Samsung S21 FE 5G

Samsung’s Galaxy S21 FE 5G press release leads with the phone’s case design.

That’s right. Samsung’s public relations professionals think the single standout fact that will get journalists and others writing about the new phone is the case.

This tells you everything about the state of the phone market in 2021: it’s no longer exciting. We appear to have reached an evolutionary dead end. Continue reading

New Zealand’s government is planning how to use the 6GHz band.

Decisions made this year by the Radio Spectrum Management, the government agency that decides how radio waves are used, will affect everyone who uses Wi-Fi at home or work.

Ideally, the entire 6GHz band will be unlicensed. That way we will all be able to make better use of Wi-Fi in homes and offices. Everyone will have a better computer and internet experience.

Yet spectrum is a limited resource. Everyone wants it, including a group of companies who want to sell it back to us.

Unlicensed for now

Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees want Radio Spectrum Management to set aside a slice of the 6GHz band they can use to boost their 5G mobile spectrum.

The big phone companies have money and political clout. But they are up against almost the entire technology sector including companies with even more money and worldwide political clout.

Apple, Microsoft and Google are among the tech giants who submitted to the RSM. The list includes another dozen names you may or may not know.

What’s at stake?

If you haven’t heard of Wi-Fi 6E yet, you soon will.

It’s an upgrade to the wireless network technology that pushes data around homes and offices.

The difference between today’s Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi 6E is like the difference between dial-up broadband and fibre. It’s faster, more reliable and less trouble.

Gigabit speeds

With Wi-Fi 6E, your home or office wireless network will run at gigabit speeds. Without it, the link from a device to the local wireless router can be the bottleneck between you and the internet.

Wi-Fi 6E connections will be more reliable and you’ll have less trouble getting the network to reach every part of your home or office.

The technology can connect many more devices at the same time.

Wi-Fi 6E solves congestion problems. There will be less interference from your neighbour’s Wi-Fi. This will make it easier for you to get a decent home or office network.

Among other thing you’ll get better streaming and better zoom calls.

Bandwidth

Despite its name, the 6GHz band runs from 5.9 to 7.1GHz. That’s 1.2GHz of wireless bandwidth to play with.

That is about four times the amount of bandwidth available to today’s Wi-Fi networks. In other words, you can expect roughly four times the network speed.

Because the 6GHz band is a higher frequency than the 2.4 or 5GHz bands used for today’s Wi-Fi, the signals don’t travel as far. This is why you’ll get less interference from other Wi-Fi networks in your immediate neighbourhood.

Today’s Wi-Fi channels are 40MHz each. The technology needs to have 160MHz channels to deliver the extra performance. That isn’t practical without keeping the entire 6GHz band unlicensed.

What’s happening with 6GHz overseas?

In many places around the world part or all the 6GHz spectrum band has been set aside for unlicensed use. In this context, unlicensed means you can use it for Wi-Fi.

The US, Brazil, Canada and Korea are among the nations who have announced they are allocating the entire 6GHz band for unlicensed use.

As a consequence, a slew of Wi-Fi 6E hardware is on its way. That’s coming regardless of whether our government keeps the 6GHz band free. You won’t be able to make full use of it if Radio Spectrum Management is swayed by the telcos.

New Zealand is not the only country lagging behind these leaders in making a decision. In June, Europe set aside the lower 480 MHz of the band for unlicensed use but held off on a decision about the rest of the 6GHz band.

That’s similar to today’s position in New Zealand.

An international ITU World Radio Communications conference is supposed to debate the issue and help align policies around the world. The problem with that is the conferences take place every four years. The next one is two years away. By then hardware companies will be preparing Wi-Fi 7 equipment.

Last week Spark extended what it calls its ‘uncapped’ fixed wireless broadband footprint. It now reaches another 500,000 potential customers.

The company’s Unplan Metro plan, yes that’s right and yes, it does sound weird, is now available at 1.2 million homes. The expanded fixed wireless broadband footprint includes towns and the rural areas where it is more needed.

Spark says that covers around two-thirds of all homes and more than 10 percent of rural households.

Where fixed wireless scores

Fixed wireless broadband is an alternative to fibre broadband. It’s a great choice if you live in a place where you can’t get fibre.

Performance and reliability is not as good as fibre, but it is better than your practical alternatives.1

If you can get fixed wireless at your address – that is not always a given2 – it installs fast. Spark will courier a modem and you could be online within an hour of it arriving.

It may be worth buying a low-end fixed wireless plan if you have limited broadband needs or are on a tight budget. Spark has a Basic plan for $45 a month with 40GB of data.

That’s more than enough for almost anyone who doesn’t use streaming, video conferencing or online gaming. You’ll be able to make voice calls and handle a limited number of Zoom meetings each month.

Otherwise, for a lot of people fixed wireless represents poor value. In almost every case you’ll be able to buy a faster, more reliable fibre plan with fewer restrictions on data downloads for less money. A number of people were let down by fixed wireless broadband when working from home during lockdowns.

That’s the case even if you buy fibre from Spark, which is among the most expensive options on the market.

What you will pay

Spark’s 5G Wireless Broadband Plan with nominally unlimited data – see below – costs $95. If you’re not on Spark’s 5G networks, and at the time of writing few people are, you can get a 4G fixed wireless plan for $85. Chances are it will be fast enough to meet your broadband needs, but, unlike with fibre, there are no guarantees.

In comparison no-questions-asked 100Mbps unlimited fibre plan from Spark is $90. You can buy similar plans elsewhere for up to $20 less. Flip has a fibre plan that works out at around $60 a month.

An all-you-can-eat 1Gbps fibre plan from Spark costs $110. A mere $15 more than the wireless plan. That’s a faster speed that most people need. Yet it means there will never be any limits on your broadband activity even with a house full of internet fanatics.

Uncapped – that word doesn’t mean what you think it means

While Spark describes Unplan Metro as either ‘uncapped’ or ‘unconstrained’ data, that’s not the full story. In the small print there’s mention of a Fair Use Policy.

This is vague. You have to dig around to get a clear picture of what it could mean. But in simple terms it means Spark can kick you off if it decides you are using too much data.

In other words, it is neither uncapped or unconstrained in the usual sense of those words. The Commerce Commission may yet have something to say about this description.

Spark, Vodafone pushing fixed wireless

Spark, Vodafone, and to a lesser extent 2degrees are both pushing fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fibre.

Spark CEO Jolie Hodson said earlier this year she would like to move between 30 and 40 percent of landline customers to wireless by 2023.

It’s a lucrative business.

Wireless services piggyback off the cellular networks used to connect mobile phones. It requires extra investment to support fixed wireless, but that’s incremental.

The technology bypasses the wholesale fibre networks. More to the point they bypass the fees charged by fibre companies. Spark and Vodafone make a higher margin from wireless broadband than from fibre.

In the past customers have had a mixed experience with wireless. Network upgrades and the switch to 5G will improve that, but the technology is not for everyone.


  1. That may not be the case once the new satellite services get out of beta. ↩︎
  2. Local towers can be full although Spark is upgrading its network fast so you may not need to wait long ↩︎

The June 2021 Ericsson Mobile Report says users are taking up 5G technology at a faster rate than they adopted 4G.

By year end Ericsson forecasts 580 million 5G users worldwide. By 2026 this will rise to 3.5 billion.

It says fixed wireless broadband user numbers will hit 180 million in that year.

This compares with Ericsson’s estimate of 1.2 billion fixed-line broadband connections today. By 2026 that will rise to 1.5 billion.

Fixed wireless everywhere

It says seven out of ten mobile service providers now offer fixed wireless broadband. The number has doubled in three years.

In New Zealand, all three mobile operators sell fixed wireless.

Ericsson prefers the term fixed wireless access or FWA.

It defines FWA as:

“A connection that provides primary broadband access through wireless wide area mobile network enabled customer premises equipment (CPE).

“This includes various form factors of CPEs, such as indoor (desktop and window) and outdoor (rooftop and wall mounted). It does not include portable battery-based Wi-Fi routers or dongles.”

Fibre and fixed wireless, not fibre or

Countries where there is little landline broadband show the fastest growth in fixed wireless connections.

Yet Ericsson says:

The high adoption rate of FWA is also prevalent in countries with a high fibre penetration.

Fixed wireless accounts for a greater share of all mobile network data. Today it is 15 percent of all data on mobile networks. Ericsson says by 2026 that will rise to 20 percent. A total of 64 exabytes.

By 2026 around four fixed wireless connections in ten will be on 5G.

Ericsson Mobile Report says broadband IoT to take over

Ericsson says IoT connections are moving from 2G or 3G networks to 4G and 5G.

It calls the older technologies Massive IoT. The term includes NB-IoT and Cat-M1 IoT.

Ericsson says:

Massive IoT primarily consists of wide-area use cases, connecting large numbers of low-complexity, low-cost devices with long battery life and relatively low throughput.

This includes meters, sensors and tracking devices.

Broadband IT uses higher throughput, lower latency and larger data volumes.

“Typical use cases include cloud-based AR/VR, remote control of machines and vehicles, cloud robotics, advanced cloud gaming and real-time coordination and control of machines and processes.

“Deployment of the first commercial devices supporting time-critical communications is expected during 2022.”

Spark has opened an innovation studio to let potential customers see how the company’s wireless networks can work for their businesses.

The studio, which is below Spark’s Auckland headquarters, was formally opened this week by digital economy minister Dr David Clark.

Clark put the opening in context. He says the government departments that responded fastest to last year’s Covid pandemic were those who were most technically advanced.

Speaking at the opening, CEO Jolie Hodson says the centre brings all Spark’s wireless networks together in a single place for the first time. Customers can test applications using 4G, 5G, Cat M1, NB IoT and LoRaWAN.

This emphasises the complementary nature of wireless networks. It can often be a case of picking the right network for the application, but there are times where different networks can work together. At the same time it underlines Spark’s ability to provide communications for any application.

Spark previously operated a similar 5G-focused innovation centre in the Wynyard Quarter. One of the lessons from that earlier showcase was that the technologies demonstrated need to cycle regularly. Spark says it doesn’t expect anything in the new studio to stay in place for longer than six months.

More data, less carbon

Hodson says Spark’s wireless technologies have the potential to help companies meet New Zealand’s goal of becoming carbon zero by 2050.

In part that’s because modern wireless technologies can use less electricity to push move bits through the airwaves than earlier technologies.

Environmental themes are everywhere. Spark divided the innovation studio into four zones; utilities management, smart environments, emerging technologies and asset management.

The emerging technology zone, shows a collaboration with car company Toyota. It uses virtual reality to give customers a taste of driving a new vehicle without the need to distribute fleets of demonstration vehicles around the country.

Water quality

Examples elsewhere include a buoy containing sensors that can be used to monitor water quality. A mussel farm on the Firth of Thames uses the buoy. Because it can keep a close watch on water conditions it means mussel farmers can harvest at the best times.

A project involving Auckland Transport and Spark’s Qrious data and analytics division connects sensors on rubbish bins, street lights and benches. The bins can report back when they are full. It means council workers can time bin collection to save fuel and trips while also keeping streets tidier. The system can turn lights on and off as needed, saving power.

Spark has gone for a practical approach to the innovation studio. Hodson says with one or two exceptions everything on show is available for use today. “It’s about closing the gap between marketing and action”.

There could not be more contrast between Spark and Vodafone’s 5G launches. The two launch events tell a tale about the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on carriers.

Last December Vodafone launched its 5G network. On day one it had 100 5G towers in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.

This week Spark’s 5G network opened for business. In Palmerston North.

That’s right. Spark chose New Zealand’s eight largest city to showcase the latest mobile generation.

Toyota

The company says it is working with Toyota to uncap the value of 5G in Palmerston North.

You might think this would involve something exciting like driverless cars. After all, Spark tested New Zealand’s first autonomous vehicles last year.

Instead, the partnership delivered a dreary virtual test drive app. It’s the kind of video streaming application that 4G mobile handles with aplomb.

Vodafone’s launch had holograms, long-distance veterinary surgeons, remote cranes and 5G controlled factories.

Contrast

There could not be more contrast between the two 5G launches. Vodafone had exciting technology and glitz. Spark has Palmerston North and 4G apps.

Vodafone went hard and early. Spark’s launch is timid. The company says it will offer 5G in four more locations before the end of the year. By then it will be a full 12 months behind Vodafone.

To be fair, Spark had to wait for the government to deliver 5G spectrum before it could move. Vodafone had suitable spectrum in its pocket.

While we are being fair, the world has changed a lot since Vodafone’s launch. Spark’s cautious arrival on the 5G scene could be the right strategy for pandemic times.

Prudent

Like New Zealand’s other telcos, Spark may yet have a wall of bad debt to deal with. Not splashing money on a big 5G roll out and a fancy launch looks prudent today. It’s possible Vodafone’s investors wouldn’t have funded a 5G launch if they knew what was coming.

It is not as if rivers of gold will flow into the coffers after a 5G launch. As Telcowatch shows, Vodafone’s market share didn’t move after it launched its 5G network.

Vodafone may look confident. Yet that confidence doesn’t extend to charging customers more to use its 5G network. Likewise, Spark isn’t going to ask the people of Palmerston North to pay a 5G premium.

Even the boring Toyota demonstration app seems sensible and wise. It’s not as if there are any practical applications for everyday users that depend on 5G to work. Why pretend otherwise? Vodafone’s examples looked exciting, but it will be ages before they are everyday reality here.

And that’s the key. While the above story may read like a criticism of Spark, it is not. Spark has cut its coat according to its Covid-19 era cloth. We need to adjust our expectations for less techno-dazzle and more back to basics.

5G mobile tower
(Bloomberg) — Fifth-generation networking hype has been in full force since Qualcomm Inc. declared “5G is here, and it’s time to celebrate” in February of last year. The reality, however, has required patience from consumers due to the time needed to roll out the new networks and the dearth of applications to put speed to compelling use.

Source: We Tested 5G Networks Across Asian Cities. The Verdict: Patchy

The message at last February’s Mobile World Congress, the phone industry’s annual gathering, was that 5G is ready.

The technology was working then. It still is. There is a lot more 5G around the world than last year. Dozens of carriers have launched networks. This includes Vodafone in New Zealand.

5G networks not about consumers

Bloomberg’s report makes clear there is a gap between reality and consumer expectations.

To get acceptance of 5G, carriers need to sell the idea to consumers. They promised consumers faster speeds on mobile handsets. Up to a point they delivered, although as Bloomberg points out, delivery is patchy.

The truth is that 5G is not and never was about the consumer experience. It is all about enterprise and industrial applications. Engineers optimised 5G for communications between machines, not person-to-person calling.

A voice call on a 5G phone is no different from a voice call on a 4G network. Video streaming works fine on a 4G connection. There are no obvious mobile consumer applications that must have faster data.

The only 5G consumer user case anyone talks about is mobile games with lower latency.  Gaming is a big and important business. Yet carriers did not invest billions so commuters can shoot aliens faster while sitting on a bus.

The world wasn’t waiting for faster mobile phone data

A lack of must-have consumer apps explains why phone makers didn’t race to get 5G models to market. Yes, people will want to buy phones that can make use of the faster speeds. But they are not going to go out at midnight and queue around the block for the privilege of getting them first.

Wonderful things happen when mobile devices and sensors communicate at fibre-like speeds. No doubt 5G will transform many aspects of life. Everything imaginable will connect and either report back or act on the result of data.

Like an iceberg looming in front of a giant transatlantic steamer, the part of 5G that matters most is out of sight. It will have the biggest impact. The technology was always going to underwhelm consumers. It’s not for them. Let’s stop pretending otherwise. There is a better story to tell.

According to The Times, the UK plans to form an alliance of democratic nations to create a 5G alternative to Huawei. This comes after the UK spent months resisting US pressure to ban Huawei.

The Times says the 5G alliance group will include the G7 nations: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States as well as Australia, South Korea and India.

No doubt if the plan goes anywhere there will be pressure on New Zealand to join. It is the only Five Eyes intelligence alliance member not in the Times’ list.

Huawei top equipment maker

Huawei is the world’s top telecommunications network equipment maker. It has the most advanced cellular technology and is a leader when it comes to 5G networks.

Thanks to favourable currency conditions Huawei manages to make better 5G technology and, in many cases, sell it for less than rivals.

There are dark mutterings from the US that Huawei climbed to the top of the telecommunications market by stealing intellectual property.

Whether or not this is true, Huawei also enjoys significant tax breaks from the Chinese government and favourable trading conditions in the world’s second largest economy. Unlike western governments China is not frightened to intervene in key markets. The nation has long had an industrial policy to become a world leader in telecommunications technology.

5G alliance response to spying accusations

The headline reason Huawei has western democracies clinging together are reports the company either already does, or could soon start, giving Chinese intelligence agencies access to data carried on networks.

While there is no smoking gun proof this has happened yet, the potential for it to happen is real enough. And that’s before you consider the rising tensions between China and the US.

Behind the headline reason is a second, more nuanced argument. Huawei dominates telecommunications hardware.

Huawei’s main competitors still in the market are Nokia and Ericsson. Both are a fair distance behind Huawei. They can’t compete with Huawei’s rapid development cycles, they struggle to match Huawei’s price advantage.

Monopoly

Before the spying accusations became public the gap between Huawei and the also-runs was widening. There was a danger Huawei would move from dominance to something more like a near-monopoly.

Think of how Google dominates web search. Strictly speaking search is not a monopoly, but only one company matters.

Believe it or not, the world could manage without web search. It can’t manage without telecommunications networks. And much of the world would certainly be in trouble if the only supplier of that network technology was based in an increasingly aggressive, potentially hostile country.

Crippling

So crippling Huawei before it reaches that position stops it from becoming a serious threat. Well, that’s the theory and the thinking behind the UK’s alliance plan.

There’s another angle to this. Huawei aside, Chinese companies dominate the supply chains for telecommunications hardware. Both Nokia and Ericsson have operations in China. Many of the chips and components they use come from Chinese factories.

During the early stages of the Covid–19 pandemic we saw the chaos that comes when supply chains shut down. The Chinese government could shut them down whenever it chooses. Sure that would come at a huge cost, but the risk cannot be ruled out.

Tensions between China and the West, especially the US, are higher than they have been for decades. Things have reached the point where even suggesting the formation of an anti-Huawei technology alliance will be seen as ratcheting up the tensions.

5G alliance means precious little optimism

The UK 5G alliance plan may come to nothing. It’s possible tensions will reduce. But optimism in this area is in short supply right now.

Nokia and Ericsson are the most likely winners if the UK plan gets anywhere. Samsung and NEC also have 5G network equipment, but the two are even further behind and can’t offer a comprehensive suite of products.

Assuming it is Nokia or Ericsson or both the winners will get guaranteed markets and, presumably, buckets of government money. The move won’t be good for innovation and will reduce choice for mobile carriers.

On the other hand, a 5G alliance will bring much needed certainty to the sector. Everyone will be able to get back to building networks and stop worrying about the politics of what should be engineering or commercial decisions.