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Telcowatch says Vodafone is New Zealand’s mobile market leader.

There’s not much in it. Vodafone is one percent ahead of Spark on 36 percent.

The two were neck and neck for most of last year.

While the lead is real, it’s not dramatic.

Nor is it the whole picture. The way Telcowatch measures the market means that Spark’s Skinny business is counted separately from its parent company.

Adding that back into Spark’s figure puts the company well ahead of Vodafone with a 41 percent market share.

Telcowatch monthly market share 2018 - 2019

However you crunch the numbers both Spark and Vodafone have a clear lead on 2degrees. The third mobile carrier’s market share is stable at 23 percent. That makes it a little over half the size of Vodafone and Spark.

That’s a respectable showing for the youngest mobile carrier which entered a market that was almost at saturation point. And there is no question 2degrees has reshaped the market.

It probably suits everyone concerned to count Skinny as a seperate business.

Yet Skinny is definitely a Spark brand.

When Skinny started it was more distinct from its parent than it now is.

Today Skinny’s product alignment can be seen as rounding out Spark’s offerings. It’s a no-frills version. In supermarket terms it is PaknSave to Spark’s New World.

The two share the same network infrastructure. Skinny employees may be loyal to the brand, but they are Spark employees. Spark’s management decides Skinny’s strategy.

Skinny remains the smallest of the four brands. In December its market share was 5.6 percent. It has been between roughly five and six percent for the last couple of years.

The most interesting aspect of the recent report from Telcowatch is not the interplay between Spark and Vodafone, but the way Skinny has been growing its market share at the expense of the parent company.

Over the last year Skinny is the best performer in terms of market share growth. It has grown gradually.

It’s not hard to understand why. Despite all the fuss about 5G, the mobile phone market is mature. There’s less differentiation between brands and less of a premium in Spark’s brand when compared to Skinny.

There is, however, a considerable price difference. Slowly, but surely, customers are waking up to this. You can buy what amounts to the same mobile experience for less money. The big surprise is that more people have yet to realise this.

In March, New Zealand’s government will auction 16 10MHz blocks of spectrum in the 3.5GHz band.

It’s an unusual spectrum auction. Most past spectrum auctions in New Zealand have been for 20-year licences. This time, the licences are for two years.

The reason for this is that the industry is pressuring government to release the spectrum they need for 5G mobile services.

Treaty claims

At the same time, the government has yet to reach a Treaty of Waitangi settlement with iwi over spectrum. Selling short-term licences buys time to complete negotiations.

Each of the 16 10MHz blocks has a reserve price of $250,000. Bidders need to deposit $500,000 to take part in the auction.

If everything sells at the reserve price, the government will raise $4 million. Prices can go higher. The last time spectrum was auctioned prices went much higher.

No single bidder will be able to buy more than four blocks in the first auction round. This is less than the 80MHz to 100MHz recommended for full 5G services by the GSMA, an international mobile operator trade association.

The rights are not tradable, are nationwide and buyers must use them for 5G mobile services.

More spectrum later

Licence terms start later this year and finish at the end of October 2022. The government will hold a further, long-term auction for the spectrum that year. The government says it expects to free up more spectrum later.

Bidders in the March auction will have to return existing 3.5GHz management rights to the government.

This affects Vodafone more than any other carrier. It is possible Vodafone’s existing 3.5MHz holding will fall. Returning existing spectrum will help flatten the playing field. There will be a refund for returned management rights.

Radio Spectrum Management, part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, will use a simplified version’s of a combinatorial clock auction. In effect, this starts with the seller offering blocks at the reserve price. If the demand for blocks is greater than the supply, it increases the price.

Beyond the three mobile carriers

New Zealand has three existing mobile networks. There are 16 spectrum blocks on sale and each bidder can buy four in the first auction round. That means the government expects a fourth buyer to enter the auction.

This is a departure. The earlier auction for 700 MHz band spectrum was tailored to cater for the three mobile carriers; Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees.

The obvious candidate is Dense Air. The company owns 70 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum. At the moment Dense Air acts as a wholesaler to the mobile carriers. Spark’s tiny South Island fixed wireless broadband 5G project uses Dense Air spectrum.

Other parties may be interested in the spectrum. Few of New Zealand’s Wisps1 could afford the $500,000 deposit or the $250,000 per block asking price. Yet if they were to act collectively a bit might be possible.

If the government doesn’t sell all 16 lots in the first auction round, it may offer them to existing bidders.

Given that the amount of spectrum being auctioned is not enough for carriers to offer a full blown 5G service, it looks as if will be some time before New Zealand gets all the benefits of the technology. There’s enough bandwidth for fast data speeds, but, as things stand, maybe not enough for carriers to deliver the gigabit plus speeds 5G hype has promised.


  1. Wisps are small, local wireless internet service providers. They cover rural and remote gaps in markets not served or poorly served by bigger telcos. ↩︎

2degrees launched New Zealand’s third mobile network almost ten years ago in August 2009. Today it accounts for roughly one in five mobile connections.

Last week 2degrees reported a modest net profit of $19.6 million on revenue of $805 million.

The company says a highlight of the year was a nine percent increase in contract mobile customers. A six percent drop in prepay customers went some way to offsetting that. It says many of these closed accounts when 2degrees switched off its 2G mobile network.

2degrees still a minnow

It remains a minnow compared to Spark and Vodafone. The two big mobile companies each have around 2.5 million connections, while 2degrees trails with 1.4 million. Spark has almost 700,000 fixed-line broadband connections compared with 87,000 for 2degrees.

Spark’s annual revenue is in the region of $3.5 billion, while Vodafone’s is $2 billion.

2degrees plays an important role in New Zealand’s mobile sector. It makes the market more competitive. Before the company started, New Zealanders paid well over international average prices for mobile phone services.

Today the Commerce Commission reports “New Zealand mobile plan prices are well below the OECD average”. It says:

The price of a New Zealand entry-level mobile plan giving 30 calls and 500MB of data at $16 per month was 36 percent below the OECD average and well below Australia.

Higher use plans showed big price decreases and are well below the OECD averages.

Commerce Commission Annual Telecommunications Monitoring Report 2018

The report goes on to say NZ higher use plans are still more expensive than in Australia.

The flip side of this good news for consumers is that 2degrees has eaten into Spark and Vodafone profit margins. A clear sign of competitive pressure.

Some success

While 2degrees has been a success on some levels, it has yet to break through in the fixed-line and broadband markets.

It is the number five broadband service provider. 2degrees has about five percent of the market compared with Spark’s 43 percent and Vodafone’s 26 percent. Vocus, 13 percent, is also much bigger.

New Zealand broadband market share by connections

Another measure of the relative size of New Zealand telcos is the size of their contribution to the Telecommunications Development Levy. This is an annual tax on the industry. The government uses it pay for providing services to deaf and hearing-impaired people. Some of the money subsidises broadband for rural areas and upgrading the 111 emergency service.

2degrees pays the fourth highest contribution behind Spark, Vodafone and Chorus.

Telecommunications Development Levy

One of the biggest problems facing the company is access to investment capital. It doesn’t have Spark’s deep pockets.

When the government auctioned 4G mobile spectrum in 2013, 2degrees didn’t buy its full allocation even though the price was deliberately kept low.

The challenge for 2degrees will be to find the money for further investment. To put this in perspective; Each of those first blocks of 4G spectrum went for $22 million apiece. That’s more than a year’s profit for 2degrees.

A new unlimited mobile plan from 2degrees can be yours for as little as NZ$40 a month if you are on a shared account. If only one person pays the bill it’s NZ$85. This makes it the best bang-for-buck mobile plan in the country, but there are fish-hooks in the small print.

Unlike rival unlimited offers from Spark and Vodafone, the new 2degrees unlimited plan allows hotspots and tethering.

Yet a sensible journalist might suspect something is up when a press release comes with a footnote attached to the word unlimited.

That’s because unlimited has a non-standard meaning in the 2degrees English dialect. While you may think the word means all-you-can-eat data, at 2degrees it stands for 40GB then the data hose becomes a dripping 1mbps tap.

On top of that, the small print warns: “hotspotting speeds may be reduced further during periods of network congestion”.

So, it’s not unlimited in any usually accepted sense.

That said, the new 2degrees unlimited plan is generous. It is also a better deal than you’ll get from the big mobile carriers.

A monthly 40GB data cap, that’s what we’re really talking about here, is more than you’re likely to need if you use your phone for mail, browsing the web and running everyday apps.

It’s also plenty if you hotspot or tether for similar use. Laptops and iPads can often get through more data than phones.

The 40GB cap is not going to get you far if you watch a lot of streaming video. Even if you stick to modest resolution video, you’ll get through your entire month’s allowance in a couple of days. Choose high-definition video and 2degrees will throttle your connection before the sun goes down on day one.

Small print aside, the 2degrees unlimited mobile plan is beyond competitive. Assuming you get decent coverage on the network, it’s a bargain. The deal is especially good for families sharing a single account. That 40GB cap is per person. Which means you can get all the phone and mobile data four family members need for NZ$160.

I write about Huawei New Zealand’s long-term role in the nation’s mobile sector for the New Zealand Herald.

Huawei has played a central role in New Zealand’s telecommunications infrastructure for a decade. The company’s New Zealand deputy managing director, Andrew Bowater, says it started working with 2degrees four years before the telco’s network was switched on in 2009.

The 2degrees partnership played a crucial role when in 2013, Telecom, now Spark, chose Huawei’s hardware to power its 4G mobile network. Bowater says; “We wouldn’t have won that without 2degrees, we wouldn’t be here today without them.”

That relationship cuts both ways. Huawei provided 2degrees with the money needed to build its network with a vendor finance arrangement. Bowater says the two companies passed an important milestone in 2013 when a local bank bought the debt off Huawei.

Huawei’s relationship with Spark went deep. The two worked together to break new ground, they were the first to use 700 MHz spectrum for a 4G mobile network. New Zealand got that ahead of the world. Likewise, they were early getting 4.5G technology to market.


Read the full story in the New Zealand Herald.