Imagine if at 9pm one Thursday evening there was a sudden 20 percent surge in demand on the electricity network. At the very least there would be a few households reaching for candles and electric torches.

Yet that’s exactly what happened to the national internet network last week when a software update to Fortnite, the popular computer fighting game, landed.

The network company Chorus saw a 20 percent spike in traffic yet nothing untoward happened. There were no reported outages. If anyone noticed their fixed-line connection slowing, it wasn’t serious enough to be public news.

Robust, resilient, reliable

Our internet network took the surge in its stride. That’s a measure of how far we have come. It’s robust, resilient, reliable: all the R-words.

And if you don’t think this is a big deal, take a look across the Tasman where Optus efforts to stream the 2018 World Cup strained telecommunications infrastructure.

Chorus has become used to seeing spikes. Every month or so it reports a new, higher peak as network traffic continues to rise. From the consumer point of view this has all happened in the background with no obvious side-effects.

The normal pattern on the network is for data traffic to hit a peak at around 9pm when the number of people streaming TV content reaches a daily maximum.

Fortnite cover

Last Thursday the Fortnite version five patch became available at about 8pm. This is just as the daily streaming traffic rises towards its crescendo. At the 9pm peak data traffic was 20 percent higher than normal.

Fortnite on fibre

Chorus says the amount of extra traffic at that time means as many as 30,000 New Zealander gamers were downloading the Fortnite patch at the same time.

As anyone who experience mobile network downloads of, say, an iOS software update for the Apple iPhone earlier this decade will remember, big software updates can clog networks. And yet that didn’t happen.

Network strategy manager Kurt Rodgers says Chorus has never seen a spike like that before. He says Fortnite is a great example of how fibre internet can support gamers.

There needs to be considerable headroom for any network to be able to take a 20 percent spike without blinking.

Disclosure: Chorus didn’t pay me or ask me to write this story. While I am paid to edit the company’s magazine I’d have written this story the same way regardless.

What the Fortnite update tells us about NZ telecommunications was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

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.

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?

Closing New Zealand’s rural-urban digital divide was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

Slingshot Broadband

 

Slingshot has dropped the price of its fastest unlimited data fibre broadband plan to a shade under $100. The Gigantic 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 technology. 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.

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.

Chorus’ network hit its 2017 peak at 9.25pm on December 10. The broadband network was delivering 1.328 Terabits per second.

We once measured large amounts of data in terms of books or towers of compact discs between here and the moon. This time Chorus says the peak was the same as 260,000 HD video streams being watched at the same time.

Four days into 2018 high demand during a storm broke the record. On January 4, at the same hour, the network hit 1.33 Terabits per second. No doubt the record will soon broken again as numbers continue to climb.

The people of Porirua are the most voracious data consumers. In December the average household chewed through 202GB, that’s 34 percent up on a year earlier.

Nationwide average data consumption on the Chorus network is now 174GB a month. That’s up from 123GB a year ago.

Fibre broadband accounts use more data

Users with fibre accounts use more data than those with a copper connection. While the average monthly data base across the entire Chorus network is 174GB, customers with fibre use around 250GB.

In September a Chorus forecast said this will climb to an average of around 680GB a month by 2020. In part the rise will come as more accounts move from copper to fibre.

The growth is largely about television moving from broadcast distribution to online, on-demand delivery.

Chorus network strategy manager Kurt Rodgers says it is not just the big international providers like Netflix driving this change. He says TVNZ and Three launched live streaming in 2017 and that has helped online television become mainstream.

Rodgers says people are watching on smart TVs, but they also watch on phones and tablets connected to home wi-fi networks. He says phone handsets are used more often with wi-fi than as traditional phones.

Broadband speeds on the Chorus network are also higher. Dunedin, which was the original Gigatown now has an average connection speed of 265Mbps. Rotorua is next on 72Mbps and Wellington is in third sport with 70Mbps. The national average across the Chorus network is 64Mbps.

A note on broadband averages

Chorus measures average use because that makes number sense for a network operator. It divides the total amount of data across the network by the number of user accounts.

The figure is, simple, easy to understand and demonstrates how demand for data is growing. It helps Chorus plan for growth. It makes discussion straightforward.

Not everyone likes this measure. Some point out that the data use pattern is not a Bell curve. They says that a small number of high-end users skew the average number higher. They argue that the median amount of data used is lower than the average.

There’s something in this. Yet the median and the average numbers are moving closer as more and more New Zealanders switch to streaming video. Or in other words, high data use is becoming mainstream.

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Stuff Pix new directionStuff Fibre says it is to offer Stuff Pix, a movie streaming service, from early next year. It takes the company in a new direction, one that hasn’t been tried before in New Zealand.

While getting into content is a natural move for an ISP part-owned by Fairfax, the largest regional media company, Stuff Pix has little to do with its parent’s traditional news business.

Instead, Stuff Pix opens with a catalogue of around 600 movies. Customers can watch them online for between $1 and $7 each.

Paddy Buckley who previously headed Quickflix in New Zealand will run Stuff Pix as general manager.

Stuff Pix not taking on Netflix

Buckley says the operation is a replacement for closed video stores, not a Netflix competitor. It will be open to all internet users and its main attraction will be the price. There is no subscription fee. Customers pay a one-off fee to view each movie.

He says the prices will be the lowest on the market. While it is technically possible to buy movies for less by parallel importing, customers need to set up a VPN (virtual private network).

Different, not differentiator

Although part-owned by a large corporation, Stuff Fibre is a broadband minnow and has yet to make an impact on the market. Until now it has offered rock-bottom prices and little else.

Adding Stuff Pix to the business is a bold attempt to build something other than a low-margin, race-to-the-bottom owner of a dumb pipe.

As you might expect from a minnow, Stuff Pix is a modest entry into the streaming market which is dominated around the world by Netflix.

The list of 600 movies is not large. Most old-school video stores had far more extensive catalogues. The movies on offer are not-exclusive. Stuff Pix will sell to people who are not Stuff Fibre customers.

In other words, with the way the businesses and offers are structured at present, no-one is going to buy Stuff Fibre to get at Stuff Pix. On that basis, it isn’t a differentiator. But it is an extra line of revenue and that’s important.

Buckley says Stuff Pix prices will be the lowest on the market. This means it will run on slender margins. The broadband service business is all about relatively small margins: the steady drip of subscription fees rolling in month after month that can still be a money-making recipe.

Revenue per user

Normally when ISPs add media, the idea is to bolster the margins and to raise the average revenue earned per user. That could work at Stuff Fibre, there will be opportunities to cross-sell moves to existing customers.

New Zealand’s two largest ISPs, Vodafone and Spark, have their own media offering. Vodafone resells Sky TV content through its Vodafone TV service. It isn’t cheap. Yet has an extensive catalogue of material and exclusive rights to popular sporting codes so there is a lot of value in the bundle.

Vodafone TV has the potential to more than double the revenue the company gets from each customer. It should do even better when it comes to lifting the per customer profit.

Meanwhile, Spark’s Lightbox streaming service seems a defensive play although it is a clear differentiator. Spark customers get Lightbox as part of broadband or mobile accounts. It’s a way of adding value and justifying higher prices. Spark’s basic unlimited fibre plan costs $95 a month compared to Stuff Fibre’s basic $90 a month.

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