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Bill Bennett

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Starlink will be a lifeline for left-behind rural broadband users

If you are stuck with a slow, unreliable rural fixed wireless connection, Starlink will change your life.

It will make an even bigger difference if you are off the broadband map.

Starlink has great potential as a fail-over service. Companies that can’t afford to be offline even for a few minutes can use it as a backstop.

For everyone else, Starlink’s main impact will be competitive pressure on your monthly internet bill.

Filling the gaps

By the end of 2022 New Zealand’s ultrafast broadband network will reach 87 percent of homes and businesses.

Rural Broadband Initiative services should reach another 10 percent. There are national fixed wireless options from the big mobile carriers. Not all are good.

Wisps offer localised alternatives. They can be brilliant. You can expect a more personal service to go with it.

The last two percent

That leaves about two percent of the population without any locally-supplied, government supported broadband.

If that’s you, Starlink is the most practical option.

A couple of alternative satellite services are due to join Starlink over the next two years.

You won’t be spoiled for choice. But after years of zero choice, you’ll have options.

Fibre is better

As things stand today, Starlink is not the best service for the 87 percent who can get fibre. Fibre is cheaper, faster and more reliable.

On paper it looks like Starlink won’t be the best option for people who can get fixed wireless broadband on urban frequencies. These are people who live close to a cellular tower. If you can see it from your property, you should be good.

Today’s Starlink service may offer similar speeds, but it is more expensive, needs an upfront hardware investment and coverage can be sporadic.

Beta service

At the moment Starlink offers a beta service. When more satellites are launched its performance should improve. There are suggestions it will come down in price.

If that happens you might need to think again. For now, stick with the devil you know.

Those people with poor fixed wireless broadband connections now have an option.

If that’s you, and you need a better connection and can afford the higher asking price, then $160 a month and almost a grand upfront for the receiver, looks like a good deal.

Performance

You may have seen gushing posts about Starlink performance on places like Geekzone. It can be good.

But that’s not always the case.

Remember, like any broadband delivered by radio waves, you share the spectrum with other users. If a lot of people in your neighbourhood are on Starlink at the same time, you can expect performance to drop.

Likewise, Starlink is a line of sight service, if there are hills, buildings or trees between you and the satellite, you’ll run into problems.

Low earth orbit

Keep in mind that Starlink is a low-earth orbit satellite. That means the nearest satellite will often be low in the sky.

None of this is secret. Starlink is refreshingly open about the restrictions on its service. That hasn’t always been the case with over enthusiastic fixed wireless salespeople.

There’s an app which will tell you what to expect in terms of coverage.

There’s another problem that will be a major worry in parts of rural New Zealand. Starlink’s receiver doesn’t like high wind conditions.

Fixed wireless

When 4G fixed wireless broadband started, I spoke to an excited farmer who was getting 85mbps from his local tower.

It was 300m from his house and he was the only user at the time. He may see similar speeds at times now the tower has filled, but it won’t be consistent.

You can expect to have more than enough broadband to watch streaming video services like Netflix. Buffering papers over the cracks in these services. Services like Spark Sport and Sky Go may see more dropouts if you watch live games.

Latency

The biggest drawback is latency. Reports from overseas say it swings from being fibre-like to dropping out. You’ll be able to do Zoom calls, but you may want to warn the people you talk to that your connection can drop at any moment.

Gamers might not like the variable latency. If split-second pixel shooting is that important to you, it’s time to consider moving to the big smoke.

Reading between the lines of overseas coverage, Starlink’s main reason for being is compensates for poor network coverage in countries and parts of countries without competitive broadband. That and more remote rural users who are off the normal networks.

Competition

For New Zealand it will fill the gaps. Competition could give Vodafone and Spark a kick forcing them to improve poor performing RBI services. Or they may pass. If enough people on a poor rural tower defect to Starlink, performance may improve for those who stay.

Let’s repeat. Today Starlink is a beta service. More satellites are coming. That could change everything.

There’s talk that the price may drop as more people get on board. This is a two edged sword. More people can mean more congestion. Either way, it’s going to be worth watching Starlink.

Rural mobile closing the gap thanks to RCG

New Zealand’s rural mobile users face slower download speeds than people in towns. In almost every case the rural mobile experience is worse.

Although the gap between rural and urban has closed, it could open again as carriers roll out 5G networks.

Opensignal’s May 2021 mobile network experience report puts the improvement down to government-led initiatives.

Both the updates to the Rural Broadband Initiative and the Mobile Black Spot Fund have played a role.

Rural Connectivity Group kudos

Above all, credit must go to the Rural Connectivity Group. This is a joint venture between Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees set up to deliver rural network upgrades.

The three companies had government funding and invested their own money to build additional cell sites in areas needing extra coverage.

To date there have been 200 new RCG towers. Eventually there will be more than 500. If it seems like only yesterday there were 100 RCG towers, that’s because it happened less than a year ago.

RCG carriers share spectrum and resources. The towers are open access, other carriers can use them.

RCG delivering

Opensignal’s analysis shows the programme is already delivering results. There is more to come as further towers are added to the network.

To measure mobile network performance Opensignal collects data from handsets. The business is UK-based and produces similar research in a number of countries.

UK-based Opensignal says the gap between rural and urban mobile experiences is closing.

In its May 2021 report Opensignal says while disparities between rural and urban mobile remain rural mobile is improving.

Time connected to 4G

It reached this conclusion by looking at the proportion of time users spend connected to 4G networks.

In recent months this figure has increased at a faster rate for rural users than those in urban areas. Although rural comes from a far lower base, it is catching up.

Opensignal takes a competitive view of performance. It also zooms in on applications like video and mobile gaming. Yet the interesting angle is how the urban – rural mobile gap is closing.

It ranks the three carriers against each other. If you’re wondering about Skinny, that’s a Spark brand with customers using the Spark network.

2degrees shows the greatest improvement, Vodafone the least.

Customers on the Vodafone network saw the gap between urban and rural time on 4G networks fall 4.8 percent. For Spark users the drop was 5.8 percent. At 2degrees it fell 7 percent.

Closing the gap

Opensignal says before the Covid lockdown 4G availability for rural users was close to 25 percent behind urban levels. Now it sits at around 17 to 18 percent behind.

The report goes on to compare the mobile experience with different types of use. It says only 2degrees urban customers enjoy an excellent video experience. The company’s rural customers do better than Vodafone’s urban customers.

Meanwhile the mobile games experience is underwhelming everywhere. The three carriers deliver a ‘fair’ gaming experience in urban areas. This drops to ‘poor’ outside the towns and cities.

Opensignal scores for rural download and upload speeds are a long way behind urban speeds. Spark is fastest overall. Its urban customers can download at an average of 41.9Mbps. In rural New Zealand, 2degrees’ customers get less than half that speed: 20.2Mbps.

5G can close or open rural mobile gap

The report concludes that if carriers use 5G on lower frequency bands in rural areas, the performance gap with urban mobile would close.

Eventually carriers will be able to use a range of frequencies for 5G.

The distance a mobile signal covers changes depending on the frequency. Lower frequencies travel further, higher frequencies cover a small area. There’s more bandwidth the higher you go up the spectrum.

Alternatively, if they focus on adding high capacity in urban areas, the mobile digital divide will widen.

To date Vodafone has concentrated on building 5G in urban areas. That’s where it sees the greatest demand, not necessarily the greatest need.

Spark started its 5G build in small South Island towns. Now it is building capacity in the main centres.

If the government wants to narrow the rural mobile experience gap, it may need to impose usage conditions on 5G spectrum in future auctions.

How satellite broadband can hurt New Zealand ISPs

New Zealanders will soon have new, affordable satellite broadband services to choose from.

At the time of writing, there’s no clear threat to urban broadband service providers. It could be another story outside the cities and towns.

The further you are from established networks, the better satellite looks. 1

Satellite is not new

Satellite broadband has been available here for years. In the past it has been a last resort for people who can’t get a decent connection any other way.

Established services are expensive and need specialist equipment. They’re not easy to use. Even lining up a dish can be troublesome.

When you get a connection, it is slow by today’s broadband standards and has terrible latency.

Geosynchronous

Earlier satellites use something called a geosynchronous equatorial orbit or GEO. Geosynchronous means they stay in the same position above the earth’s surface.

As the other part of the name suggests, they orbit close to the equator.

For New Zealand users this means your dish need to be able to see the skies to the north. A GEO isn’t much help if you are south of high hills or buildings.

GEO satellites have to orbit at a great height. Which means they are a long way from a dish. Their signals may travel at the speed of light, but lone distances mean they have high latency.

In comparison, GEOs have a huge footprint.

Dig the new breed

The new wave satellites are LEOs. They fly in a low earth orbit. This reduces latency.

LEOs offer much more bandwidth than GEOs. The broadband experience is closer to, say, that offered by fixed wireless.

A satellite company can cover a lot of territory with one or two GEO satellites. LEOs have a smaller footprint.

To make LEOs useful, the companies running them need to have large numbers. You need enough so that customers are always covered as they fly past.

Coming soon

At least three companies plan LEO networks that can deliver broadband in New Zealand.

One, Starlink, has published a New Zealand price list and is taking orders. The others include Oneweb, which aims to start services later this year.

Amazon has Project Kuiper which is well behind its rivals, but brings the clout of a tech giant. And don’t underestimate the connection with Amazon Web Services.

Both the European Union and the State Grid Corporation of China plan LEO networks. These may not offer services here.

It starts with Starlink

The most advanced is Starlink. It has 1300 satellites at the time of writing. The company has permission to increase that to 4400. That is around 50 percent more than the total number of satellites currently in our skies.

Starlink plans to charge NZ$160 a month for an uncapped broadband plan. Customers have to buy the company’s earthbound hardware to use the network. That’s an upfront cost of more than NZ$900.

According to Starlink, customers can expect speeds of between 50Mbps and 150Mbps. Let’s take it as read that most users will be closer to the bottom of that range.

There will be times when there is no satellite coverage. Which ruins activities like streaming TV, especially live sports.

Competitive pricing

Given that uncapped fibre max plans cost around $100 a month, Starlink looks expensive. The proposed charge is high compared with fixed wireless broadband.

If you are a rural user beyond the reach of the mainstream broadband networks, NZ$160 is a bargain. The hardware cost is nothing compared to having fibre connected to a remote property.

While Starlink does not pose an immediate threat to mainstream ISPs, it will be a headache for the innovative Wisps who string local networks up and down remote valleys in rural areas.

The threat

Customers in these hard to connect rural areas will be the first targets for LEOs. One way or another, they will upset the Wisps’ business model.

Small local service providers have a get out. They may be able to set up as resellers of satellite services. They have limited, but concrete, options to add value. Margins will be low, but that’s often the way in the telecommunications sector.

Fixing the fixed wireless lottery

Another group of potential early satellite customers are those people on RBI fixed wireless broadband towers who don’t have good coverage.

Rural fixed wireless broadband is a lottery. If you’re on a non-congested tower and you can see the antennae from your property, then the chances are you get decent speeds.

If you are further away, or your tower is congested, fixed wireless speeds can be lousy. For many of these people, in particular, those who need broadband for work, that NZ$160 a month 50mbps uncapped satellite plan looks like a bargain.

Diluting RBI

It will take a time for those RBI customers to wake up to the charms of satellite broadband, but once word gets out, you can expect an exodus from poor quality fixed wireless connections.

Spark and Vodafone will be the most affected. Losing large numbers of fixed wireless customers can change the economics of operating rural towers.

It also changes the value of the spectrum used to serve these customers. They may be able to put those frequencies to better use elsewhere. It’s not inconceivable that one of the big telcos partners with a satellite company to retain customers if their mobile phone business is valuable.

Moving targets

While the costs and performance stay at NZ$160 a month for 50–150Mbps, satellite won’t make huge inroads in places where there is fibre. Nor is it enticing compared with the better fixed wireless connections.

Yet nothing is fixed. Starlink has said it plans to double speeds over time and to drop rates. And who knows what could happen if there are three competing LEO networks?

A 300Mbps connection for NZ$160 a month starts to look good against the better performing RBI wireless service.

If the price drops to, say, NZ$100 a month, then the satellite companies could eat into Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees fixed wireless profits.

Price war

We know the carriers have room to lower their costs. Look at the annual results for the carriers and you’ll see fixed wireless has reasonable margins.

It’s possible New Zealand carriers could find themselves in a price war with global scale satellite ISPs.

That could, over time, have a knock-on effect that reaches into the fibre broadband sector. Paying $100 a month for an uncapped fibre max connection looks good value against today’s fixed wireless plans. This might not always be the case.

A lot has to happen before satellite broadband has any local impact, let alone affect prices for terrestrial services.

The most likely outcome is that satellite will alter the economics of rural broadband and not change much in our towns. Yet, it will add a further layer of competitive pressure.


  1. Satellite is an excellent fallback option for people using other forms of broadband. ↩︎

New satellite breed could upset rural comms

Starlink satellite dish

This week Starlink, a low earth orbit satellite internet service began taking orders. It is the first of a new wave of satellite broadband services heading this way.

Satellites won’t make much difference for New Zealanders who can connect to fibre. By the end of next year that will be 87 percent of us. The technology is slow, harder to use, has terrible latency and is expensive.

They change everything for the other 13 percent of the population.

To get Starlink customers must buy a satellite dish. A post on the Geekzone website suggests the dish costs around $800. Plan prices are around $160 a month for unlimited data at speeds between 50 and 150Mbps.

Latency the challenge

During the start up stage the service will have a latency of between 20 and 40ms. Starlink says this will improve over time.

While performance is poor compared with fibre, it is on a par with the best RBI fixed wireless connections.

At $160, the monthly price is higher. You need to buy an expensive dish. Which means it will tempt few RBI customers with a decent connection. Fixed Wireless is less bother and latency means applications like Zoom can be a problem.

Yet there is a waiting list for fixed wireless in parts of New Zealand. Carriers may be able to accomodate more customers when they have more bandwidth to play with.

Beat the fixed wireless queue

Starlink is unlikely to start operating until later this year. You may need to wait until 2022 for a connection. By then it will be a viable alternative for people who don’t want to wait for Spark or Vodafone.

There are, in effect, two classes of rural fixed wireless broadband in New Zealand. People with line-of-sight to a tower get frequencies used for urban mobile networks. This offers decent speeds, more than enough for most applications. Up to a point, line-of-sight fixed wireless is reliable.

More distant fixed wireless customers can have experiences ranging from acceptable all the way down to abysmal. This would be in the region of five or six percent of the population.

Another group can’t even get fixed wireless broadband. Over time more carriers will connect remote areas to terrestrial broadband networks. They will upgrade weak spots. This could take years.

Addressing the missing 10 percent

In round numbers, satellite broadband’s addressable New Zealand market is a shade under 10 percent of homes. That will fall as more and better terrestrial options come online.

The lack of data caps will be a drawcard. While the price is high by urban standards, $160 a month isn’t bad when you consider the alternatives.

Satellite promises better than that seen by more remote RBI fixed wireless customers.

No guarantees

Starlink says it will process orders on a first-come, first-served basis. Charges for pre-ordering are refundable. Small print warns customers there are no guarantees they will be able to get service.

According to Starlink, the satellite dish is self-configuring. It needs a clear line of sight to the existing satellites’ orbit. For now that’s restrictive, this will open up as Starlink launches more satellites. A mobile phone app can help prospective customers determine if they are able to use the service.

Starlink is the first LEO satellite network to start taking orders. Others are on the way including an ambitious 4,400 satellite project promised by Amazon.

One overlooked satellite broadband application is as an inexpensive back-up. Fibre is reliable, but not failsafe. Having a satellite ready to go makes a lot of sense for businesses where the internet is critical. These days that’s almost everyone.

2degrees fills network gaps with Vodafone infrastructure sharing agreement

An infrastructure sharing agreement with Vodafone means 2degrees can expand its network reach by around 200 towers.

Most of the towers are in less densely populated areas. These are places where, until now, customers would need to roam on the Vodafone network.

The agreement between the two telcos echoes the network sharing work being done by the Rural Connectivity Group. Vodafone and 2degrees, along with Spark, are partners in the RCG.

Vodafone has installed Multi Operator Radio Access Network (MoRAN) hardware on the towers. They allow 2degrees to use its own spectrum.

Performance gains

2degrees says customers will notice improved download speeds, as well as better video calling and streaming.

Adding these towers means the carrier can fill in the remaining gaps in the company’s coverage which. Before the agreement the network reached about 98.5 percent of the population. Yet it covered considerably less geographic area than Vodafone or Spark.

The carrier says the move will see an end to national roaming and all customers will “receive the full 2degrees experience”.

Martin Sharrock, 2degrees’ chief technology officer, says; “Using our spectrum in these areas for the first time is like adding a new motorway for our customers to use, they move from sharing our partners’ network to a network dedicated just for 2degrees. This is possible without building new cell towers.”

Infrastructure sharing agreement smart move

It’s a smart move by both companies. Vodafone gets to earn a handy extra revenue stream without undermining its competitive position. Although carriers don’t look at the revenue generated per tower, that extra income means the 200 or so more remote sites will do a better job of earning their keep.

Meanwhile, 2degrees gets to extend its reach without the need for capital expenditure.

Capital is going to be tight. The company will need to build a 5G network. That’s expensive, but majority shareholder Trilogy International Partners is struggling.

In the past 2degrees has used vendor financing from Huawei, its network equipment partner, to expand its coverage. With Huawei locked out from building a 5G network in New Zealand that avenue is also closed.