otherwise, the broadband service is an excellent reason to cut the cord. At $55 a month, the price is not much more than the price of an old school telephone connection.
- 60GB of data for $55 a month is one of the best broadband deals around if you’re comfortable with a $200 upfront payment for the modem.
- Some people get solid speeds, you may not. It would pay to check the quality of Spark 4G reception before paying the $200.
- A good option if you think you won’t need fibre broadband.