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Starlink launches One NZ cell tower in sky satellites

Starlink - SpaceX's launch puts One New Zealand promise on schedule. Two major submarine projects emerged over summer. Tuatahi completes Unison Fibre acquisition.
SpaceX - Starlink cell tower in the sky hardware.
SpaceX - Starlink cell tower in the sky hardware.

A Starlink satellite launch increases the chance that One New Zealand may deliver on an advertised promise that customers will have 100 per cent mobile coverage this year.

On January 2, Starlink parent company SpaceX successfully launched six v2mini satellites equipped with the phased array hardware that should enable them to communicate directly with standard modern mobile phone handsets.

Starlink says it has since sent and received texts over a 4G connection using the new satellites. This validation has given the green light for further launches. The company says it will put hundreds of suitable satellites into orbit and expects to offer voice, data and IoT from next year.

Crowded market

The company joins Lynk Global which demonstrated mobile handset to satellite calls last year in rural New Zealand with 2degrees. Another satellite business, AST SpaceMobile has demonstrated similar functionality. Huawei has shown its satellite technology working with China Mobile.

Starlink has been secretive about its technology but rival networks use large antenna arrays and beam forming. We can assume the technology is not radically different.

The launch means, in effect, Starlink will soon offer limited mobile connectivity everywhere in the world. However, coverage will not be continuous until many more suitably equipped satellites are in orbit.

One small step

To put the launch in context, Starlink has around 5300 satellites in orbit. For now six are equipped as cell towers in the sky. While the company says it will launch hundreds more this year, they will remain a fraction of the total constellation for some time to come.

This means One New Zealand users in areas off the terrestrial mobile network may not have continuous coverage at first. When it arrives, the communications will be rudimentary. And if there are others attempting to connect, there could be congestion problems.

Speaking at the time of the launch, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said each satellite beam will support "around 7Mb". In other words, cell tower in the sky services will resemble those of the first generation of cellular calling.

As a result One New Zealand will be able to argue that its advertising was technically correct: if there are no upsets, mobile connectivity should be available over 100 per cent of the nation's land mass by the end of this year. Mind you, it won't be continuous nor will there be the full range of services today's customers expect from a mobile network.

No doubt this will improve over time. Starlink says there will be full satellite to mobile service next year. That could be optimistic although it depends on your definition of 'full service'. Eventually the service could match terrestrial networks, but not in 2024.

Two major submarine cables planned

Hawaiki founder Remi Galasso is behind plans for a new submarine cable connecting Sydney to Melbourne with a branch to Invercargill in the South Island.

Meanwhile Google says one of three trans-Pacific cables it is working on will now land in New Zealand.

Galasso's Te Waipounamu project echoes the abandoned, earlier Hawaiki Nui project.

He says it will cost around $160 million to build and run for around 3000 km. It will offer 12 fibre pairs between the two Australian cities with a total capacity of 420 Tbps. This will offer Australians a fast backhaul option between the nation's two largest cities.

The Invercargill connection will have four fibre pairs and offer 120 Tbps.

Low latency

One feature of the cable is the low expected latency of 25 ms, this is comparable with the latency between the lower end of the South Island and national hubs in Auckland. It will also provide the South Island with additional resilience in the event of failures on the Cook Strait links.

Galasso's Intelia business will build the cable and he expects work to complete by 2026.

When completed the New Zealand end of the cable will land near the Datagrid hyperscale data centre planned for the region.

Pacific Connect - Branching Units.
Pacific Connect - Branching Units.

Details on where New Zealand fits into Google's submarine cable plans are sketchy. The tech giant is reportedly working with the government on a formal announcement and doesn't want to steal anyone's thunder.

The company is building three trans-Pacific cables: South Pacific Connect, the Humboldt Cable and Central Pacific Connect.

Google cable install - The two links to New Zealand are faint.

A New Zealand connection is not shown of the official maps of these cable networks. Earlier this month Google CLoud's VP of global network infrastructure Brian Quigley showed a slide at a presentation given to the Pacific Islands Telecommunication Association with a New Zealand link marked with the date Q1 2025.

Chorus adds 11k to fibre network

Chorus says it added 11,000 connections to its fibre network in the last three months of 2023. That takes the total to 1,062,000.

The company's fibre network passed a further 7000 premises during the period with its nationwide fibre uptake edging up to 70.6 per cent.

Average monthly data usage on the Chorus fibre network grew to 599 GB from 585 GB while the total traffic hit a new peak of 5.3 Tbps in December 2023.

Unison Group CEO Jaun Park and Tuatahi CEO John Hanna completing the acquisition paperwork.
Unison Group CEO Jaun Park and Tuatahi CEO John Hanna completing the paperwork.

Tuatahi completes Unison Fibre acquisition

Tuatahi First Fibre, the fibre wholesale company serving Hamilton and the central North Island says it finalised the acquisition of Hawke's Bay-based Unison Fibre on January 31. (See the original report *Tuatahi First Fibre buys Unison Fibre* from October last year). The deal will see 12 Unison staff members join the company.

Unison brings 700 km of fibre and 3500 customers to its new owner.

2degrees offers travellers unlimited Sim option

A mobile plan from 2degrees will give visitors to New Zealand unlimited calling texts, calling and data for a fixed period. It allows tethering and hotspotting. The Travel Sim is for a set number of days from three to 30 and

Unlimited Travel Sim unleashes connectivity for visitors

2degrees chief marketing and strategy officer Zac Summers says his company saw a gap in the market for a simple travel-focused plan. The Sim is on sale at airports, tourist destinations and 2degrees retail stores.

Change of guard at Voyager Internet

Writing at Reseller News, Rob O'Neill reports that chief commercial officer Deidre Steyn is Voyager Internet's new CEO.
She replaces Alf Wallis, who will stay with the business as its chief finance and operations officer.

CommsDay reports that Samoa has banned all use of Starlink on the grounds of public safety, national security and the integrity of the nation's telecommunications infrastructure. The ban is immediate and any associated equipment must be surrendered to Samoa's Office of the Regulator within five days.

In other news...

Elon Musk says his Neuralink company has successfully implanted a wireless brain chips in a human. Terrifying news for anyone who has attempted to deal with Tesla's customer support.

Streaming giant Netflix had a record fourth quarter in 2023 putting on 13.1 million new subscribers, its biggest ever increase. The media coverage of the result focuses on popular shows, but the company's continuing crackdown on password sharing has to be a major contributing factor.

If you lie awake at night wondering what will get customers buying high bandwidth connections, Apple's Vision Pro provides a potential answer. It can use vast amounts of data. This week Apple says it has sold more than 200,000 headsets. That's low compared with other Apple product launches, but given the high price, they start at US$3500, it is already a billion dollar market.

The Download Weekly is supported by Chorus New Zealand.