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A new unlimited mobile plan from 2degrees can be yours for as little as NZ$40 a month if you are on a shared account. If only one person pays the bill it’s NZ$85. This makes it the best bang-for-buck mobile plan in the country, but there are fish-hooks in the small print.

Unlike rival unlimited offers from Spark and Vodafone, the new 2degrees unlimited plan allows hotspots and tethering.

Yet a sensible journalist might suspect something is up when a press release comes with a footnote attached to the word unlimited.

That’s because unlimited has a non-standard meaning in the 2degrees English dialect. While you may think the word means all-you-can-eat data, at 2degrees it stands for 40GB then the data hose becomes a dripping 1mbps tap.

On top of that, the small print warns: “hotspotting speeds may be reduced further during periods of network congestion”.

So, it’s not unlimited in any usually accepted sense.

That said, the new 2degrees unlimited plan is generous. It is also a better deal than you’ll get from the big mobile carriers.

A monthly 40GB data cap, that’s what we’re really talking about here, is more than you’re likely to need if you use your phone for mail, browsing the web and running everyday apps.

It’s also plenty if you hotspot or tether for similar use. Laptops and iPads can often get through more data than phones.

The 40GB cap is not going to get you far if you watch a lot of streaming video. Even if you stick to modest resolution video, you’ll get through your entire month’s allowance in a couple of days. Choose high-definition video and 2degrees will throttle your connection before the sun goes down on day one.

Small print aside, the 2degrees unlimited mobile plan is beyond competitive. Assuming you get decent coverage on the network, it’s a bargain. The deal is especially good for families sharing a single account. That 40GB cap is per person. Which means you can get all the phone and mobile data four family members need for NZ$160.

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.

Emirates OnAir Wi-fi

While one trip is not enough to write a definitive review of Emirates OnAir inflight Wi-fi service, I’m not masochistic enough to put myself through the experience a second time.

So this is an anecdote, not a formal review.

My earlier plan to work at the airport business lounge was foiled by overcrowding. Plan B was to write, fact-check, polish and file my stories from my seat as Emirates flight EK448 made its way from Dubai to Auckland.

The plane has in-flight Wi-fi, so it should have been practical. It’s a 15 hour flight, which, on paper at least, left plenty of time to write and rest.

That’s not how things worked out.

Emirates OnAir options

Emirates offers three in-flight Wi-fi options on Airbus A380 flights. There’s a free 20MB download. 150MB costs US$10, 500MB costs US$16.

The 20MB free option wasn’t even enough to download the email that arrived in the eight hours since I last connected. That’s because some PR companies insist on sending journalists material as PDFs or Word documents with large embedded logos or other images.

I didn’t plan to work all through the flight so I opted for 150MB. As we shall see, this turned out to be a wise choice.

On my flight the Wi-Fi wasn’t turned on until almost an hour after take-off. By then the cabin crew were starting to serve a meal, so I waited until that was over; maybe two hours into the journey.

Simple

Connecting, logging-in and paying was straightforward enough. Two days after landing the payment still doesn’t show up in my bank account so I can’t confirm there were no price surprises. If it does show up I’ll let you know how it went.

The rest of this story is a tale of woe. Here at home I have a 1 gbps fibre connection. When I’m on the move I use 4G mobile which can mean anything between about 20 and 100 mbps. I’m old enough to remember 1 mbps ADSL and even dial-up, which during its last phase could connected at 56 kbps.

Emirates’ OnAir Wi-fi service was slower than dial-up. Much slower. It was so slow that I couldn’t even load many webpages before they timed out. This included Speedtest. Mail was slow. I normally use Apple’s Mail app. I tried to use Gmail, but, again, the page couldn’t load before timing out.

Emirates OnAir dreadful benchmark

The best benchmark I can give you is the time it took to file my first story. I use iA Writer, which produces a text file as output. The story was 5050 characters long. The file is 5k. That is five kilobytes. In other words, bugger all text. It took Emirates OnAir 27 minutes to transfer this file. That’s about three bytes per second.

To put this in perspective. Emirates OnAir sent my story at 33 words per minute. A Morse Code operator might transmit at around 13 words per minute.

It is like all the passengers on the flight are sharing a single dial-up internet connection.

That’s not the whole story. The OnAir service cut out entirely for large sections of the flight. This is to be expected. After all, Emirates publishes a map showing areas where the satellites servicing OnAir don’t operate. However, the flight didn’t pass through these areas.

Not a good look for Emirates

There’s nothing new or original when it comes to whinging about in-flight Wi-fi. The services are usually slow, poor quality and ridiculously overpriced. My point here is that it is so bad, it’s not remotely fit for purpose. Fact checking was near impossible. Sending email questions and getting answers was painfully slow.

In the end it took nine hours to do a job that might normally take me 90 minutes.

One last point. Even though I was using OnAir full tilt for about nine hours of a 15 hour journey, I only used about a third of the 150MB data allowance. This means there’s no point buying the 500MB plan, you simply can’t use it.

Like it says at the start, this is based on a single experience, it’s not a definitive review. Even so, Emirates OnAir is, at best, a marginal proposition.

Spark press release:

Spark announced today that Cambridge and Turangi have become the latest towns capable of getting the fastest mobile data speeds in the country, as 4.5G is switched on in the two Waikato locations.

The launch of 4.5G in Cambridge and Turangi follows other single-tower deployments covering limited areas in the Christchurch CBD, along with the activation of a cluster of five towers in Queenstown, making a total of 10 sites, with more on the horizon.

Source: Spark lights up 4.5G in Cambridge and Turangi

The most remarkable aspect of this story is how quickly Spark is moving to 4.5G.

New Zealand is already up to ten towers. The press release says another ten will be active over the next year.

It’s noticeable that, to data, neither Vodafone or 2degrees have made any public moves or announcements in this direction.

4.5G is preparing for 5G

Of course, the real story here is that Spark is paving the way for a transition to 5G. Industry insiders expect the new standard to appear in its finished form some time early next decade. Spark marked out its turf. It wants to lead on 5G.

One aspect not widely discussed is that many telcos, presumably Spark is one, will make adjustments and upgrades to 4G before moving to 5G. Industry insiders talk of 4.9G.

Further down the press release Spark mentions the new towers will also be used for fixed wireless broadband. It will be interesting to see how it performs in these places given the reports of problems in some other spots.

Spark admits today’s handsets and wireless modems don’t allow users to get all the benefits of 4.5G. Yet, owners of modern phones will get most of the performance boost. You can expect to download data three to five times faster than on today’s cellular networks.

cellular tower

Last week Spark installed new 4.5G technology on five Queenstown cellular towers. They mean the region now has New Zealand’s fastest mobile data network. The Queenstown towers join one-off upgraded Spark towers in Christchurch and Silverdale.

Upgrading Queenstown is Spark’s latest move to squeeze the most from its cellular spectrum. It’s been doing this since buying the last 700 Mhz slice in 2014.

Spark says Queenstown users saw 400Mbps downloads during testing. An earlier test using specialist kit in Christchurch CBD downloaded data at 1.1Gbps. On paper that performance compares with fibre. But wireless users share spectrum, so the speed a user see will drop as others join the network.

Storm in a 4.5G cup

Spark describes the technology in Queenstown as 4.5G mobile. Some rivals disagree with that name. Others point out there’s no agreed 4.5G standard yet.

Quibbling over names misses the point.

Calling the technology 4.5G tells customers it sits on the path from 4G to 5G mobile — that’s a useful shorthand.

The correct technical terms for the technology is LTE-Advanced Pro. While communications experts might understand the term, Joe Public doesn’t. Everyone can relate to 4.5G.

Either way, real 4.5G will be here soon enough. Spark expects 5G to arrive in New Zealand some time around 2020.

Next generation

Spark’s push towards next generation mobile data is more important than the label on the technology. The pilot Queenstown, Christchurch and Silverdale projects deliver state-of-the-art wireless data. Users can’t get all the benefit of this yet because the hardware isn’t available. But those with modern phones will see big speed improvements.

Spark has laid down a marker for the future. It says it will add another 10 similar turbo-charged sites over the next year. This puts it well in front of Vodafone. There’s an sense of aggression behind Spark’s mobile data push. The company wants to be seen as leading the mobile charge.

It’s big picture stuff. Vodafone appears to be broadening its scope, moving into new areas of activity. Today’s deal with Sky illustrates that. Meanwhile Spark is sticking to its telecommunications knitting and doubling down on the $84 million it spent on the last parcel of 700MHz spectrum.

Faster pussycat

Whether you call it 4.5G or LTE-Advanced Pro, Spark’s new towers offer about four times the speed and capacity of 4G. The towers can aggregate spectrum giving users more bandwidth to play with.

Users share wireless spectrum. Towers get congested at peak times. More bandwidth may not always mean downloads at those high speeds . But they should see an improvement over today’s speeds.

For now, Spark’s 4.5G towers serve mobile phone users on the regular cellular network. The company also sells fixed wireless broadband connections. It isn’t selling the hardware needed for fixed broadband customers to use the faster towers yet. That will come in time.