Christchurch skylineSpark says it is on track to begin rolling out a 5G mobile network in 2020.

The company says services will go live later that year.

This confirms the date the company has already said it would begin its next generation network build. It depends on the spectrum becoming available, then an auction or other form of allocation taking place in the next 18 months or so.

The confirmation comes after the company conducted trials earlier this year. Spark says the Wellington outdoor trial was a success with customers getting download speeds of up to 9 Gbps. An indoor trial in Auckland saw speeds as high as 18.2 Gbps.

While some telcos overseas are building new networks from scratch, Spark says it will start by adding 5G services to its existing 4G and 4.5G networks.

Spark says it will extend this when there is enough demand.

With existing cell sites there’s a smooth upgrade path. At least there is if a carrier sticks with the same equipment supplier. 

Spark managing director Simon Moutter says the company is working on mapping expected cell site densities to learn where there is a need for new cell sites.

He says: “We have already begun a build program to increase the number of cell sites in our existing mobile network – which will enable us to meet near-term capacity demand as well as lay the groundwork for network densification required for 5G.”

No extra CapEx

The company says it is expects to fund its network through its existing capital expenditure programme. This does not include buying any extra spectrum needed for 5G.

Spark spends around 11 to 12 percent of its revenue on capital expenditure. Spark’s 5G briefing paper says:

As Spark responds to demand we will be investing just ahead of it. Cost efficiency that will deliver ever-greater output with the same investment inputs is the primary driver of early 5G deployment.

By 2020, we expect our wireless-network specific capex to be between 25-35 percent of Spark’s overall capex envelope. This implies intended annual wireless network investment of approximately $100m to $140m, compared with an average of just over $100m for the past five years.

This excludes spectrum purchases and any material move towards widespread rollout of new cell sites using mmWave band spectrum. During this period, we expect our total capex (excluding spectrum) will remain in line with our desired range of 11 to 12 percent of revenues.

This is something of a surprise.

5G network equipment tends to be less expensive than 4G hardware. But to deliver the next generation network’s full promise, a carrier needs more spectrum and at higher frequencies it will need more small towers.

Many of these towers will be smaller than existing 4G towers – in some cases they can fit on lamp posts or telegraph poles, but even so, Spark’s comment about capital expenditure suggests one of two possibilities.

It won’t happen overnight

The first possibility is that Spark’s network roll out will be incremental and relatively slow. This follows the pattern of the company’s roll-out of 4.5G.

It is two years since Spark first installed a 4.5G tower in the centre of Christchurch. There are more today, but coverage is far from nationwide.

It looks likely the 5G roll out will begin before Spark has upgraded every worthwhile cell site to 4.5G. Presumably many sites will go straight from 4G to 5G.

The second possibility is that Spark isn’t aiming for the same high density network being planned for large urban centres elsewhere in the world. At least not at first.

Neither of these are important in the short-term.

Indeed, today’s mobile phone users can’t tell the difference between using a 4.5G tower and a 4G tower. There’s no pressing need to upgrade the network on their behalf.

And places like Eden Park in a test match aside, New Zealand doesn’t have the density of people you might find in Hong Kong or New York.

Spark may want to push forward on plans to offer 5G-driven fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fibre. It already does this with 4G. This is a strategic business decision. If there’s enough demand for more fixed wireless then the internal business case for increased capital expenditure is easy to make.

5G innovation lab

Spark plans to open a 5G Innovation Lab later this year in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter. This will let companies test their applications on a private 5G network before the full roll-out.

The company says: 

“Providing early access to a pre-commercial 5G network through our global relationships with leading equipment vendors like Huawei, Cisco and Nokia will give our local partners a competitive boost, fast-tracking these businesses’ 5G developments.”

Significantly Spark has not named the network equipment provider it will work with on the programme.

The company used Huawei to build the 4G network and has previously worked on 4.5G and its test site  with the Chinese equipment maker. Huawei has to be in consideration for the contract despite the political problems the company faces getting business in the US and Australia.

Yet Spark deliberately named Nokia and, surprisingly, Cisco. The latter is not known as a technology provider for cellular networks. This could be a way of putting pressure on Huawei in order to get a better deal. 

Spectrum is a potential concern.

In a briefing paper Spark called on the government to make more spectrum available. All the carriers are pushing hard. They have a case.

This is already in motion, but the company wants this done in time for the new network to be running ready for the 2021 America’s Cup in Auckland. Hence the earlier comment about the need to get this wrapped up in the next 18 months or so. 

Spark says it needs large blocks off spectrum in the C-Band, that’s 3400 to 4200 MHz. It says it needs at least 80 MHz blocks and preferably 100 MHz blocks to build networks with 5G performance. It also calls for even larger blocks at higher frequencies.

On Friday Samsung New Zealand will take the wraps off its new Galaxy Note 9 phone. The main event is on Thursday in the US.

By comparison the Auckland affair will be low key.

Almost every time Samsung or Apple holds a major phone launch people say ominous words to the effect that: “there’s a lot riding on this”.

That’s because there often is.

Galaxy S9 disappointment

Samsung’s Galaxy S9 phone, which launched earlier in the year, was beautiful. But it failed to sell in anticipated numbers. So far it has sold 20 percent less than the S8 managed a year earlier.

This means the company needs the Galaxy Note 9 to succeed. In this case success means it has to sell in numbers close to last year’s Galaxy Note 8.

Two flops in a row would be a disaster.

We’ve been here before.

Last year there was a lot riding on the Galaxy Note 8. That’s because one year earlier the Galaxy Note 7 flopped because of its unfortunate habit of exploding. You couldn’t get an aeroplane without someone reminding you of the danger.

Recovery

Coming back from a public relations nightmare of that magnitude was a feat. Phone buyers were forgiving. At the time it was clear that Samsung had used up a lot of good will.

Another exploding phone would destroy the company’s hope of being a high-end player.

Which brings us to the Galaxy Note 9. To sell it has to offer a more compelling value proposition than phone’s from Samsung’s rivals.

This means two things. It needs to offer buyers considerably more phone than the Galaxy Note 8. A better camera isn’t going to cut it.

Storage

The market rumour is that Samsung will offer more storage than in any other phone. It’s not clear that this will be enough to get people to upgrade.

Maybe that’s what the market wants. More likely, it will be what a market segment wants.

Samsung’s threat is not Apple. There’s little traffic between Android and iOS phone users.

The real problem is rival Android phone makers. In New Zealand this means Huawei, Oppo and Nokia. There are other rival brands overseas

Rivals ready to pounce

Each of the companies mentioned has phones that are arguably either the equal of Samsung’s models or close enough that it makes little difference. But their models sell for hundreds of dollars less than Samsung’s.

Which tells us exactly what could give Samsung the 2018 hit phone it so badly needs: drop prices.

The Samsung brand carries enough weight to justify $100 or more than a Huawei. It’s hard to justify spending hundreds just to get a me-too phone with a posher brand name.

Oppo phones are almost as good and half the price. Nokia has better software.

Galaxy Note 9 has to be more than great

The Samsung Galaxy Note 9 has to be great. More important, it has to have a tempting price tag.

There are reports of revolutionary Samsung phones in the pipeline.

One model is foldable. Next year’s tenth anniversary Galaxy S10 is rumoured to have a fingerprint reader built into the display. Apparently some people are excited about that.

The Galaxy Note 9 has to be more than a place holder en route to those models. If it is another flop, the brand will lose its lustre and Huawei’s foldable phone and innovative finger reader will relieve well-heeled Android phones of their savings.

Samsung reported a second quarter operating profit of US$13.4 billion. That’s up 5.7 percent on the same time as a year ago, but behind analyst expectations. Revenue for the quarter dropped 4 percent year-on-year.

The company blamed the missed estimate on weak Galaxy S9 phone demand.

Shipments were 20 percent lower than for the Galaxy S8 during the same period a year earlier.

Unpopular Galaxy S9

The Galaxy S9 went on sale in the first quarter of 2018. It looks set to be the least popular of the Galaxy S models since the S3 in 2012.

While the S9 is arguably the most powerful Android phone on sale, the basic design has changed little since last year’s Galaxy S8. The most noticeable improvement is a camera that takes slow motion video and better low light pictures.

That’s not proved a compelling reason for S8 owners to upgrade. It’s not much of a step up from 2016’s Galaxy S7. And, to many, the S9 looks ordinary compared to Apple’s iPhone X.

Samsung challenges

SamsUng faces two challenges. After years of fast growth, the phone market is flat or even declining. Many consumers have learned there is little reason to upgrade phones every year or two and are hanging on to older models for longer.

Yet the biggest threat to Samsung comes from Chinese phone makers who threaten the Korean company’s market lead. Huawei and Xiaomi, hard to find in New Zealand, are Samsung’s fiercest rivals.

All three companies make similar Android phones. In many cases they offer much the same specifications and features for hundreds of dollars less than Samsung models.

Chinese competition

Chinese companies now also challenge Samsung by making cheaper televisions and displays.

Huawei doesn’t report separate figures for ts phone sales. Yet te company saw a 15 percent rise in revenue for the first half of this year. Last week the company said it is on target to sell 200 million phones this year.

Samsung will launch a new “flagship” phone model next week. This will be it’s most important model during the run up to the end of the year, normally the busiest time for phone sales.

Sluggish demand dents Samsung profit was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

This year’s phones are better than last year’s. They alway are. The best phones are great, yet 2018 has not been a vintage year for mobile innovation.

The phone business is in near-stasis. Three years ago phone makers fixed the basic external design of an upmarket modern mobile phone as a near featureless slab of metal and glass.

Things have changed little since. There’s more glass, less metal and a few minor tweaks. Bezels, that’s the bit around the glass, are on the way out.

If phone insides have changed much, it isn’t always clear to everyday users. While today’s processors are more powerful, they didn’t lack power three years ago. It’s been a long time since a premium phone felt slow.

Some phones have better battery life. Yet most still only last for a day before needing a recharge. Some 2018 phones will recharge faster or charge without a cable. Despite the marketing, it’s not that big a deal.

A camera with a phone attached

Cameras are the most significant change in the last three years. And the only one most phone makers talk about.

Today’s best phones sport cameras with more lenses. They have more megapixels and come loaded with more software. You might get three cameras on the back of a phone. In theory you can take better pictures, some of the time. In practice people still use cameras for the same old same old. We could be more creative.

Phone prices crept up in recent years. This is most noticeable at the top end of the range. In general the phone market is more profitable than it was. Consumers don’t care, but they should. Profits pay for research to make better phones.

A few new or revived brand names made a splash. Other phone brands have dropped out of sight. These days you’d be hard pressed to find an LG, HTC or Sony phone in a New Zealand high street store.

Stasis quo

The clearest indicator the phone market is in near-stasis is that there are no compelling reasons to upgrade a 2017 phone for its 2018 version.

You’d get value upgrading a three-year old model. The advances are noticeable, especially with cameras, but also in responsiveness.

It’s hard to justify spending the thick end of two grand to get slow-motion video. Chances are you’ll never use it again after a first test play.

Looking back

This is a good time for a phone retrospective.

The annual phone season runs from mid-year to mid-year. Phone makers launch their most important new flagships in the run up to Christmas. Fourth quarter sales are always highest. That’s when competition is most intense.

New models from Samsung, Apple and Huawei are already in the pipeline. Oppo has at least one more big launch this year. Nokia also has models coming before the end of 2017. These are not the only phones on sale in New Zealand, but the brands account for almost all sales. I’ve only listed phones here that I’ve tested.

Apple, Android

Android and Apple’s iOS are the only two operating systems of note. The two make up more than 99 percent of phones sold in New Zealand.

They exist in two distinct silos. There’s not a lot of traffic from iOS to Android or the other way around. A most a trickle of users switch each year.

For most people reading this, the best phones of the year are either the Samsung Galaxy S9 models or the Apple iPhone X. The first runs Android, the second iOS. They are two of the most expensive models and are the most feature packed.

Samsung Galaxy S9, S9

Samsung almost hit the perfect formula a year earlier with the Galaxy S8 and S8 . The Galaxy NZ$1400 S9 and NZ$1600 S9 are incremental upgrades to the S8 and S8 . The pair fix the minor shortcomings such as weird fingerprint sensor placement.

You get the best screen and most polished finish of any Android phone with the S9 Galaxy models. Battery life could be better, but there’s nothing to complain about here.

The two Samsung Galaxy phones look almost identical to their older counterparts. There are cosmetic changes and improved cameras, otherwise offer nothing fresh or remarkable.

You could say the same of Apple’s iPhone 8 and 8 Plus compared with the 7 and 7 Plus models. Yet Apple decided to do something more ambitious with the iPhone X.

iPhone X

The iPhone X the most expensive everyday phone on sale in New Zealand. The design takes the featureless slab further than anyone else. It has a beautiful screen, but then so does every other flagship phone. It has an augmented reality camera, but almost no-one buying the phone will use this to its capability.

Apple’s first iPhone was ten years ago. The iPhone X is Apple’s statement of direction for the next ten years with an emphasis on augmented reality.

Nokia

Nokia 8My favourite Android phone of the last twelve months is the Nokia 8. There may still be a few on sale in New Zealand, but although it was only introduced in October 2017. Nokia replaced it with the newer NZ$500 Nokia 6.1 and NZ$700 7 Plus models.

The Nokia 8 won me over because it addresses the two most annoying things about Android. First, Nokia has a plain vanilla Android with no software overlay. Some people like these, but they get in the way and slow phones down. They also make for a fragmented market, although that’s less of a problem today than it was in the past.

Nokia’s other plus point is a promise to deliver the software updates and patches to keep malware at bay.

The NZ$100 Nokia 3310 3G is also worth a mention if you need a cheap way of making voice calls.

Huawei P20 Pro

By hitting the market towards the end of the annual cycle Huawei beat Samsung’s flagship models on both price and feature. The NZ$1300 Huawei P20 Pro is $300 less than the Galaxy S9 and more powerful.

You can’t fault Huawei’s engineering. It feels nicer than the S9 , has better battery life and, depending on your taste, a better camera. Having said that, Huawei’s EMUI software overlay is annoying in places. The main count against Huawei is the company’s poor record on updating its software. That’s a security problem.

Oppo R15 Pro

Oppo R15 ProOppo arrived in New Zealand about 18 months ago and says it is now the number four brand here. The company’s phones have mid-range prices, but premium phone features. Earlier models were rough around the edges. That’s not the case with the Oppo R15 Pro reviewed a couple of days ago.

If Huawei offers an experience that compares with Samsung’s at a NZ$300 discount, Oppo gets almost as close at a 50 percent discount.

Best phones: what to buy

There isn’t a direct correlation between price and phone experience. A phone that costs half the price of a Samsung Galaxy S9 doesn’t have half the features or half the functionality.

As a rule of thumb, paying more does give you more phone, a better screen, smarter camera and so on. Which is great if you want or need those things, if you don’t then keep your money.

All the phones listed here are excellent in their own way. So long as you know the limitations of each, you’re not going to be disappointed with any of them.

Unless you are unhappy with your older phone, and all other things being equal, a good strategy is to upgrade within the same product family. That way you’ll be productive from the moment you turn the phone on. You’ll also know all your existing software is going to work. Or should work. You can never be certain.

Oppo R15 Pro comes in bright red or a dark purple colour

Android phone makers often borrow ideas from Apple. Oppo takes this further than its rivals. Oppo’s need to emulate Apple runs through Its phones like Blackpool through a stick of English seaside rock.

Oppo’s newest iPhone lookalike is the $800 R15 Pro. It doesn’t look much like an Apple on the outside, but fire it up and the resemblance is uncanny. Oppo even copies the notch that features at the top of the iPhone X screen.

The Oppo R15 Pro is not the first Android phone to do this. See my Huawei P20 Pro review. Yet the R15 Pro pays a more comprehensive homage to Apple than any other Android.

Oppo‘s Apple-following strategy seems to work. In the first quarter of 2018 Oppo sold more phones in China than anyone else. At the NZ launch Oppo said it is now the number four phone brand here behind Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

Being number four in New Zealand is not a big deal. Oppo says its market share is around two or three percent. While the R15 Pro is solid enough, it doesn’t look like the breakthrough phone Oppo needs. The company releases a new model roughly every six months, so it could soon have a hit on its hands.

Oppo R15 Pro

At NZ$800, the Oppo R15 Pro is less than half the price of an iPhone X. Despite similar software, that’s not the best phone to compare it with. The R15 Pro is around half the price of the Samsung Galaxy S9 which is a closer match. For 50 percent of the cost you get 95 percent of the functionality.

The R15 Pro has more rough edges that the Galaxy S9. That’s metaphorical. With earlier Oppo phones it was literal too. Older Oppo phones were quite rough in the hands. The R15 Pro is less so.

I tested a model with a polished dark purple aluminium case. There’s a bright red version as well. It’s attractive looking, but there are few 2018 handsets at this price or higher that don’t look good.

Although it doesn’t look much like an iPhone on the outside, it does when you switch the screen on. You’ll see rows of iOS style app icons.

The effect doesn’t last long because Oppo’s ColorOS operating system doesn’t always act like iOS. It has some Apple-like characteristics, but sooner or later you are back to Android.

In use the R15 Pro doesn’t work any better than any other phone running Google’s Android 8.1 Oreo software. In places it is worse.

All Android software overlays are disappointing, Oppo’s is more disappointing than most. In part that’s because there are places where it attempts to force Apple-like behaviour. In part that’s because the software is buggy compared to Samsung or Huawei Android phones.

Most of the top 2018 phones have a longer, thinner body with a 19:9 screen ratio. They also have tiny bezels, which mean the screen covers almost the entire front of the phone. The Oppo R15 Pro is no different.

It also has a Amoled screen, which is popular with 2018 phones. The display is big at 6.3 inches. It doesn’t quite hit 1080p resolution. In practice it can be a good phone for viewing videos, the speakers are louder and clearer than you might expect.

Not so powerful

The processor and graphics chip are not as powerful as those you find on more expensive phones. This is, for me, the main price compromise. If you want to play the latest games or get high video performance, go and spend more on a Huawei or Samsung. Almost every iPhone from the last three years would be more powerful.

Every phone maker emphasises camera features. At the New Zealand launch, the presenter made more of the phone’s beauty mode than the sensors and lenses. They’re not bad, but again, being half the price of a premium phone means compromise.

You get 16 and 20 megapixel lenses on the back. Oppo talks about a Sony sensor which uses a larger pixel size to do a better job in low light conditions.

There is a 20 megapixel front camera for selfies. Oppo’s beauty mode software tidies up skin blemishes. It then adds a little colour to make you look prettier. It also, this is a worry, makes people look whiter. Presumably the politics of this are different in China.

Like every other modern phone, the Oppo R15 Pro comes with software to automate picture-taking. The company says it uses AI. I doubt anything here uses machine learning or other AI techniques.

According to Oppo, the software identifies different scenes. It can detect a shot of the outdoors, a plate of food or a family pet. It only works up to a point. When it does, the camera automates settings. If it gets things wrong, the settings can be way out of whack.

Easy to use

The good news is all this makes the phone and its camera easy to use. Oppo’s photo app interface is a near carbon copy of the iOS app. The bad news is the photo filtering goes too far at times.

For some unexplained reason Oppo uses a microUSB 2.0 connector for its power supply. It’s old-school. Almost every other Android phone has moved on to the USB Type-C connector. The great thing about that now being standard is you can use someone else’s charger if you don’t have your own.

Also old-school, not in a bad way, is the 3.5mm earphone jack. Some people regard it as a must have even if many earphones now use Bluetooth. Moving to Bluetooth is something Oppo has not copied from Apple.

Not tested for this review is the NFC feature for making contactless payments. Earlier Oppo phones did not include NFC. There is a fingerprint reader on the back and the phone uses facial recognition.

Verdict, comparison

At NZ$800 the Oppo R15 Pro is at the top end of the middle price band for 2018 phones. It is the same price as the Oppo R11s which appeared at the start of this year. For $100 less you can buy the Nokia 7 Plus. It has a better operating system and longer battery life.

There’s little remarkable. Nothing stands out here, but then nothing stood out with the last, more expensive, flagship Android phones from Samsung and Huawei. Nokia’s 7 Plus has the advantage of a better Android and holds the promise of better software support.

The R15 Pro gets the job done without breaking the bank. If you want more phone and a fancier camera expect to pay more. If NZ$800 is your budget limit, this is a good choice, but take a closer look at the NZ$700 Nokia 7 Plus first. That would be my choice.