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There could not be more contrast between Spark and Vodafone’s 5G launches. The two launch events tell a tale about the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on carriers.

Last December Vodafone launched its 5G network. On day one it had 100 5G towers in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.

This week Spark’s 5G network opened for business. In Palmerston North.

That’s right. Spark chose New Zealand’s eight largest city to showcase the latest mobile generation.

Toyota

The company says it is working with Toyota to uncap the value of 5G in Palmerston North.

You might think this would involve something exciting like driverless cars. After all, Spark tested New Zealand’s first autonomous vehicles last year.

Instead, the partnership delivered a dreary virtual test drive app. It’s the kind of video streaming application that 4G mobile handles with aplomb.

Vodafone’s launch had holograms, long-distance veterinary surgeons, remote cranes and 5G controlled factories.

Contrast

There could not be more contrast between the two 5G launches. Vodafone had exciting technology and glitz. Spark has Palmerston North and 4G apps.

Vodafone went hard and early. Spark’s launch is timid. The company says it will offer 5G in four more locations before the end of the year. By then it will be a full 12 months behind Vodafone.

To be fair, Spark had to wait for the government to deliver 5G spectrum before it could move. Vodafone had suitable spectrum in its pocket.

While we are being fair, the world has changed a lot since Vodafone’s launch. Spark’s cautious arrival on the 5G scene could be the right strategy for pandemic times.

Prudent

Like New Zealand’s other telcos, Spark may yet have a wall of bad debt to deal with. Not splashing money on a big 5G roll out and a fancy launch looks prudent today. It’s possible Vodafone’s investors wouldn’t have funded a 5G launch if they knew what was coming.

It is not as if rivers of gold will flow into the coffers after a 5G launch. As Telcowatch shows, Vodafone’s market share didn’t move after it launched its 5G network.

Vodafone may look confident. Yet that confidence doesn’t extend to charging customers more to use its 5G network. Likewise, Spark isn’t going to ask the people of Palmerston North to pay a 5G premium.

Even the boring Toyota demonstration app seems sensible and wise. It’s not as if there are any practical applications for everyday users that depend on 5G to work. Why pretend otherwise? Vodafone’s examples looked exciting, but it will be ages before they are everyday reality here.

And that’s the key. While the above story may read like a criticism of Spark, it is not. Spark has cut its coat according to its Covid-19 era cloth. We need to adjust our expectations for less techno-dazzle and more back to basics.

telcowatch 2020 q2 monthly market share

The latest Telcowatch mobile market share report shows the relative performance of New Zealand’s carriers were close to unchanged during the second quarter. This is the period that covered much of the nation’s Covid-19 lockdown.

It paints a picture of a stable market with, apart from a special case we’ll look at later, little switching between carriers.

One conclusion you can read into the numbers is that Vodafone’s considerable investment building a 5G network ahead of its rivals has not paid off in terms of attracting their business.

Vodafone top brand

Vodafone remained the leader with a 37 percent market share. That’s the same market share as in the first quarter. Vodafone has been the largest single carrier brand for a year now.

Spark retains its second spot with 34 percent. Its share fell a fraction during the quarter.

Yet the story is more complicated than these numbers suggest. Spark’s cut-price Skinny brand was the largest climber during the period. It has a 7 percent share of the market.

Spark top carrier

If you add Spark and Skinny, the two are brands that share resources, the total is 41 percent. That figure has been stable now for months.

Meanwhile 2degrees brings up the rear with 23 percent.

In practice each of the three carriers is stable. The movement is all about Spark customers realising they can get what amounts to the same service for less if they switch to the company’s Skinny brand.

Skinny has seen its market share rise for the last three quarters while Spark’s has fallen.

Telcowatch is put together by Datamine. It says it analyses more than 2.9 million unique devices each month. The company restricts its data collection to active mobile devices and does not count machine to machine activity or non-consumer markets. Nor does it measure overseas-based networks operating here.

Copper phone networks have served New Zealand for over 100 years. They won’t be around much longer, at least in cities and towns.

Spark has started to call time on urban copper. It says it plans to retire PSTN in Devonport and Miramar by Christmas. That move will affect around 1000 customers.

It is the first step in Spark’s plan to move customers from copper on to either fixed wireless connections or fibre. In the companies words, these are “the modern alternatives”.

Plain old telephone service

PSTN is the public switched telephone network. That’s the engineers name for the old copper-based telephone system. At times people in the business call it Pots: plain old telephone service.

The key word in that phrase is old.

Spark says PSTN is now at the end of its life and needs replacing. It is now 17 years since equipment makers stopped making PSTN hardware. Spark says it is getting harder to find people with the skills to maintain the technology.

Old folk reluctant

Older customers continue to love Pots. There’s a reluctance to move from a technology they have known for decades.

It is no long essential.

It is possible to deliver services resembling PSTN voice calling on fixed wireless and fibre connections.

The alternatives do not work in a power outage. You can’t, say, make a 111 call if there’s no power. This worries planners and officials, but there are few homes without mobile phones.

Alarms

There are difficulties with security or medical alarms designed for copper network technology. Again, there are modern alternatives in almost every case.

Nevertheless Spark says it will not move anyone who needs special hardware until it has found a replacement.

Getting rid of urban copper will simplify telecommunications and lower costs. We won’t have to run two networks in parallel. Companies like Spark can streamline support operations and reduce costs.

No longer controversial

A move from copper networks may have been controversial a few years ago. Today he majority of customers in cities and towns now use fibre or fixed wireless instead.

Fibre uptake is now 60 percent or better in urban areas. There are 180,000 homes or business using fixed wireless connections. Meanwhile there are more mobile phones in use than there are people.

There are problems in areas not yet covered by fibre. Removing urban copper will put further pressure on the government and fibre companies to extend the reach of the UFB network to these places.

Fibre and beyond

Fibre is now scheduled to reach 87 percent of New Zealand by 2022. It is realistic to stretch fibre coverage up to around 90 percent or a little beyond.

Where that isn’t possible, mobile coverage and Wireless Internet Service Providers can fill in the gaps.

Compared with fibre or wireless, copper is expensive to maintain. It is more expensive to maintain in the rural areas where it is likely to remain.

As the number of lines falls, the support cost per line will rocket. There will come a point where the remaining copper network is economically unsustainable.

The flip side of this is that reducing those costs should free up money to pay for rural network upgrades.

Spark not hanging around

Spark is moving early. The Commerce Commission has published a code for dealing with 111 calls after copper is switched off. This has to be in force by the end of next year. Once that is done Chorus will be allowed to stop offering copper services where fibre is available.

Chorus continues to own and operate the copper networks. They will remain in the ground for now even in the areas where Spark has withdrawn services.

By running pilot programmes in Devonport and Miramar Spark will be able to better understand how decommissioning PSTN might work. The company expects to spend years moving off the services across the rest of the country.

This story has been updated (24-07-20) to reflect out-of-date numbers and timings.

Tutela’s Consistent Quality percentages

Tutela says Vodafone has New Zealand’s fastest mobile data. It wins with downloads and uploads. The mobile industry research company says 2degrees has the highest consistent quality and the best latency.

When it comes to raw mobile speed Vodafone is well in front of Spark and 2degrees. Its median download speed is 23.9 Mbps. Uploads come in at 9.2 Mbps.

Spark trails with a median download speed of 20 Mbps. That’s not far behind Vodafone, yet it has the slowest upload speed at 7.7 Mbps.

Tutela speed test results June 2020

While 2degrees has the slowest median download speed at 19.5 Mbps, that is only 4.4 Mbps behind the leader. The company is second when it comes to upload speeds with a median of 8.1 Mbps.

Tutela reports on consistent quality

According to Tutela the 2degrees network is good enough for applications like high definition video calls, streaming video and mobile gaming for 85.6 percent of the time.

Tutela calls this measure ‌Excellent Consistent Quality. The mobile carriers are only compared in places where they all have coverage.

Spark follows a fraction behind meeting the standard for 84.9 percent of the time.

Vodafone brings up the rear on that measure, reaching the required level 81.9 percent of the time.

The numbers are so close that it might help to think of the scores as a draw with Vodafone a tick behind.

2degrees wins on latency

2degrees had the best one-way latency result at 24.5 ms. It was followed by Vodafone at 25.9 ms. Spark in third for a median one-way latency of 29.4 ms.

Looking at these numbers it seems there is not much in it. Although Vodafone and 2degrees do better than Spark in almost every measurement, no single carrier is a long way ahead or behind the pack.

The report also shows that if Vodafone’s December 5G launch has made any impact, it is mainly at the margins.

To get these results Tutela took 3.89 billion network quality measurements including 1.36 million speed tests.

Tutela carried out tests for the June 2020 report between March and May of this year. As New Zealand was in lockdown for much of this time the numbers may not reflect everyday mobile performance.

Regulating termination rates introduced ten years ago kick-started mobile market competition in New Zealand. Now it’s time to review the rules. Don’t expect to see much change.

To no-one’s surprise the Commerce Commission’s draft review of mobile termination rates recommends they stay regulated.

A termination rate is the price one phone company charges another when a call from one network is made to a customer on another network. Mobile termination rates affect calls between the Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees networks.

Until a decade ago mobile termination rates were unregulated. Carriers could charge what they liked. And they did. New Zealand termination rates were high.

This stifled competition and meant mobile calls were expensive by international standards. That in turn meant people here didn’t use their phones as much as people overseas.

Calls between networks

Before regulation Telecom NZ, now Spark, and Vodafone, would charge customers less to call others on the same network than the cost of calling another network.

In the jargon of the time they offered have different prices for on-net and off-net calls.

Mobile termination rates mean customers on the least popular network end up, over time, paying more to use their phones.

This acted to stop people choosing 2degrees, in part because potential customers feared friends might call less often.

In 2010 the government stepped in. Termination rates have been regulated since then.

The move triggered a dramatic drop in call prices to the point where New Zealand moved from being an expensive place to use a mobile phone to a relatively cheap place.

Flat playing field

Most of all, the regulation flattened the playing field. This meant the third mobile network, 2degrees, could grow beyond being a niche player.

In turn this further boosted competition and paved the way for cheaper calls more innovative price deals.

Today we have a vibrant, competitive and innovative mobile market.

Mobile termination rate regulation almost didn’t happen. Ten years ago Telecom NZ and Vodafone negotiated a voluntary agreement with government to lower charges. The Commerce Commissioned agreed.

It was all set to go. Then Vodafone began selling the most aggressive on-net plan ever seen in New Zealand. The Commerce Commission reversed its earlier decision.

The case against mobile termination rates

Fast forward to today. The Commerce Commission now says there may be a case for dropping regulation of termination rates for SMS text messages. That’s because of the popularity of alternative over the top services like WhatsApp.

This external pressure has reduced txt prices to the point where many plans offer customers unlimited texting at no extra cost. High charges are unlikely to return.

The Commerce Commission says voice call termination rates should remain regulated because there are few competitive alternatives.

That’s true on one level, but it’s not straightforward because today’s mobile battleground is all about data. With lots of data, customers can make voice calls using free or cheap over the top services.

And anyway, voice calls are not as popular as they were ten years ago.

If, in a world without regulated mobile termination rates, a carrier attempted to charge higher voice call rates, the move to data calls would accelerate. The trend away from voice calls would speed up. So, it’s possible we no longer need to regulate.

On the other hand economist Donal Curtin thinks the regulation needs another look.

The Commerce Commission now wants feedback on its MTAS draft review findings.