Everyone knows fibre is the best way to get broadband. It’s reliable and can deliver gigabit speeds. Soon it will be able to go even faster.

After 100 years on top, copper is on the way out for most people. But not for everyone. At least not yet.

There is still life in copper broadband. Scientists and engineers have squeezed every last electron of performance from wire-based data transfer to the point where, with the right conditions, copper can deliver fibre-like speeds.

For the most part, the right conditions means living no more than about 1.5 kilometres from a roadside cabinet or exchange.

VDSL interim until fibre arrives

This is good news because the second phase of New Zealand’s government supported UltraFast Broadband roll-out will not be complete until 2022.

People in areas at the back of the queue will have to make do with copper broadband for now. Fixed wireless broadband is also an option.

Those people in areas not yet scheduled for fibre will wait still longer. Eventually fibre will reach beyond 87 percent of the population, but not soon enough to keep everyone happy.

Chorus, Nokia crank up VDSL speeds

Relief is on the way. Chorus and Nokia are working on the latest version of VDSL2 vectoring which could see copper broadband users get speeds as high as 130 Mbps.

Vectoring uses noise-cancelling technology to remove the crosstalk interference found when many signals share the same copper connection. If that sounds too technical a description, focus on this: Vectoring means higher speed.

You’ll need to be close to a cabinet to get maximum speed. The further you are from the cabinet the slower it gets.

Existing VDSL2 users living next to a cabinet should see speeds of around 80 mbps. One kilometre away from the cabinet the speed drops to around 25 to 30 mbps. By the time you are two kilometres away, the speed is down to around 20 mbps, maybe a fraction lower.

The ratios are likely to be similar when vectoring is applied. So expect around 130 mbps near the cabinet and roughly 30 mbps two kilometres away.

Fibre-like speeds

This isn’t bad. When fibre first went on sale in New Zealand customers were offered 30 mbps plans.

To put the speed in context, Netflix recommends 5 mbps for HD television streaming and 25 mbps for ultra high-definition.

In other words, get ready to enjoy Spark’s streaming coverage of next year’s Rugby World Cup or Premier League football. If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of other streaming TV options.

VDSL fine in practice

Until recently I was getting around 50 to 60 mbps on a non-upgraded VDSL2 copper connection. I live around 700 metres from the nearest cabinet. This gives you some idea of the potential.

Chorus head of Network Technology Martin Sharrock says getting the fastest possible broadband experience to customers is a priority.

He says: “Vectoring has improved average VDSL downstream speeds by over 40 percent and upstream speeds by over 30 percent. This is especially important for rural New Zealand where fibre to the home has not yet been planned.”

Federico Guillén, president of Nokia Fixed Networks, said: “Nokia’s copper solution with vectoring technology compliments Chorus’ fibre roll-out and provides another way to deliver significantly higher speeds that enhance the way customers experience digital content.”

And then there is wireless

As mentioned earlier, fixed wireless broadband is an option for people in areas not served by fibre. Some wireless towers are full, they’re not open to accept more customers. This is the case in my Auckland suburb where fibre is an option.

While fixed wireless broadband can, in theory, deliver speeds faster than VDSL with vectoring to people further away from a cabinet, the speed tends to vary depending on how many others are using the same bandwidth at the same time. It will probably slow down at peak TV viewing times.

If you’re not on fibre, it’s worth investigating both technologies. You can find out if a copper VDSL2 connection is available at your address from the Chorus broadband checker. To get a bigger picture of all your broadband options use InternetNZ’s excellent National Broadband Map.

D-Link’s NZ$600 Covr attempts to help home users fill Wi-Fi blackspots. I say attempts because the results are hit and miss. Most of the time it misses.

The kit first arrived at Castle Bennett in May. I tried and failed to make it work at the time. This week I tried it again and got it to work. Yet, as we shall see, it disappointed.

In the last few days I’ve been busy revisiting and retesting all the routers and related kit that I have to hand.

Chorus installed my fibre this week. I’ve a gigabit line. So for the first time Wi-Fi is my speed bottle neck. There’s a slew of products which, on paper, promise Wi-Fi speeds greater than 1 Gbps. None of them come close.

More about that in another post. Let’s get back to Covr.

During testing it worked as expected for a fleeting moment. The system was unable to create a stable network for more than 20 minutes at a time. When it did manage to work, the performance was erratic and poor.

Covr is an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days of home networking.

If you were there you’ll know what I mean. In those days a new piece of software could make a network grind to a halt. At times it felt like a sneeze could put a home network out of action for hours.

D-Link Cover home wireless mesh network nodes

Mesh network

D-Link’s Covr is an example of something known as a mesh network. This is a way of spreading Wi-Fi signals over a larger area than a single wireless router might cover. In effect you have three connected wireless routers, but to the user they look and act like a single router.

Mesh networks are common in offices, campuses and large buildings.

You might want a mesh network if you have a large home or the house is laid out in a way that means the Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough in places where you want it. Say you’ve had fibre installed next to your TV at one end of the house and a kid’s bedroom at the other end gets a poor Wi-Fi signal.

There are other consumer mesh network products on the market. Most seem to suffer from similar flaws. This suggests to me this is because the technology isn’t quite ready for everyday users.

If Apple hadn’t lost interest in home networking, mesh technology would be ripe for that company’s attention. Apple has a knack for packaging unpolished technologies in a consumer friendly ready-to-use format.

Not so simple

In the Covr box are three wireless access points. One is the main unit. D-link calls them nodes.

Each node has a power supply. And that means it needs a power socket. The power cables are about a metre long, so you’re restricted to putting nodes near power outlets. There is a rival home network technology that uses power outlets. You might want to consider that instead of Covr.

The box also holds a single Ethernet cable and, for the aesthetically minded, alternative colour fascia plates for the access points. Presumably this is to make sure your nodes don’t clash with the curtains. I find this silly because even if you change the cover the nodes still stand out.

There’s also a sheet of paper optimistically labelled Simple Setup Guide. You can work through this, or you can download an iOS or Android app that walks you through the process.

As we shall see, the app didn’t work for me. Which meant I had to return to the paper instructions.

Covr app

The app tells you to connect the main node to a power supply and to turn off your modem. You then connect the access point to the modem with the Ethernet cable and switch everything on. Once everything is running, you are then asked to log into the Covr wireless router from your phone.

In my case this simply did not happen. The iPhone could find the router, but it couldn’t log on. Nor could my small iPad Pro or my other iPad Pro. I then tried to do this all over again with an Android phone. Once more, there was nothing. Four attempts with four devices didn’t work. Not a sausage.

When I first tried Covr I gave up in frustration at this point. This time around I attempted to manually log-in to the router from a desktop Mac. It worked. I managed to get into the web-based control panel.

Part of the panel shows a map of the network. If one of the connections, and this includes the connection from the main node to the internet, is broken it shows up in red. At this point things appeared to be running fine. The next task is to configure the secondary nodes.

Secondary nodes

In some ways configuring secondary nodes is clever. As already mentioned, you have to find an extra power socket to do this. Given the master node needs to connect to a modem which needs to connect to the fibre ONT and all three need a power supply, you need four power points to configure Covr. I had to use a distribution board. There are other cables here, so it is a rats’ nest.

Once you have power, you then connect the secondary node to the main one using the Ethernet cable. After a few minutes the light changes colour. When it turns white, you’re configured.

At this point you can unplug, move the secondary node to a Wi-Fi blackspot and connect it by wireless back to the mothership. The light flashes orange then glows white when you can connect. You may need to move it about for a while until it turns white. Let’s hope all your Wi-Fi blackspots are in easy reach of a power socket.

A working wireless mesh?

At this point I had a working wireless mesh. Well almost. None of the mobile devices would connect. But I did have strong signals around the house and all the PCs in the house were able to connect.

After about 20 minutes of a working mesh network, the main Covr node lost its internet connection. I should point out that nothing had moved, there were no external events, no visible triggers.

Next the secondary nodes dropped off the mesh network. I spent an hour troubleshooting, but nothing I did changed things.

Eventually I decided to reboot everything and start once more from scratch. It took about an hour to get back to the same point with a working mesh. About an hour later it all fell apart again.

This was the pattern all day. Actually I’m not sure about that. I gave up the third time the network collapse. Life is too short. In the end I packed the Covr bits and pieces back in the box. It’s not for me.

Performance issues

During the brief interludes while things were humming, I tested the internet connection speed from the iMac. It was getting around 150 mbps up and down. This is less than half the usual connection speed through the main UFB modem and wireless router. Typically the iMac ‘sees’ 350 to 420 mbps. So the price of filling in Wi-Fi blackspot is a much slower connection.

It turns out poor performance is by design. Mesh networks in offices and factories have a separate channel to manage traffic between nodes. Covr uses the same Wi-Fi bandwidth that connects devices to the access points. In other words it shares the connection with your devices. This explains why we only saw half the usual connection speed.

I can’t recommend D-link’s Covr. It seems half-finished. There was a firmware update that I installed before testing, so the software is up-to-date.

Of course, you might have a different experience. The fact that none of the devices, other than the computer, would connect is a deal-breaker. For me the slow network speed is also a problem. I’d prefer to spend the NZ$600 asking price on a better quality wireless router and learn to live with any Wi-Fi black spots.

Vodafone says it will offer fixed wireless broadband to customers who are ‘frustrated’ waiting for a fibre connection. Customers signing for 12 months of the Vodafone Ultimate Home Fibre plan get an Ultra Hub Plus modem as part of the deal. In a media release, Vodafone says this will give them a “mobile broadband connection over Vodafone’s 4G/3G mobile network while they wait for their fibre broadband to be installed.”

The release quotes the outgoing Vodafone consumer director Matt Williams. He talks about “significant installation delays“.

According to Chorus, the average wait for a fibre connection is now 13 days. Enable says it generally connects customers in stand-alone buildings in under two weeks. These numbers do not sound like “significant installation delays”.

Installations can drag on longer for people in apartment blocks and more complex housing. So it is possible Vodafone’s wireless broadband offer will help in these cases.

Wireless broadband is a backward step

Most people who order a Vodafone Ultimate Home Fibre will either be on copper or Vodafone’s FibreX. Many will already have broadband speeds far faster than they could get from a 4G/3G fixed wireless network.

Broadband Compare reports Vodafone Home Basic 4G has a 36 Mbps download speed. It uploads at 10 Mbps.

Yet, the press release announcing the Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus modem deal promises less than that:

Maximum speeds will apply while the customer is connected to the mobile network through their Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus (up to 12 Mbps Download / up to 6 Mbps Upload).

Vodafone’s own Everyday Home VDSL plan has a Broadband Compare listed speed of 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps Up. The company’s Smart Connect FibreX plan runs at 200 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. Even Vodafone’s ADSL plan is 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.

These speeds are only estimates. I have a Spark VDSL connection that runs at around 70 Mbps down and close to 20 Mbps up. There is a range of speeds, but the Broadband Compare figures are realistic averages. We can take them as a guide.

Life in the slow lane

Many Vodafone customers waiting for fibre will get slower broadband if they opt for Ultra Hub Plus.

That’s not all. The 36 Mbps speed is what you should get with a 4G connection. As Vodafone’s own marketing makes clear, some users will be on a 3G connection. Vodafone’s press release announcing the Ultra Hub Plus modem deal says (my emphasis):

The Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus 4G/3G connect and mobile backup are only available in 4G/3G coverage areas with sufficient capacity. 4G/3G not available everywhere.

The small print also says:

Traffic management and fair use policy applies.

In other words Vodafone can cut you off if you use it a lot. The copper plans mentioned above all have unlimited data options. So customers used to unlimited data might find this aspect frustrating.

Vodafone’s Ultra Hub Plus modem wireless broadband deal is not much of a drawcard at all.

Disconnection

Williams is on more solid ground when he says: “…others say they are putting off a move to fibre because they simply don’t want to be disconnected while they wait”.

It’s not as connection cuts anyone off for long. Most fibre installs only take a few hours. And if they are Vodafone customers then there’s a good chance they’ll have mobile phones. It’s not hard to get internet access on a modern mobile phone.

If that’s not enough, then, at a pinch, they can tether. That way phoned connect laptops or desktop computers for an hour of two while a connection goes in.

Another part of the press release says:

In addition to enabling customers to be connected while they wait for fibre installation, the Ultra Hub Plus modem will also provide a mobile backup connection allowing customers to stay connected in the event a fault affects their fibre service.  Once the fault is repaired, the modem will automatically switch back to fibre, which ensures customers are always connected.

This is a good idea. Automatic failover is a good way of handling problems. Although fibre networks are more reliable than copper or fixed wireless broadband. Back-up is a nice-to-have. It would be wonderful for people who can only get a copper connection. Most people on the fibre network will never use it.

Clare Curran says: “We have to do more than better connectivity”. The minister for broadcasting, communications and digital media was speaking about the digital divide at last month’s Tuanz Rural Connectivity Symposium in Wellington.

https://twitter.com/clarecurranmp/status/1011468050825007104

Curran names ‘closing the digital divide by 2020‘ as one of her two big goals. The other is for technology to be the second biggest contributor to GDP by 2025.

Both are fine goals. Neither will be easy.

Digital divide

There are at least two types of digital divide. The first is geographic. To use Curran’s words, that issue is one of better connectivity. People in rural areas don’t have the same easy access to communications networks as people who live in towns.

Blame economics. The cost of getting fibre to a city dweller is lower than the cost of connecting someone living in a remote area.

Both types of customer pay the same price for a connection if they are on the regulated UFB fibre network. This means people living in easy-to-connect areas subsidise those elsewhere. Almost no-one complains about this subsidy. It’s a step towards bridging the digital divide.

And anyway, a flat rate simplifies billing for service providers. Billing is expensive, so simple bills help keep costs down.

Clare Curran at Tuanz rural connectivity symposium - digital divide

Drawing the dividing line

By the time the UFB project completes, 87 percent of the population will be able to connect to fibre. while the other 13 percent are more at risk of being the wrong side of the digital divide, they won’t all have second rate connections.

While the 87 percent cut-off point seems arbitrary, it is a reasonable place to draw a line. At least for now. Beyond that number each extra fibre connection gets more expensive to build.

Theory says that some point fibre isn’t economic. It’s not clear where that point is. When our ancestors built the copper phone network they managed to cover 99 percent of the population. We weren’t richer in those days, if anything the job was harder. So the choice about where to draw the line is as much about social priorities and politics as economics.

Beyond 87 percent

One day we may stretch the network further than 87 percent. There are already plans for still more fibre. Getting to 90 percent coverage wouldn’t be economic unreasonable. Getting to 100 percent would be.

As things stand there are more cost-effective ways of reaching the most remote 13 percent. Most involve wireless. That’s the approach favoured by the government subsidised Rural Broadband Initiative.

The problem is that wireless technologies are not as good as fibre. They offer slower speeds, are contested and they not as reliable. They are, in theory at least, cheaper. It costs less to beam radio waves across paddocks than to build fibre lines over them.

Contested

Contested means that users on a wireless network share bandwidth. If a lot of people are online at the same time everyone’s speed can drop. In contrast UFB fibre is uncontested. Contracts between fibre companies and the government guarantee performance.

Another problem with wireless is there is less network capacity. To get around this service providers impose data caps on users. Most fibre connections have uncapped plans. Wireless users get a set amount of data each month.

Although some fixed wireless data plans are generous, life is not carefree when you have to limit, say, your television viewing towards the end of the month to be sure of having enough data left for other uses.

Rugby World Cup

These issues could come to the fore during next year’s Rugby World Cup. Spark and TVNZ won the broadcast rights. Spark intends to stream games, the technology is like Netflix. We love the game nationwide, but Rugby’s heartland is rural New Zealand. Will fixed wireless networks cope when every connection on a tower is streaming high-definition television? Spark doesn’t say so in public, but some insiders have voiced fears about how this might go.

Wireless plans often cost as much as fibre plans. They offer less. Not a lot less. Yet on a like-for like basis they are more expensive than fibre plans. The extra cost may be an annoyance, but it doesn’t put a customer on the wrong side of the digital divide.

There’s a handy proof for this. Spark offers fixed wireless to customers everywhere on its network: rural and urban. Thousands of city dwellers have chosen fixed wireless.

If fixed wireless was dreadful you’d hear more about it. There would be a lot of angry people. Sure, there are some unhappy fixed wireless broadband customers. Yet citizens aren’t marching on Spark’s headquarters with pitchforks and burning torches. For many people it’s not bad.

Fixed wireless broadband may be inferior to fibre, but people who have it are on the right side of the digital divide.

Not there yet

It isn’t quite that simple. There’s a limit to the number of connections a wireless tower can accommodate. This means its possible there are some rural users who can’t get a connection because their local tower is full. Carriers can add capacity, but it may not happen immediately. A handful of people may miss out.

A bigger issue is that fixed wireless broadband doesn’t reach all the last 13 percent of the population. Not yet. The exact number is hard to gauge. At the Rural Connectivity Symposium, someone said there could be as many as 100,000 homes still out of reach of RBI. That’s about 5 percent of total connections. I’m afraid I didn’t make a note of who said this.

Moving goal posts

There’s another aspect to this. A decade ago when the Rural Broadband Initiative was being set up, the aim was 5Mbps. That’s enough for web surfing, email and movie downloads. Today’s acceptable broadband threshold is the 30 to 40Mbps needed to stream HD video. RBI towers can and do deliver these speeds. Wireless internet services providers do a terrific job getting connectivity to remote places.

Today’s rural network performance is way past the 2009 test of acceptable broadband. Also, thanks to the wisps, today’s broadband network reaches further into valleys and outlying areas than the 2009 RBI architects expected.

Yet the question mark hanging over the Rugby World Cup tells us there is still a rural-urban divide. Today the bar isn’t 5Mbps or even 40Mbps. It’s “is there enough broadband for people in rural New Zealand to enjoy the Rugby World Cup on an HD screen?”

And that’s the rub. The urban-rural digital divide is a moving target. Some rural New Zealanders will always feel they have second-rate broadband right up until the fibre network reaches them. Whether that’s reasonable or economic is a political matter, not one for the industry. Are we as a country willing to spend what it takes to get fibre as far as we managed to spread those copper lines?

Slingshot gigabit fibre broadband

 

Slingshot has dropped the price of its fastest unlimited data fibre broadband plan to a shade under $100. The Gigantic gigabit fibre plan is $99.95 a month. Slingshot says it is available in most towns and cities where there is fibre.

It is an aggressive price move from Slingshot. The company has thrown down the gauntlet to larger service providers who already complain about margins. Offering the cheapest option is vital in a market like New Zealand where consumers tend to buy on price more than any other criteria.

Spark charges $40 more for a service with similar characteristics although it does offer streaming TV and wi-fi hotspots as added incentives. The company’s no-frills BigPipe brand charges $130 for a naked, unlimited gigabit plan. Vodafone’s comparable plan is $110. 2degrees charges $115 for a similar product.

A gigabit by any other name would smell as sweet

The Gigantic plan includes gigabit fibre. While the term is in common use elsewhere in the world. New Zealand’s Commerce Commission rules don’t allow ISPs to describe plans as gigabit fibre.

That’s because there are network overheads so the available speeds to customers are less than the full 1000 mbps. In most cases customers get around 800 to 950 mbps. The company’s announcement is more cautious, it warns customers may only see speeds in the 700 to 900 mbps range.

Either way, it is still by far the fastest option and the best choice for heavy media users or homes with many devices. Whatever you call them, these plans mean there is never a case of not having enough broadband at home.

Slingshot General Manager Taryn Hamilton says the extra speed: “Makes a huge difference to the quality of the online experience”. He says the price cut is designed to stimulate greater take up of the faster plans.

Gigabit plans are still relatively new. Only a small number of users choose them, in part that’s because they normally come at a premium price. However, that’s changing fast. By dropping the price under $100, Slingshot has reduced the gap with the more popular 100 mbps plans. This means customers can upgrade to the best experience for a small extra amount each month.