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This is the second post in a series looking at how 5G’s reality might differ from perception. The first, Don’t expect a 5G big bang, boils down to how, often, the move from 4G to 5G mobile technology will be almost seamless.

Author William Gibson summed up a lot about technology when he said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

That’s how it’s going to be with 5G mobile.

America’s Cup 5G

Spark New Zealand’s 5G plan is a good example of how this works. Managing director Simon Moutter has repeatedly said that his company aims to have a 5G network working on Auckland’s waterfront in time for the 2020 America’s Cup yacht races.

His idea is to showcase New Zealand technology to the world. Or at least the part of the world that watches yacht races. At the same time it will send a powerful signal to New Zealanders about Spark’s capability.

The company has a nationwide mobile network. Its 4G coverage extends to places where more than 97 percent of the population live, work or play. There are hundreds of 4G towers.

The 5G network pencilled in for 2020 is likely to be half a dozen or so sites. It won’t even cover all over central Auckland. There’s nothing wrong with this. It makes sense to start with a modest network build and then extend it to reach elsewhere.

For guidance look at 4.5G

Spark has done exactly this with its 4.5G network. At first there was a single site in central Christchurch. Then another, then another and so on. Although we’re on the cusp of the fifth generation, the 4.5G technology still hasn’t rolled out across New Zealand. It’s there in some towns and cities, not others.

New Zealand is not alone with this. Very few countries are building national 5G networks from scratch. The upgrade is expensive and the higher bandwidth, lower latency 5G offers is not essential everywhere. At least not yet. It will be over time.

Spark’s 5G mobile plan

It will take years, if ever, for New Zealand to get uniform nationwide 5G coverage. There’s a clue for this in Spark’s capital expenditure plans. Simon Moutter has previously said the company will fund its 5G mobile roll out from its existing budget.

In other words, the company doesn’t plan to spend up big in year one rolling out new hardware everywhere. It could take a decade.

There’s another aspect to this uneven distribution which we’ll look at in another post: it’s possible different places will end up with different types of 5G.

Vodafone 5G MWC Barcelona 2019.jpegVisitors to this year’s Mobile World Congress were bombarded with messages emphasising that 2019 is the year of 5G mobile. At the giant Huawei stand and a mini-conference the day before the main event the slogan was 5G is on.

Many carriers announced they had either started their 5G roll-outs or will soon. Hardware and systems companies showed off the fifth generation mobile network kit they hope to sell to carriers. There was even a smattering of 5G enabled handsets.

At times it was impressive. Often the stories told were fascinating and informative, but the most important messages were not on any flashy displays or in any official press releases. The subtext to the conference tells a different story.

5G will bring changes, eventually

Yes, 5G mobile going to change communications… eventually. What we’re not going to see is a big bang. At least not in terms of service. We’re almost certainly going to see a big bang in terms of marketing.

The transition from 4G to 5G is, in effect seamless. Carriers installed the first 4G networks a decade ago. At the time and in the run up to the first 4G launches, many in the industry talked about LTE or Long Term Evolution.

That name is a clue about what is happening now with the move to 5G. I’m going to explain this without getting too technical.

The next generation

5G is the fifth generation of the mobile phone standard. About 20 years ago the mobile phone companies agreed to standardise technologies around the world. Over time networks have increased performance, call quality has improved. The amount of data shifted through the same amount of spectrum has increased.

Things kicked off for real with 2G. This was the start of digital mobile calling. 3G pushed more data through the air. 4G was, essentially a move to an all digital service. Its designers optimised the network for all digital, all the time.

Each generation upgrade from 2G to 3G to 4G mean the way data pushes though the air used a new basic technique. 5G didn’t do this. In the strict technical is really 4G with hundreds of small incremental tweaks to improve performance. There is no Great Leap Forward. Think of it as the next Long Term Evolution step.

More capacity, much more capacity

From a telco point of view 5G is more efficient. Over time it will make it cheaper and easier for mobile phone companies to add capacity. For now, that demand for more mobile capacity seems unlimited.

At first 5G will use existing radio frequencies. But it will allow carriers to add more spectrum at higher frequencies. The physics of wireless means higher frequency signals don’t travel as far, so there will be denser networks of smaller towers to add future capacity.

This will cost a fortune to build. The price of a tower is coming down, but the number of towers will go up. At the same time 5G should be cheaper to run… at least cheaper per gigabit of data. It also allows telcos to slice up their networks and sell them in different ways. They might sell services to driverless car companies or Internet of Things users.

Eventually 5G will use more spectrum. Last week the government announced it will auction some 3.5GHz spectrum. But some carriers, Spark would be one, Vodafone could be another, already have enough spectrum already to deliver a basic 5G service.

In recent years carriers have moved some sites from 4G to what is often called 4.5G. This is, in effect, an upgrade of 4G to offer faster speeds and greater capacity. Quietly, in the background, the technology has improved more than one since then.

We don’t generally use the terms, but there are people who talk of 4.6G, 4.7G and so on. This goes all the way to 4.9G and from there can go on to 4.95G or 4.99G.

Incremental

Marketing and industry hype aside, the move from here to 5G is incremental. Or, more accurately, it means lots of incremental steps. This is exactly what is happening overseas with some carriers rebranding advanced 4G networks as 5G purely for marketing reasons.

Most handset users are not going to notice the change. If your phone already downloads at 30 Mbps there aren’t many apps that need faster speeds. Even high quality video streaming will struggle to use all that bandwidth.

This is not to say there aren’t mobile phone apps that will one day need more bandwidth. We’re just not using them yet. As far as mobile users are concerned, it will be hard to spot much change as networks move from 4G to 5G. However, as we’ll see in a later post, phone users on the move are not the real focus for 5G networks.

Huawei at Mobile World Congress 2019All over Barcelona banners advertise the city’s 2019 Mobile World Congress event. The slogan is “intelligent connectivity”. The phrase is about generic as things can be in this business. What is it supposed to mean?

There are answers in the eight giant exhibition halls and the numerous conference theatres that dot the event’s site. Everywhere you look, you’ll see the term 5G. Then the penny drops, fifth generation mobile phone technology is meant to be intelligent connectivity.

Judging by Mobile World Congress, 5G must be at the peak of Gartner’s Hype Cycle. It’s been front and centre for the last three years. Now carriers are building 5G networks and tentatively switching them on. 5G phone hardware is here. It’s all ready to fly except for one thing, practical business applications for 5G are still few and far between.

Huawei everywhere at Mobile World Congress

If it’s hard to avoid 5G hype at MWC. It’s also hard to avoid Huawei. The company’s logo is everywhere. Huawei has the biggest stand in the largest exhibition hall, although the word stand is not the best way to describe a hectare or so of space showing 5G network hardware, end-user kit and even the occasional practical business application.

One user case is a Norwegian salmon farm that uses 5G. Almost all part of its operation would work just as well with 4G or even 3G. However, the fish farmers use 4K television to monitor fish health. They can’t see the lice that attach themselves to salmon on a lower resolution screen and 5G is the only practical way to transmit that much data from the fish pens to the land-based monitoring stations.

Travel for about kilometre on the showground travelator and you’ll get from Huawei’s carrier exhibit to the company’s consumer device stand. There you can see the Mate X, a folding phone handset. It looks like any other 2019 Android handset until you open it out. Then it turns into an iPad-like tablet.

Tablet or phone?

It’s not entirely clear if the Huawei Mate X is a phone that can double as a tablet, or if it is a tablet you can fold up and put in your pocket. Either way, it feels a little like magic when you first get your hands on one. Also magic is that no-one seems to want to use the awful term phablet to describe the device.

The likely NZ price will be the thick end of $4,000 which seems a lot, but for a lot of people this is going to be a valuable hardworking device. Like every other phone is has cameras and all the smartphone trimmings, unlike every other phone it does 5G straight out of the box.

Other phone makers also showed folding devices. Huawei appears to have the edge over Samsung and Alcatel who both displayed folding tablet-phones.

Politics

Huawei’s Mate X was the most talked about phone at Mobile World Congress. The company was also seen in a less flattering limelight. Huawei has been locked out of some markets and is on the receiving end of negative attention from the US government.

The fear is that Huawei is either already using its network hardware to pass secrets to the Chinese government or that it will soon start doing so.

Huawei fought this on two fronts at Barcelona. On the positive front it showcased its products and services aiming to woo telecoms executives with its superior, in some cases outstanding products.

Billion dollar charm offensive

The charm offensive was huge. Off the record I was told Huawei spent getting on for a billion dollars on MWC. Thousands of employees attend. Plane loads of journalists, including myself, were flown in from around the world to see the company in its best light.

Huawei appears to have fed a large proportion of the 100,000 or so people who turned up to MWC. The catering budget must run into many millions.

There was a day zero event. In effect, a mini-conference held the day before MWC was officially open. Huawei used MWC to show the world it is the leader in the technology needed to make 5G happen.

Huawei’s second front was more aggressive. On the second formal day at MWC, Huawei chairman Guo Ping hit back at US claims in a measured, but angry keynote speech. In effect he said what Huawei officials have been telling journalists for months; that the company doesn’t do bad things and that there are no backdoors in network kit.

Nothing yet

Well, he would say that even if Huawei was up to its eyeballs in espionage. But no-one has any evidence of anything untoward to date. While that doesn’t mean nothing is going on, given the scrutiny the company is under, you might expect a whiff of evidence by now.

Those of us who aren’t in Huawei’s inner circle or who work at a high level in intelligence can never know for certain. MWC 2019 debated the questions, it didn’t resolve them.

In hindsight we should probably have guessed that a telecommunications industry event would find itself on the geopolitical front line. From a journalist’s point of view, it’s definitely more interesting that writing about a phone maker putting an extra camera on their back of their hardware.

Disclosure: While Huawei flew me to Barcelona and was a gracious host, the company was MWC’s biggest story by a long shot. I’d have written the same as above if I had paid my own way.

There’s more to the Western restrictions on Huawei than meets the eye.

Behind the headline news story there’s another story. It’s one you don’t hear or see in the mainstream media.

There has been plenty about Australian and US claims the company spies.

You may also have heard something about a possible hidden kill switch that could allow Huawei or the Chinese government to disrupt or even halt communications.

This week US prosecutors filed criminal charges against the firm.

These actions, and others, may or may not be justified. It’s hard to know for sure.

Protectionism

At least some of the ill-will towards Huawei comes down to trade protectionism. US prosecutors launched their latest action days before the trade negotiations. That timing is no accident.

The scare stories will frighten off some customers even if, in the long term, we find out it was all a false alarm.

Huawei’s reputation is already damaged. Mission accomplished. It’s the ultimate non-tariff trade barrier.

Let’s put all these matters aside for the moment and look at something else.

Huawei too good for its own good

Many in the West fear Huawei because the company is too good at its core business.

By the way, Huawei’s core business is not making mobile phones. The big money comes from designing and building communications networks. This includes old school telephone, fibre broadband and cellular networks.

Huawei has a clear technology lead over its main rivals in this sector. Off the top of my head, I’d say from what I’ve seen and heard from Huawei, the company is anything up to 18 months ahead of rivals.

The company also has a cost advantage over its competitors. Whether you think this is a fair cost advantage or not is neither here nor there. When has business success even been about fairness?

China’s tech success story

This adds up to Huawei having better technology, better products and services at a lower cost. That’s a hard trifecta to beat. It sums up the problem.

A decade ago almost no-one in the West had heard of Huawei. Companies like Nokia, Cisco, Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent dominated network equipment.

Since then Ericsson dropped out of sight. Nokia merged with Alcatel-Lucent. Cisco is not the force it once was.

In round numbers, Huawei accounts for a third of the global telecommunication network equipment market. It is the biggest IT network equipment company with about a quarter of the market.

Big in 5G

Before these recent actions, Huawei looked set to win the lion’s share of contracts to build next generation 5G mobile networks.

Huawei’s total market share continues to grow at the expense of its rivals. It is already the dominant telecommunications network hardware player. If things were to continue as they have in the past, in a few years Huawei would be unassailable. It is not unreasonable to talk about a potential monopoly.

That’s what scares Western governments. Telecommunications networks are strategic infrastructure. They are as important, some say more important, than roads, railways or shipping lanes.

Forget kill switches

Forget kill switches. Allowing one company to dominate strategic infrastructure is bad full stop. It’s like the plot of a James Bond movie.

Older readers might remember the computer business when IBM was the only game in town. Less ancient readers might remember when Microsoft and Intel called the shots in PCs. This could be worse.

Then you get to the part where we mention that Huawei is a Chinese company. China’s emergence as a global power has taken longer than Huawei’s rise to the top of network hardware. It threatens many people and governments on various levels.

Huawei is a threat even if China doesn’t pull its strings. Add this to fears about China’s ambitions and you have a potent mix.

Geopolitics

In that case, dominating critical infrastructure isn’t about business, laws or trade disputes. It becomes a geopolitical challenge.

There’s another aspect to this. Huawei is a Chinese national champion. The company reflects China’s prestige. It’s not a direct comparison, but is some ways Huawei is the Apple of China’s eye.

Diminishing Huawei’s prestige has to be part of what’s going on.

This whole episode is far from over. It may take us into places no-one expected.

Disclosure: Bill Bennett has travelled to China and elsewhere as Huawei’s guest on three occasions.

The arrival of Dense Air has big implications for New Zealand’s cellular market, apart from anything else it will spice up the next spectrum auction.

London-based Dense Air has purchased a considerable amount of New Zealand wireless spectrum from Malcolm Dick’s Blue Reach business and Cayman Wireless.

The company intends to set up a wholesale small cell mobile network. Dense Air says it will not compete direct with existing mobile carriers. It says it can begin operation “almost immediately”.

Dense Air now has rights to 70 MHz of spectrum in the 2.5GHz band. Of this, it acquired 30 MHz from former CallPlus owner Malcolm Dick who previously talked about running a similar wholesale cellular operation using his Blue Reach brand. The rest comes from Cayman Wireless which is a part of Craig Wireless, a Canadian company.

The New Zealand Herald reports Dense Air paid a total of almost $26 million for the spectrum. That is about 13 times the amount the owners paid for the spectrum in 2007.

Spectrum price

There are implications for prices when the government decides to auction 5G spectrum some time in the next 18 months or so. If Dense Air decides to enter that auction it will push prices higher and could edge out cash-strapped 2degrees and Vodafone.

Dense Air is unknown in New Zealand. The company began operation in February of this year and part of US-based Airspan.

The company says it is a new class of wholesale network operator. It aims to “enhance and extend” coverage and capacity for existing mobile carriers and says it will run as a “carrier of carriers”.

Small cell sites

In practice this means Dense Air will build and run a series of 4G and 5G small cell sites. The aim is to compliment existing networks. It says that in most cases these will extend existing networks in places that need denser coverage. This might be places such as shopping malls, office parks, campuses or sports stadiums. Dense Air says its small cell approach can dramatically improve performance and capacity.

That said, Dense Air has more than enough spectrum to compete with all three carriers in New Zealand. Should it choose to do so, it could offer MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) services. This could be of interest to telcos such as Vocus or MyRepublic, both wish to offer mobile services but own neither spectrum nor their own cellular networks.