It’s no coincidence Sky TV reported a $240 million loss days after Spark won the Premier League Football rights. A thread connects the two news stories.

Spark is New Zealand’s rising media power. Sky is still number one, but fading.

You can’t blame Sky’s problems on Spark’s football win. The traditional pay-TV company hasn’t owned Premier League rights for five years now. Yet the move underscores the shift from old school television technology to streaming media.

Football - Chelsea v versus Liverpool

Football key to sport portfolio

The English Premier League joins Spark’s growing TV portfolio.

The telco, yes Spark is still mainly a telco, also has the local rights to Manchester United TV. On the team’s current form that may not be much to write home about. Even so it’s a sound investment. United is the best know and most followed English club outside of the UK.

Spark says it plans to wrap the two football deals into a new standalone sports media business. Spark already has the rights to next year’s Rugby World Cup.

The company has hinted there is still more to come. Sky TV doesn’t have the clout, or the money, it once had. So Spark has an opportunity to prise other popular sports away from the incumbent. If nothing else, New Zealand Netball and Cricket must be possible candidates. And perhaps various motor sports.

Sky FanPass

This is not great news for Sky. But there are chinks of light among the dark. The pay TV broadcaster cut a deal allowing Spark to resell its FanPass service.

Fanpass is now another small, but nicely done plank in Spark’s sports media portfolio. It also means Sky gets to tap a market that it has previously struggled to reach.

Let’s not forget LightBox. Spark’s streaming TV operation may be a pale imitation of Netflix, but it’s a useful value-add for Spark’s broadband business.

Another useful add-on for Spark is that it offers cut-price Netflix to customers signing for long broadband contracts.

Sticky TV

All-in-all Spark already has enough media properties to keep viewers glued to its broadband services. And that’s a critical part of the company’s TV-over-internet strategy: customers who buy a bundle of services are less likely to decamp to a rival broadband service.

Premier League football isn’t New Zealand’s most popular sporting code by a long shot. However, it has particular value for Spark. First, it tends to be watched by relatively well-heeled fans who are willing to pay a couple of hundred dollars or so for a year’s worth of games.

Second, Premier League fans are well used to watching games using streaming. It was the first major sporting property to be picked up by a digital organisation. That was Coliseum Sports Media which had the rights from 2013 to 2016. Spark works in a partnership with Coliseum before BeIn Sport won the rights.

Overseas moves

In a media statement Spark managing director Simon Moutter say his company developed its plan after looking at overseas sports content media moves.

He says: “We’ve carefully considered the different models and will be looking to replicate the good things other businesses have done and learn from the challenges they’ve had — all the while thinking carefully about how sports media fits in a New Zealand context”.

Spark says it will launch its own sport ‘platform’ early in 2019 and will annouce pricing and package deals closer to the launch.

Latch

Spark Sport head Spark hired Jeff Latch to head the Spark Sport operation. He will oversee buying more content rights and will take charge of the ‘platform’. Latch was previously director of content at TVNZ. In that role he was in charge of buying content, including sport. Spark is partnering with TVNZ for the Rugby World Cup project.

Latch says Spark will work with a specialist sports-streaming company. He says the platform used will be different from the one used by Spark’s Lightbox service.

He also said Spark intends its sports media operation to work as a standalone business and not be used merely as a way to woo broadband or mobile customers. To a degree this is what Spark has done with Lightbox.

Netflix close to two million NZ viewers

Had Sky merged with Vodafone it may have fought off the challenge from Spark, although that’s far from certain. Yet nothing could protect Sky from its other threat: Netflix.

Roy Morgan research says Netflix now has nearly two million viewers in New Zealand. The service saw subscription numbers grow 35 percent in the last year to reach 1.9 million viewers. The research company goes on to report:

“Now over three million New Zealanders have access to some form of Pay or Subscription TV, up 13.9 percent on a year ago. The growth in Pay and Subscription TV is being driven by the likes of Netflix along with a suite of rival streaming services including Lightbox, Sky TV’s Neon and Amazon Prime Video.”

Viewer numbers are growing slower for Sky TV’s Neon service. It was up 1.7 percent in the year to reach a total of 1.6 million viewers. Lightbox is the second most popular video on demand servide with 830,000 users. That’s up 43 percent on last year, growing faster than Netflix. Vodafone TV has 295,000.

cellular tower

Network makers promise next-generation mobile phones will download data faster than fibre.

The original goal for 5G cellular was 10 Gbps downloads. Now engineers say 20 Gbps.

Without getting deep into electromagnetic physics and radio engineering, this was an ambitious goal. Ambitious, but as the evidence so far shows, realistic.

Yet there are challenges.

Carriers can’t push wireless data through the air at 20 Gbps using the existing mobile radio spectrum.

More spectrum please

Which means carriers need to find new spectrum to deliver the promised 5G performance.

Or, to be more accurate, governments need to reorganise spectrum allocations. They get to decide who can use which parts of the spectrum.

Spectrum is an important resource. It isn’t only used by mobile phone companies. So governments must weigh up the needs of mobile phone companies against other spectrum users.

In part it does this is by putting a price on spectrum. Chunks of ratio frequencies are sold to the highest bidder. Usually, but not always, this involves an auction.

New Zealand’s Radio Spectrum Management, part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, is already working on plans to put frequencies aside for 5G cellular.

Meanwhile, the Commerce Commission is working on regulatory aspects of the move to 5G.

Telecommunications Commissioner Dr Stephen Gale says:

“We believe the power to regulate remains an important competition safeguard, especially with 5G networks and potential new entrants on the horizon”.

Money go round

In the past government spectrum auctions work by dividing available frequencies into blocks. Bigger blocks give carriers more bandwidth to play with. In simple terms more bandwidth can mean faster data speeds.

Spectrum auctions can make a lot of money for governments. Past auctions have poured gold into the public sector. The recent UK 5G spectrum raised £1.3 billion, around NZ$2.5 billion.

It may look like a windfall. Governments often treat the money that way. But it is more about moving money from one place to another. When telcos pay a lot for spectrum the cost is passed onto customers.

Risks

If they overpay, they may spend money that would otherwise be used to build towers and extend the network’s reach. Overpaying often means a network roll-out is slower.

Given the value of cellular communications to the wider economy, squeezing out the maximum amount of cash in a spectrum auction can be counterproductive in the long term.

New Zealand’s last spectrum auction took a more sensible approach.

The government realised the economy could be better served in the long term by a good mobile network than by a windfall. So carriers were offered a fixed price well below what it might have made in a competitive auction.

Not everything sold so one remaining block of spectrum was then auctioned off.

In the past different cellular services have run in different frequency bands.

This can still happen. Yet one of the features of 5G is that carriers are able to mash together greater amounts of bandwidth from different bands. Or to use an engineer’s language: they can aggregate spectrum.

While this already happens a little with 4G, Spectrum aggregation is central to 5G. How that works in practice will be interesting. It will be a challenge for phone makers.

Higher frequency

Most people in the telecoms business expect 5G to use higher frequencies than today’s mobile phones. Depending on who you talk to, the options go all the way up to 95GHz.

This brings us to another challenge carriers face. Radio waves have different properties in different bands.

Low frequencies are useful for communicating with submarines or in mines. Shortwave radio is good for broadcasting over long distances. And so on.

Dealing with this is an engineering problem. There are also political challenges. In some cases existing spectrum users may have to give up their rights or move services to different frequencies. It can be disruptive.

Compared with some other countries, New Zealand is well placed to deal with these challenges.

UHF – ultra-high frequency

Almost all of today’s mobile telephone traffic takes place in what is known as the ultra high-frequency band or UHF. This is the spectrum from 300 MHz to 3GHz.

Some of the spectrum that will be used for 5G is in the next band up: super high frequency or SHF. That runs from 3 to 30 GHz.

UHF and SHF frequencies are microwaves. Which means the band is used by microwave ovens. It’s also used by Wi-Fi and other home wireless devices, satellite communications, radar and radio astronomy.

As you move into higher spectrum bands radio signals run into a different set of physical problems. At 5GHz and above signals get absorbed by solid objects.

The signals don’t propagate so well. So antennae cover shorter distances. In other words, you need to build more towers to give carpet coverage.

Bluetooth

Bluetooth devices operate in part of this frequency band.

The devices have low signal power levels compared with cellular phones. They are only designed to work over a short distance.

Even so, you a taste of what to expect from a 5G cell site operating at this frequency by thinking about Bluetooth’s limitations around your house. The signals may pass through wooden walls, masonry can block them. So can metal frames.

When outdoors, microwave signals don’t tend to pass through mountains or hills. In effect, they only work in line-of-sight. A cell site operating at higher microwave frequencies that works for a customer in winter might struggle in summer when there are leaves on the trees.

Rain fade

Go beyond 30GHz and radio signals are affected by water molecules. That means rain — satellite TV users will already know about rain fade. From about 60GHz oxygen molecules get in the way.

Some engineers overseas want to use frequencies as high as 95 GHz for their 5G networks. There’s a military weapon that works at this frequency.

This tells you something about the risks, although the power used for cellular phones would be many times lower than any weapon.

Payoff

To keep things simple, let’s leave it at this: higher frequency radio waves are harder to use. On the other hand, they offer much more bandwidth and that means higher potential data speeds.

As a rough rule of thumb, higher frequencies mean faster data, but over shorter distances. Typically higher frequency sites will be in densely populated areas and will be only a few dozen metres apart.

When cell sites are a few dozen metres apart, you need a lot of them. They don’t need to be big. You could put them on existing telephone or power poles.

In New Zealand

For now, talk of higher frequencies and the problems using them is largely academic. Most of the planned 5G action here in New Zealand is in or around frequency bands already used by mobile phones.

When Spark managing director Simon Moutter outlined his companies plans he called for more spectrum below 1 GHz.

He says it will be needed to provide 5G services in rural areas. This will almost certainly mean the 600 MHz band, which is already in the government’s sights. Signals in this frequency band can travel over long distances.

Moutter also identified the “two most likely spectrum bands”. Spark wants the mid-frequency C-band and high-frequency mmWave band to be ready as soon as possible so it can put its 5G network in place in time for the 2020-21 America’s Cup in Auckland.

This shouldn’t be difficult in principle.

Is there enough for 5G?

There should be enough usable spectrum in the 600 MHz band and the C-band to give New Zealand’s three big mobile carriers all they need to build viable 5G networks.

Yet they are not the only possible bidders for 5G spectrum. Wisps — wireless internet service providers — do a fine job filling in the gaps in regional broadband coverage.

Wisps could also make good use of more spectrum. And the spectrum of most use to them happens to be the spectrum the carriers are keenest to buy.

Small regional service providers lack the financial clout of the mobile carriers, but they can argue the service they offer is as deserving. Maybe more, after all, wisps service New Zealand’s exporters.

Elsewhere, Callplus founder Malcolm Dick’s Blue Reach project is likely to show interest in 5G spectrum. Blue Reach plans what it calls a 5G wholesale service. Presumably, the wisps would be among Blue Reach’s customers.

Economic logic says a competitive auction is a way of ensuring spectrum goes to the bidder who stands to gain the most. This, the argument goes, means the most economically efficient use is made of each block of spectrum.

In practice, some bidders sit on unused spectrum. The last NZ auction made that unlikely as it included a use-it-or-lose-it clause.

Some less well-heeled organisations find it hard to buy the spectrum they need. How these issues will be addressed will become clearer when the auction terms are formally announced.

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.

Silverdale 4.5G cell site

For over a year Spark has pushed fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fixed-line internet.

Spark sells fixed wireless products using its own label and its cut-price Skinny brand.

From a customer point of view the two services are the same.

Skinny is cheaper. The cheapest plan is NZ$40 a month. At NZ$85 Spark’s own-brand fixed wireless product is more expensive. It even costs more than low-end unlimited fibre plans. In contrast, Spark’s Skinny brand has a $68 unlimited fibre plan.

Customers choosing Spark fixed wireless broadband over a fibre plan get inducements including a free streaming TV service but they won’t save money.

You can be forgiven for thinking wireless broadband is a new idea. It isn’t. The technology is over a decade old. However, things have changed since it first appeared.

Today’s 4G mobile technology has matured to the point where a carrier can offer an attractive enough product to compete with fixed-line broadband in some circumstances.

Extra spectrum makes fixed wireless broadband work

Spark picked up extra spectrum in the 2016 700 MHz auction. This gives the company enough capacity to make its fixed wireless practical and attractive to customers.

When Spark started selling fixed wireless services to rural customers, they could see speeds around 80 Mbps. That is comparable with fibre. Indeed, it is faster than the basic UFB fibre products on offer.

Few of today’s customers will see speeds like those enjoyed by the first to climb on board Spark’s RBI service. While wireless has many admirable qualities — more about them later — it has a big weakness. Wireless spectrum is shared by all the users.

In practice this means wireless networks can get congested. As more customers in an area served by an antennae sign for fixed wireless services, the average speed per user drops. This can happen at any moment, but is more noticeable at busy times.

This speed drop can, and often is, managed by network operators like Spark.

Dealing with congestion

One way they can get around congestion is to limit the number of customers connected to any particular cell site.

Spark and Skinny are already not accepting new fixed wireless connections in some busy areas. Even so, congestion woes always lurk in the background.

Another way carriers manage congestion is by limiting the amount of data each user can download. Fixed wireless broadband plans usually come with data caps. That is, the amount of data you can use is rationed. At the time of writing Skinny offers 40Gb and 100GB plans.

Data caps are not a problem for many users. 40GB is a lot of data if you just do mail, surf the web and watch a few cat videos.

It is not enough data to watch a lot of high quality streaming television.

Depending on picture quality you might go through a gigabyte in an hour watching Netflix. If you have a handful of family members each watching their own streaming TV and using other online services you will bust your cap.

With fibre you can use all the services you like without keeping one eye on the meter. Many regard removing that worry as well worth paying for.

Next wireless broadband generation

Over time wireless speeds and capacity will improve as carriers like Spark invest in new wireless network technologies. Spark already has many sites described as 4.5G. It adds more every month.

This mobile technology generation can be improved a few more times. We can, in theory, go all the way to 4.9G, although carriers don’t use that term when talking to the public.

In two to three years from now the next generation of mobile technology, 5G, will arrive in New Zealand in earnest. You can expect speeds to be faster again and individual cell sites should be able to handle more data.

The move from 4G to 5G is neither cheap or straightforward. Expect disruption.

Spark pushes fixed wireless broadband harder than the other two mobile network companies. In part that’s because it wants to get the most from its investment in spectrum.

There’s another reason. Every service provider, including Spark, has to pay a fibre company around $40 each month for a wholesale fibre connection. Most fibre subscriptions sell for between around $70 and $100 a month. The wholesale cost doesn’t leave much room for margin.

When Spark sells a fixed wireless subscription, it gets to keep the entire $85. There are costs, but the gross margin is far better.

Spark told shareholders its margins have improved since it moved around 100,000 customers onto fixed wireless.

At the same time, Spark gets to retain control. It manages fixed wireless connections all the way from a customer’s desk to the big internet hubs. Having this control, known in the industry as vertical integration, means it stays in control. Phone companies like vertical integration as it helps them maintain margins.

More customers, more towers

There’s a limit on the number of fixed wireless broadband customers Spark can support with today’s technology and the existing tower network. That will change over time, but it’s unlikely Spark could add 100,000 wireless customers in the next 12 months without building new towers. Estimates vary on where it can go at this stage.

If Spark pushes too hard its mobile phone customers will notice a degraded service. Still there is some room for growth on the network.

Meanwhile Spark has accelerated its network upgrade plans. It is confident the investment in 4.5G and later upgrades will pay dividends. One challenge will be meeting customer demands for higher data caps as they consumer ever more services.

Spark sees wireless technology, both fixed and mobile, as the way of the future. It’s arguably the right strategy for a large telco with a mobile network, deep pockets and substantial spectrum holdings. But wireless isn’t the only path to the future.

For now, the wireless first strategy is working for Spark. Its shareholders like the higher margins. They may be less delighted with the strategy when they see the cost of rolling out a 5G network and buying more spectrum.

Mobile phone handsetA Commerce Commission investigation into mobile market competition is underway. The carriers think they’ve seen enough regulation, with some justification. And yet there are areas where New Zealand’s mobile market does not work as well as it might.

Spark managing director Simon Moutter has a point when he says New Zealand’s mobile market is competitive.

On the most obvious level, the mobile market works well. Prices for monthly accounts, calls and texts have fallen. Consumers pay less and get more.

New Zealand is no longer an expensive place to own a mobile phone. Cellular voice and text prices are in line with those in comparative overseas markets.

2degrees not lobbying for regulation

It speaks volumes that 2degrees is not asking for further market structure changes. The third carrier is profitable and continues to put price pressure on Spark and Vodafone.

2degrees CEO Stewart Sherriff says his company invented competition in New Zealand. His company has certainly made the mobile phone sector price competitive in a way that it wasn’t before.

Prices from the larger carriers didn’t start to fall in earnest until 2degrees got market traction. Sherriff’s company is often the first to move on price. 2degrees is innovative and aggressive when it comes to pricing bundles of mobile services.

In Moutter’s eyes, the tough price competition at this level is enough to prove the market works. Yet we could do better.

Where the market doesn’t work

There is one clear way New Zealand’s mobile market competition isn’t functioning as well as it might. Customer service is, at best, indifferent. Often it is appalling.

If the market was truly competitive, carriers would not be able to get away with leaving customers on hold for hours or failing to solve trivial technical problems.

That’s not something the Commerce Commission can address in a direct way. Complacency about customer service is a clear sign a market could be more competitive. We replaced a monopoly with a duopoly and then an oligopoly. From a consumer point of view: worst, worse and not good.

Areas the Commerce Commission should address

There are three areas the Commerce Commission needs to address in its mobile market review. All three have the potential to improve competition.

  • First, New Zealanders still pay too much for mobile data.
  • Second, there are warning signs of collusion between carriers that should worry the regulator.
  • Third and top of the list is the lack of diversity in mobile phone service retailers.

A lack of retailer diversity is the issue that triggered the mobile market review. Last year the then Communications Minister Simon Bridges wrote a letter about it to the Telecommunications Commissioner Stephen Gale.

Bridges writes:

“I note that submitters raised concerns about the effectiveness of regulation at the wholesale level, particularly with regard to the provision of Mobile Virtual Network Operator (MVNO) services. In other countries, these services are an important part of the mobile ecosystem, and the widespread availability of such services has led to better outcomes for consumers.”

Where are the MVNOs?

The lack of MVNOs in New Zealand is beyond debate. In many markets, these alternative carriers account for a large slice of the total market. Here MVNOs barely register.

It is theoretically possible there are no MVNOs in New Zealand because the market competition is already so perfect and the incumbents look after customer needs so well that there is no room for them.

That argument doesn’t stand up for a moment.

When is an MVNO not an MVNO?

New Zealand’s biggest MVNO isn’t really an MVNO at all. Spark’s Skinny business exists to give the nation’s largest telco a budget brand without cannibalising its core market. Skinny is not a true MVNO because its parent company owns the network.

Skinny is Spark lite. Today Skinny customers get almost the same product as Spark customers but without the value-adds like Wi-Fi hotspots and Spotify. Otherwise, the plans are a few dollars less each month than equivalent Spark plans.

In effect, Skinny is another Spark mobile product line.

The Warehouse

New Zealand’s next biggest MVNO is the 2degrees-Warehouse tie-up. It is price competitive but hasn’t caused any waves in the market. The number of customers would be a rounding error on the numbers for the three big players.

The Warehouse isn’t pushing hard with its mobile option. If you walk into a store you’ll have to hunt to see where you can buy it and sales staff don’t seem motivated to emphasise it.

Vocus is New Zealand’s fourth largest telco. Unlike the three bigger telecom companies it doesn’t own a mobile network.

There are some Vocus MVNO customers, but not many. You could probably fit them all in a room. Vocus doesn’t make much money, if any from them and, like The Warehouse, it isn’t marketed.

Full telco service

In most other western countries a business like Vocus would be able to partner with a carrier and offer its customers a full telecommunications service including mobile. It would be able to bundle services and offer keen prices.

That’s not the case in New Zealand. Likewise, you can imagine other smaller telcos and even companies that dabble in telco like, say, TrustPower, would love to offer mobile as an add-on to power and broadband.

MVNOs perform two vital market functions. First, they often serve more specialist customer needs not catered for by the bigger players.

MVNOs are about choice

Second, they act as a pressure valve for the market. Many disgruntled customers leave one carrier only to find their new choice is just as annoying. The MVNOs give consumers a new set of choices.

Until MVNOs make up about ten percent of the market, preferably more, New Zealand does not have true mobile competition.

The Commerce Commission needs to look at the barriers to entry for MVNOs. If these are structural, then there is a need for new rules.

Skimpy data plans

The second sign that competition doesn’t work well in New Zealand’s mobile market is the skimpy mobile data plans on offer. In recent months carriers have begun selling what they call unlimited data, but the small print makes it clear they are anything but unlimited.

We pay a lot for mobile data. This is especially true when you look at data-only plans. We pay a lot more than, say, Australia.

On the other side of the Tasman, you can pay A$65 a month for 50GB of mobile data. In the UK £25 buys 100GB of mobile data. That’s around NZ$50.

At the time of writing the best deal in New Zealand is 2degree’s 25GB for NZ$70. That’s roughly twice the price Australians pay and, depending on exchange rates and taxes, around five times the UK price.

Economy of scale

While you can argue that Australia and the UK have economies of scale, it’s hard to imagine scale means the cost of supply in New Zealand is twice that in Australia or five times that in the UK.

It is significant that the Australia data deal quoted above is from Amaysim, a MVNO. These smaller MVNO players have put huge pressure on the prices charged by the network owners for data.

There’s another way you can look at New Zealand’s mean mobile data caps. The competitive pressure in other countries means carriers dedicate their spectrum to satisfying the needs of mobile customers. If they don’t, someone else will.

Fixed wireless broadband

Spark mobile customers share the company’s cellular bandwidth with 100,000 fixed wireless broadband customers. If the mobile market was competitive, Spark could not afford to risk degrading the mobile data experience.

How Spark manages its resources is the company’s own affair. It is certainly possible to run fixed and mobile broadband on the same networks without disappointing either group of users — that happens in lots of countries. It’s possible there is enough spectrum to satisfy both groups.

Spark may have a good explanation why 100,000 fixed wireless customers downloading gigabytes each month have nothing to do with mobile market competition. But it’s something the Commerce Commission investigation needs to take into account.

Is there a cartel?

A third area the Commerce Commission needs to consider is something from left field. The three carriers have banded together to build a rural mobile network with shared infrastructure.

The Rural Connectivity Group is an intelligent and innovative solution to what looks like a tricky problem: delivering broadband to small remote communities and filling in the mobile blackspot on country roads.

While it makes sense for rivals to co-operate on a project of this nature, it isn’t without risk. In his book The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith wrote:

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

Smith was no tin-foil hat conspiracy theorist, he is recognised as the father of modern capitalism. His name is forever tied to the ideas of free markets.

Rural Connectivity model

The danger with the RCG is that it could become the model for the next generation of mobile networks throughout New Zealand. There have already been whispers of the carriers considering acting together to build a 5G network.

When Chorus recently floated the idea of creating a UFB-style open access 5G mobile network the carriers were quick to shoot it down. A line hidden in a media statement from Vodafone could be interpreted as suggesting the carriers are thinking of building a shared 5G network:

There is no question that industry-wide collaboration makes sense in some instances, and the industry has already demonstrated working models for this.

You could see this as getting the regulator and others used to the idea of industry collaboration when it comes to 5G.

5G networks

Moutter takes the argument further. He starts by saying Spark can build a 5G network on its own:

No industry amalgamation was required for the transition from 3G to 4G, and none is required from 4G to 5G. Based on our current analysis, we think the investment for 5G will be manageable, as we will be able to leverage our existing 4G and 4.5G physical infrastructure.

Which sounds reasonable. He then goes on to say:

That’s not to rule out sensible infrastructure sharing where that can speed up deployment or address visual pollution issues that might come from the deployment of more network sites – we are supportive of those models. But to jump straight to a conclusion that we need a monopoly network would be crazy.

Sensible

Which could be another subtle softening up of the idea of a shared infrastructure. When you run a large partly vertically integrated business “sensible” can take on a lot of meanings.

As 5G networks are understood at the moment, they will need many more towers than today’s networks so the deployment issues and visual pollution he mentions are a given.

None of this is to say the carriers are planning to build a shared 5G network, nor is it to say the network structure will be inherently anticompetitive. It is something for a market regulator to consider and watch.

Competition or cartel?

It’s not the Commerce Commission’s job to second guess an as-yet-unsettled technology. Nor can it speculate about plans that may only be written on the back of paper napkins.

Yet it strains credulity to think the three carriers put their heads together to plan the RCG without at least mentioning how such a collaboration might work in the future.

At this point the Wikipedia definition of a cartel is useful:

A cartel is a group of apparently independent producers whose goal is to increase their collective profits by means of price fixing, limiting supply, or other restrictive practices. Cartels typically control selling prices, but some are organised to control the prices of purchased inputs.

No-one would suggest any of this is happening at present, but allowing the three carriers to build a shared network would be a step on the path to a potential cartel-like arrangement.

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