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Spark dips toe as Vodafone plunges into 5G

Vodafone’s 5G network will launch any day now. Spark wants you to know it already has New Zealand’s first commercial 5G service.

That’s only part of the story.

If Vodafone is about to dive headlong into the pool, Spark dipped a toe in the shallow end.

When it launches Vodafone will have over 100 5G towers in parts of the three biggest cities and in Queenstown. Spark’s network is restricted to what it calls heartland communities.

This is code for small South Island towns. More precisely; Alexandra, Westport, Clyde, Twizel, Tekapo and Hokitika. Collectively the population of these places is around 16,000.

Small reach

That is about one-third of one percent of New Zealand’s population.

Vodafone won’t have city-wide coverage in its launch cities. Even so, its network could cover getting on for half the population. Even a pessimistic look at the numbers suggests Vodafone will reach 100 times as many potential 5G customers as Spark.

That’s not all. Spark’s network only offers fixed wireless broadband. While fixed wireless might suit some people, most people would see it as a second rate alternative to fibre.

Tekapo and Clyde don’t have fibre, the other places do.

Not preferred 5G spectrum

There’s another angle to this. Spark’s network will use 2600MHz spectrum. The company says this is not its preferred 5G spectrum. Spark doesn’t own the spectrum, it belongs to Dense Air.

The number of commercial Spark 5G heartland community customers for the next few months will be measured in hundreds, not thousands. Vodafone probably expects to sign more customers in a single day.

Spark does also have 5G around parts of Auckland Harbour for the America’s Cup racers. But that’s a private network.

Fate has been cruel to Spark’s 5G ambition. Spark’s plan to show 5G leadership have been hit by three external forces.

First, there is the GCSB’s unwillingness to sign off on preferred partner Huawei building the network.

Spectrum

Second, the government has ignored Spark’s pleas to speed up the Spectrum auction. And third, Vodafone pulled a rabbit out of a hat when the parent company sold the New Zealand operation to new owners willing to invest early in a new 5G network.

Of course the idea carriers are jockeying to win a 5G race is ridiculous. The technology will be around for 10 years. Getting it right is more important than getting it first. Few customers will jump ship just because they have to wait a few months.

While there may be a small first mover advantage, the real winner will be the carrier that can make its network pay over the long haul.

By Bill Bennett

Not actually a geek, more a chronicler of geekdom. Still mainly a journalist, sometimes a blogger.

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