Categories
mobile telecommunications

Kudos Vodafone for launching 5G, now about that $10 surcharge

Hats off the Vodafone for building New Zealand’s first meaningful 5G network.1

It’s a big step for New Zealand telecommunications and an even bigger step for Vodafone.

A year ago it looked like the company would be starved of the resources needed to make a significant 5G splash. That changed when Infratil and Brookfield fund a $3.5 billion split from the UK-based parent company.

100 Vodafone 5G sites open today

Today there are 100 sites. While this sounds good, in practice it means scattered pockets of 5G in a sea of 4G mobile coverage. Vodafone says it will upgrade the 4G sites to 5G-like speeds and increase the number of 5G sites to around 1500 in the next few years.

Performance on Vodafone’s initial network is impressive. This morning social media was full of screen shots showing handsets downloading at speeds of around 500mbps. Actually the screen shots showed download test sites, which amounts to the same thing.

Even so that is not the gigabit speeds that 5G companies have promised. In a media statement, technology director Tony Baird explained why this isn’t happening yet. He says:

“We’re using 3.5GHz spectrum to launch 5G, and our current radio spectrum holdings will mean that Vodafone customers see an uplift of up to 10 times current 4G speeds.

“However to reach the one gigabit speeds that we’re seeing internationally, we’ll need approximately 100MHz of 3.5GHz spectrum so will continue to work with the government on the early allocation and auction processes.”

It’s worth remembering today’s 5G is uncluttered. There’s almost no-one using it. That’s going to help early performance. The technology should cope better than 4G with lots of traffic, but we’re months away from that happening.

New 5G handset needed

You can’t just walk into a 5G zone and get high speed mobile broadband. You need to buy an expensive new handset first. There are two models at the moment. Both are from Samsung and both are Android models. If you can live with Android you’ll be good to go.

If other 5G equipped phones from other brands are on the way to New Zealand, the companies making them are keeping quiet about it. Realistically there won’t be a wide choice, and certainly not suitable iPhones until at least this time next year.

Premium price

By then Vodafone will charge a premium for 5G network access. The company says suitably equipped customers can use the 5G network at no extra cost until the used of June. From then they will need to pay an extra $10 a week for the service.

This echoes what happened in the early days of 4G. Although the premium didn’t last long once competition kicked in. This time Vodafone has at least six months start on its competitors, maybe much longer.

It may have been reasonable to ask 4G users to pay a premium, they got a noticeable performance upgrade. The practical benefits of upgrading to 5G will be less obvious to most phone customers.

Yes, they will see faster speeds. Videos will download faster. On paper you can browse faster.

Yet there are no practical mobile applications for ordinary users  that need extra speed. Not yet. 4G mobile has plenty of bandwidth to watch high resolution video on a handheld device. And when was the last time you hit a bottleneck browsing on 4G?

Gamers

Gamers may find something worth paying a premium for. They won’t see higher resolution, but they should see lower latency from using 5G.

That’s good, but $10 a month just to get a better gaming response seems a bit steep for all but the most hard-core gamers.

Unlike 4G, most of the benefit of 5G goes to Vodafone and its enterprise customers. The technology means many more paying customers can use cellular at the same time, which gives Vodafone an opportunity to sell more. It also gives the company shiny new things to sell, like network slices and internet-of-things services.

In that sense charging mobile users a premium is like asking supermarket shoppers to pay more because a new Pak’n Save is opening down the road.

If Vodafone is going to get non-business customers to upgrade their mobile and pay more, it needs a better reason than fast. Phones already do fast-enough with 4G.


  1. Spark’s handful of South Island fixed wireless sites pales in comparison. ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

Before you get excited about 5G fixed wireless broadband…

Vodafone’s 5G network is about to launch. Soon you’ll see marketing for 5G fixed wireless broadband marketing. Spark will no doubt follow.

Let’s step back for a moment and take a reality check.

There’s a lot to be said for 5G. It’s fast, energy efficient and has low latency. Carriers can pack in many more connections per square kilometre.

Most of the benefits of 5G will go to industrial users and to organisations that can make use of network slicing. That’s the ability to set aside bandwidth for private use. The other main beneficiaries will be the cellular companies who can sell more connections and cut running costs.

Machine to machine 5G

5G is ideal when machines talk to machine. It will make the internet-of-things sing and dance.

Yet it isn’t always the best broadband product for residential users. Many people will be better off sticking with wired connections.

In theory 5G can deliver fibre-like speeds. Overseas users see 300mbps or even a little higher. This is plenty for streaming video and other high bandwidth applications, but not enough if you have a digital household with many people sharing the same connection.

There’s another catch. Wireless connections are nothing like as reliable as fibre. If you need a consistent connection, say you have a monitoring application, you’ll soon run up against limitations. There are also stories of Netflix buffering like crazy in prime time when everyone on a tower goes online.

Line of sight

One other point, 5G is a line-of-sight service. There are nuances, but in general you need to see the cell tower to use it. In some cases overseas a connection that works fine in winter can stop working when there are leaves on the trees if those trees are in the wrong place.

You should consider 5G fixed wireless if:

  • You live near a 5G tower and can’t get fibre. You may be down a right of way or in an apartment where people are bloody-minded about running cable to your place.
  • You are off the fibre map1.
  • You have light broadband needs, don’t need a lot of bandwidth and reliability isn’t essential. Your home will struggle to run multiple streaming video sessions or handle big downloads at the same time.
  • The address isn’t permanent. Students and other short term residents might prefer a connection that can be up in seconds and taken with you when you leave.
  • You live in shared house and a shared broadband account is too hard to organise.

The irony is the New Zealanders who would most benefit from 5G fixed wireless broadband, that’s the people living on low density fringe areas and lifestyle blocks not served by fibre, are unlikely to get it early. They may get 5G later, but don’t hold your breath.


  1. Although, for now, that probably also means you off the 5G fixed wireless map ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

NZ chief science advisor 5G site not up to the job

Good on the Professor Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, for setting up a web site to address 5G fears.

It counters much of the disinformation in circulation.

Sadly the presentation is awful. It is so poor that the message doesn’t stand much chance of reaching ordinary folk.

Some of the campaigns and disinformation sites attempting to undermine the science are so much slicker.

Not engaging

Take a look at the home page. Web sites don’t get much less engaging.

chief science advisor 5G site
The Prime Minister’s chief science advisor 5G site

It has large blocks of text across a very wide measure. That makes it hard to read. While the text is broken up into blocks lower down the front page, there is a daunting slab of text to get through at the top.

The second paragraph is over 100 words long. You need a Year 12 reading age to comprehend the text. That’s way too high, beyond the majority of readers. Even people are able to read such dense material, tend not to bother.

In other words it reads more like academic or government writing than, say, newspaper or magazine copy.

When official equals boring, unreadable

Now there is a case for this. It is, after all, an official government science response. Yet, it is up against disinformation campaigns that know exactly how to reach the target audience.

It’s good that the designer1 uses links in another colour. This breaks up the blocks giving the reader’s eye signposts as they wade through the dreary text.

Even the text chosen here is wrong. It should be larger, although I’m impressed that it uses a bold typeface, that helps with accessibility for readers with poor eyesight.

What we have here is important. The site contains the information people need. In places the language is clear enough. I like this part:

“The currently available scientific evidence makes it extremely unlikely that there will be any adverse effects on human or environmental health.”

For a scientist it is reasonably tight. Although the journalist in me says this could also be clearer:

“Scientists think it is unlikely 5G will harm you or the environment”.

Commercial alternative

Compare the chief science advisor’s page with this page from Vodafone group out of the UK.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone 5G safety page from UK

It’s unambiguous, straight to the point and easy to read. Even though it gets technical and deep in places, it still does a better job of explaining the issues.

Of course, you might be thinking that it is one thing for a chief science advisor to tell the 5G safety story and another thing entirely for folk that are flogging the technology to tell the story. You’d be right.

Yet the New Zealand government could have made an important piece of public information more engaging. Look at Vodafone’s 5G infographic below. It packs a lot of complex information into a simple, easy to understand image.

The funny thing is, New Zealand’s often doesn’t have this problem with other public information campaigns when it hires an advertising agency to get the message across. Maybe that’s what’s needed here.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone’s 5G infographic makes an otherwise hard to explain concept easy to understand.

  1. I’m assuming it was designed and not just templated together, but I could be wrong about that. ↩︎
Categories
telecommunications

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.

Categories
telecommunications

The limits of Spark’s 600GB fixed wireless promise

Writing at the NZ Herald, Chris Keall reports on Spark increasing the data cap on fixed wireless plans to 600GB.

Spark only offers 600GB in Auckland where there are usually better broadband options. The company isn’t so generous out in the sticks where there’s no fibre and wireless is the only game in town.

Rural people who need 600GB wireless data can’t buy it.

Keall writes: “Spark has supersized the data cap on its fixed-wireless broadband plan to a stonking 600 gigabytes – removing one of the historic barriers to this fast internet technology, at least for Auckland customers.”

Limited offer

Make that some Auckland customers.

Spark’s press release talks about eligible customers. It certainly isn’t everyone. The deal is not available at my address nor at any of the first five Auckland addresses I typed into Spark’s website.

Later in the story Keall writes: “The telco couldn’t immediately say which areas of Auckland and how many customers were eligible.”

We don’t even know if it is most of the city, half the city or one-tenth of the city. Going by my entirely unscientific survey, it’s unlikely coverage is at the top end of that list.

Keall goes on to write: “The bandwidth is often good enough for high-def video streaming, though results vary depending on your proximity to the nearest cell site, among other factors.”

The key word here is often.

Fast enough?

I’ve heard from readers who can stream high-definition video on Spark’s fixed wireless network. They love it. I’ve also heard from people who can’t stream.

Even Spark was wary of making this kind of promise when it was selling the Spark Sport Rugby World Cup package.

It’s unlikely the Keall household will be customers. He says: “In mine, where two parents stream all their TV, one teen spends a lot of time on PlayStation Online and another sets TikTok records, we usually chew threw between 800GB and 1TB (1000GB).”

When I tried fixed wireless broadband I got a decent 40mbps or so, but at that stage I was the only connection on the local tower. A neighbour gets up to 18mbps, but says the speed drops in the evening.

Apart from the data cap, today’s fixed wireless doesn’t have the bandwidth to cater for this kind of family use. That may change when 5G is available. Yet going on reports from overseas, even 5G will struggle under the Keall-load.

Where available, fixed wireless broadband is the best option for people who are off the fibre map. It makes sense for people who don’t use enough bandwidth or data to justify a fibre line. It is a good idea if you are too far from the curb, or down a difficult to deal with right of way.

Fixed wireless broadband can be cheap.

At $65, Spark’s bottom of the range fixed wireless plan can cost less than even the cheapest fibre plan so long as you stay below 60GB of data a month.

Given that unlimited fibre plans start at around $70 a month, wireless may not be the best value for money.

You don’t need to be psychic to unpick Spark’s timing. Vodafone plans to launch its 5G network before Christmas.

One thing to watch is whether Vodafone will attempt to compete head-on with Spark’s fixed wireless. On paper its 5G fixed wireless will be faster and data will be more abundant. The key question is price.

Vodafone may choose an aggressive price, but that could undermine any messages about the superiority of 5G.

Either way, you can expect to be bombarded with marketing about the relative merits of the different technologies. Spark’s 600GB announcement is the opening salvo.