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Satellites to back-up Spark mobile backhaul

Spark turns to Starlink for back-up mobile backhaul and tests text by satellite. One NZ customer support draws on AWS AI
Satellites to back-up Spark mobile backhaul
Photo by Forest Katsch / Unsplash

Spark turns to LEOS for back-up mobile backhaul

Spark plans to use Starlink's low earth orbit satellite network to provide cell tower backhaul during emergencies.

The company says satellites can provide every region of the country with basic mobile connectivity if fibre backhaul connections are cut as they were during the severe weather earlier this year.

By the end of this year Spark will have installed satellite antenna on cell towers in Northland, Auckland, Napier, Palmerston North and Canterbury.

The interim technology will be able to kick in if fibre backhaul to these regions fails.

Extending over time

The goal is to extend the number of satellite-connected cell towers over time. For now the backhaul back-up will provide basic voice and text coverage in affected areas.

Renee Mateparae, Spark's network and operations director, says: “Fibre cables run along the ground, including under roads and over bridges, both of which can become damaged during a natural disaster.

“This is where satellite backhaul plays an important role in resilience – substituting fibre temporarily to allow for basic connectivity, such as texts and calls. During Cyclone Gabrielle we deployed satellite backhaul to get our towers back online, but we encountered significant access challenges when trying to get into impacted areas."

Basic service

By using satellite-connected cell towers in an emergency, Spark will be able to buy enough time to rush other necessary equipment to sites in order to keep customers connected.

Spark's regional cellular resilience plans include providing towers with more battery capacity enabling them to continue working for longer before diesel generators need to kick-in. The company says it will use automation to save cell tower power in emergencies and is increasing the number of generators in strategic locations.

Mateparae says: “Spark makes an annual investment of more than $100 million into resilience, and this remains a priority for our business. Our climate is changing, and so we’ve got to continue evolving our investments to ensure we are adapting to a more volatile environment.”

Correction: This story was updated because the original version wrongly suggested Spark was using Lynk Global for its backhaul.

LEO satellite.

Spark tests mobile text via satellite

Spark says it sent its first text message through a satellite connection last Friday. The text was sent from Spark engineers in a remote location away from terrestrial cellular networks using a conventional mobile phone.

The company says it will begin trials later this year and will be expanding its text-via-satellite capability next year.

Earlier this year, rival mobile carrier 2degrees, demonstrated its ability to make voice calls from a mobile using Lynk's satellites.

Meanwhile One New Zealand is partnering with SpaceX's Starlink for a similar mobile-to-satellite service. At the time of writing Starlink has yet to offer text messaging via satellite although One New Zealand's marketing previously promised a 100 percent coverage service would be available next year. This claim proved controversial with Telecommunications Commissioner Tristan Gilbertson.

One NZ customer support draws on AWS AI

One New Zealand is using generative AI technology from Amazon Web Services in customer support. The company says the technology helps contact centre agents better understand why customers call and then, it supports call resolution.

According to One NZ, three months after the system went live there has been a 10 per cent increase in the number of customers who "report dealing with a knowledgeable and friendly representative, and a 10 per cent increase in customer trust".

There is no question improvement is needed. In September the Commerce Commission published independently gathered statistics on customer service quality. One NZ was ranked bottom for 'staff knowledge and helpfulness', with a score of 49 out of a possible 100.

More recently, in a survey covering the period from April until September the company moved off bottom spot, but its score hasn't changed. It will be interesting to see if the improvement One NZ says it has made is reflected in the next independent survey.

2degrees shines at Compare awards

2degrees won six categories at the 2023 Compare Awards including being named as the supreme champion.

The telco won the award for the Best Fibre Broadband, Best Network for Business and Best Customer Support. It also won the Mobile Provider of the Year award and the People's Choice awards.

Now was the other standout telecommunications business, the ISP took the prizes for Best Business Broadband Provider, Best Broadband Customer Support and Broadband Provider of the year. That's a remarkable performance for a smaller service provider.

Primo was named the best Wireless Service Provider. Voyager won the People's Choice Ward in the broadband category and Megatel won the prize for best digital innovation.

Ultimate Broadband took out the award for Best Rural Service Provider and Contact won the Best Value Broadband Provider category along with the Best Bundled Plan. MyRepublic (now Rocket Mobile) was named as the Best Value Mobile Provider.

Bill Bennett was a judge for the NZ Compare Awards.

Few pressing challenges for new communications minister

Melissa Lee is the new minister for media and communications. Communications has long been doubled up with another ministry. Under the previous government Ginny Anderson was minister for the digital economy and communications.

There's no digital economy portfolio this time, but Judith Collins is overseeing digitising the government and is also minister of science, innovation and technology, which will overlap with the telco sector in places.

Pairing communications with media can make sense, the two run in tandem at times.

Thanks to the most recent amendments to the 2001 Telecommunications Act, there is little in the way of pressing legislation for the sector. In that sense it should be a quiet portfolio for the term of this government.

Melissa Lee's to-do list

However there is work to do. New Zealand faces two digital divides. Many rural users are shut out of the fibre network and end up paying more for less capable broadband than city folk.

Yes there are options, and satellites help, but many European and Asian countries are aiming for close to 100 per cent fibre coverage which makes our 87 per cent coverage look second rate.

At the same there remains a sizable proportion of people who are not online, which can be, but is not always, a matter of cost. This is not mutually exclusive from the rural-urban digital divide, many non-connected households are in rural areas.

If increased government digitisation is a goal, then bringing more people online will make that work better.

Both these problems require money and it is clear the incoming government has other spending priorities. This means we need creative thinking. Delivering government services online can save money in the long term, but our short political cycles tend not to reward that thinking.

National Cyber Security Centre joins international AI guidance

The National Cyber Security Centre has released guidelines to help artificial intelligence developers include cyber security in their products and services. The NCSC is one of 23 agencies from 17 countries to sign up for guidelines that were originally developed by the UK's National Cyber Security Centre.

Lisa Fong, deputy director general at the NCSC says the guidelines reinforce the need for developers to take a “secure by design” approach. She says: "Making these guidelines available in collaboration with international partner agencies and industry experts is vital to establishing a common understanding of cyber risks, vulnerabilities, and mitigation strategies".

In other news...

Writing at The Register Simon Sharwood says Geoff Huston, the chief scientist of the Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC), the region's internet registry, has called for digital infrastructure operators to share more information about outages. The call comes in the wake of the huge outage at Optus last month.

CommsDay reports Amazon will use its forthcoming Project Kuiper LEO network to offer customers private connectivity direct to AWS data centres. It says: "Every Kuiper gateway antenna has a dedicated fibre connection to the nearest AWS Region, allowing data to be forwarded directly to a customer’s own network or the internet." The story says beta testing is due to start in the second half of next year.

Amazon's press release sheds more light on the company's plans.

Apple says it is to offer iPhone 14 customers an additional free year of Emergency SOS satellite coverage. The service lets iPhone users call for help if they are at risk and outside of conventional phone coverage. It also already saved lives.

The Download Weekly is supported by Chorus New Zealand.