New Zealand’s mobile carriers are keen to talk about 5G mobile. Telecommunications equipment makers are even keener to talk about it. They have more to gain in the short term. It’s possible they have more to gain in the long term too.

The next generation of mobile technology promises a lot. The promises depend on who you listen to and who they talk to. Sometimes the promises overlap, sometimes they don’t.

There is a good reason why 5G promoters send mixed messages: the technology aims at distinct markets. Each market has different needs. Each wants to hear a different set of promises.

Silverdale 4.5G cell site

5G selling point

For users on the move, the most important selling point is blistering fast mobile broadband. The technology promises users abundant bandwidth to deliver streaming high resolution video and huge amounts of data.

This is perhaps the most oversold promise of all.

While there’s always a case for more bandwidth, you don’t need to move up a generation to get faster mobile broadband.

In 2016 Spark demonstrated 4.5G delivering 1.15 Gbps. Huawei told me 4.5G can go all the way to 6 Gbps. Some other reports mention higher 4.5G speeds.

Let’s put this in perspective. You need 15 to 20 Mbps to watch streaming 4K movies on Netflix. There are few applications that need more bandwidth.

Even the most demanding virtual reality apps might only use three or four times that. Wearing a headset and wandering through a virtual world might not a good idea if you are actually mobile.

Of course other apps may yet emerge to use faster phone data speeds. You have to ask yourself if it is wise investing in an expensive mobile phone network upgrade when no-one has a clue what it might be used for. For the foreseeable future 4.5G has all the bandwidth most mobile users can use.

Fixed wireless 5G

There is a better case for upgrade fixed wireless broadband networks. Fifth generation cellular promises those customers fibre-like speeds. It is possible if carriers have more bandwidth to play with they could offer higher data caps than today.

In New Zealand, fixed wireless broadband is often sold as an alternative to fibre for people with less demanding internet needs. Building a 5G network needs a huge investment. Carriers will struggle to get a return on investment by increasing fixed wireless broadband charges. If anything competition from fibre networks means they are under pressure to lower prices.

Internet of things customers are another target market. They expect to see a trickle of data beamed to and from thousands, even millions of devices. For these customers, speed is rarely the main consideration. On the other hand, some will want the density of coverage promised by 5G. Some IoT apps need 5G’s promised low latency.

At the time of writing there are four main IoT networks in New Zealand. 5G will give carriers and customers many more options. This is the most likely application to pay for the new network build, but squeezing out a return on investment when the nation is already awash in IoT networks won’t be easy.

5G’s low latency is vital for two specific user groups: driverless vehicles and robotics. Or as they say in the industry: these are the key “use cases” for 5G. Most likely these technologies will fuel demand for new networks. Although it is possible both may be further away from everyday use than the industry tells us.

Put that down to hype.

5G mobile challenge for NZ carriers was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

nest smart homeNest, the smart thermostat maker Google acquired in 2014, is the world’s best-known home automation brand. The company is now selling its smart home products and services in New Zealand.

Smart home technology has been slow to take off around the world. It gets the attention from technology fetishists, but, despite years of hype and marketing, has yet to break into the mainstream. It remains a tiny niche.

Take Nest’s thermostats. They look good. They get rave reviews in technology publications. Users swear they can save hundreds on their power bills with them. Yet Google only sold 1.3 million in 2015.

To put things in perspective, Apple sold 6 million Watches in three months during the same year.

Nest performances disappointing

Some analysts report Google is disappointed with Nest’s performance to date. It looks a long way from recovering the US$3.2 billion it paid for Nest and the US$550 million it paid for Dropcam, which makes home security cameras. The two brands have since been merged.

That doesn’t mean Google’s investment will never pay off. Nest sits alongside Google’s Speaker and Chromecast.

All are part of a “connected home” strategy. The idea is that you can speak to tell Google to turn up the heat and get the devices to display your camera’s security images on your TV via Chromecast. On a good day, it all works.

Smart home still immature

Home automation is still in its infancy. About one in 20 US homes have one or more smart home components. Hardly any have a full suite.

The numbers will be far lower in New Zealand. Apart from anything else, few New Zealand homes have the kind of central heating system that can make full use of a Nest controller.

What’s more the Unisys Security Index shows we’re wary of the Internet of Things. There’s a huge potential for the Internet of Things to make smart home devices even smarter, but for now that’s not happening fast enough.

While companies are quick to embrace the IoT technology that uses sensors, communications, computing and automation to save money or speed processes, doing the same things at home feels like playing with toys.

Your idea of fun?

Make no mistake, home automation vendors are on to this, they often talk about their products being ‘fun’ or use similar language. They also like to use fear to sell. The curious press release from Google about Nest’s New Zealand launch is full of words like ‘worry’, ‘stolen’ and ‘safe’.

Not that there’s anything wrong with home security, but Google lays it on thick.

Nest gets around two of the biggest objections to home automation. First, most smart home products are too expensive to take seriously. Who in their right mind would spend more on an intelligent fridge than a new car?

There are three Nest cameras. With prices between $360 and $550 they are not cheap, you can buy cameras for a tenth of that. Likewise the $220 smoke alarm. You can buy an unconnected one in Mitre 10 for about $10. Yet, these are small investments to get started with home automation.

The second object is that home automation technology is too hard to use or install and the parts don’t tend to work well with each other. Nest gets around this.

Simple, needs to be simpler

When Google wraps the technology in with its Speaker and Chromecast things will be even simpler. Where this leaves households with Amazon or Apple technology is another question.

Perhaps a more pressing question is what are the consequences of huge technology giants like Google owning the home automation market? There will be privacy concerns and the problems associated with technology lock-in, switching from a Google home to, say, an Amazon one would be difficult.

Another issue is where is the business model here? Google didn’t spend the thick end of half a trillion dollars to flog home gadgets. It wants more back from Nest than hardware sales. How will that work for the company and, more to the point, how will that business model work for you?

Also on:

The headline on IDC’s press release is worrying: ANZ named as a top nation in IDC Asia/Pacific’s IoT Readiness Index 2017.

Put aside for a moment the political insensitivity. The disturbing thing here is that IDC is in the business of selling information about technologies and technology companies. It’s a research organisation.

Reports cost a small fortune. Often thousands of dollars.

If IDC can make the mistake of lumping two sovereign states into one, what does that say about the validity of the expensive information it wants to sell? Is everything it sends out as sloppy?

Moreover, how did this get through the internal approvals process? That process should not just take accuracy into account, but also the political sensitivity.

On the surface it is not a terrible mistake. And anyway, many people in the technology industry, particularly those in the USA treat Australia and New Zealand as a single market. But a market is not a nation. Even a single market. Has anyone at IDC looked at Europe lately?

Beneath the surface the error is worse than it looks. Australia and New Zealand are different when it comes to the Internet of Things readiness. We may well both be at roughly the same overall level, but the landscape is distinct.

Also on:

New Zealanders have three mobile phone networks to choose from. New Zealand sensors will soon have four dedicated Internet of Things networks to choose from. That’s a competitive market by any measure.

You can’t move in this country at the moment without someone talking about the Internet of Things.

Two weeks ago Communications Minister Simon Bridges spoke about a report commissioned by the New Zealand Internet of Things Alliance. The report says the IoT could be worth $2 billion to the economy over ten years. That may prove to be a conservative estimate, although it depends on how you define the Internet of Things.

The New Zealand IoT Alliance is part of NZTech. It is an umbrella group set up as the voice of the technology sector.

Accelerate IoT adoption

All the main local IoT players are part of the Alliance. It’s job is to accelerate the adoption of the IoT. That sounds like it’s a good thing. It is a good thing. But it is also about sales.

When tech firms promise something approaching nirvana it is wise to remember Virgil’s Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. Loosely translated means fear the geeks even when they bring gifts. OK, Virgil was talking about the Danaans or Greeks, but the point stands.

Vodafone says it will roll-out an IoT network early next year in anticipation of explosive demand. The company will offer Narrowband-IoT, a low-power wide area network. It uses dedicated, licenced spectrum. Vodafone says its IoT technology is secure and will cover vast geographic areas.

Spark also plans a Narrowband-IoT network. It says the network will open this time next year.

The telcos will join two existing IoT networks already in operation here. Wellington-based KotahiNet and Australia’s Thinxtra.

Premium IoT technology

Vodafone technology director Tony Baird describes his company’s NB-IoT as a premium technology. He says: “It is supported by over 40 of the world’s largest mobile operators plus many more suppliers and innovators that serve the majority of the global IoT market.”

His last point is important. If a business wants to invest in the IoT, it needs to make bets that will last for the long-haul. There’s always a danger of choosing a dead-end IoT technology like Betamax or CDMA. Vodafone’s message is that you’re not going to get stuck with unusable technology if you follow its path. On the other hand, premium also means not cheap.

The Internet of Things is about connecting sensors and other devices to the network. This is something Vodafone has been doing for some time now. The company already has more than 1.4 million devices on its 2G phone network in New Zealand. It will oversee many times that number of devices around the world.

Overseas expertise

Vodafone is a multinational business. It is a natural first choice for multinational players operating in New Zealand. They won’t need to start learning all over again to set up a local IoT network.

Vodafone says the NB-IoT is the same technology it uses elsewhere. The company has already tested NB-IoT in the field in a trial with Nokia, its technology partner for the project.

Spark is also working on a narrowband network that has evolved from cellular phone technology. It is working with Kordia to build the network.

Connected farms

The company is using its Connected Farms project to roll-out pilot capabilities on farms in the Waikato.

Vodafone and Spark have a number of things going for them. They have brand recognition, market power and a considerable installed based to call on. Both have signification infrastructure already in place.

If Vodafone and Spark have a downside, it is that they are often not as nimble as smaller players. They may get around this by partnering with local specialists. The IoT is a natural fit with New Zealand’s Wireless Internet Service Providers.

Big data, big bickies

Spark’s trump card is the link with its Qrious big data and analytics operation. Sensors produce a huge volume of data. Helping customers make sense of that adds value.

However, the big telcos don’t have it all their own way. KotahiNet has already staked out ground with its $1 per sensor per month easy to understand flat fee approach. That may yet be important in this market. When you deal with thousands of devices, the unit cost matters.

Two other things are impressive about KotahiNet. First, although it is small, KotahiNet already has plenty of runs on the board. That means customers to act as brand ambassadors or case studies.

Also, the business takes a bottom-up approach to IoT. The big telcos are much more top-down. You can buy a starter kit in the KotahiNet shop for a few dollars. That way you can tinker with the technology before making a large financial commitment. This approach could prove to be powerful when it comes to building partnerships and reaching engaged business owners.

Vikram Kumar

Vikram Kumar on fog computingIf you’ve only just come to terms with cloud computing, here comes the next thing: fog computing.

“Fog computing is the necessary next stage on from cloud computing,” says Vikram Kumar, the chief executive of KotahiNet. “It is where the edge of networks become intelligent and autonomous.”

Fog computing has the features of cloud computing, such as data, computing, storage and applications. But instead of concentrating resources in a data centre, it moves them closer to where they are used. At times, it can mean putting computing resources in locations well beyond the reach of traditional networks. It turns out this is an ideal way of dealing with the Internet of Things (IoT).

Read the full story by Bill Bennett in the New Zealand Herald.