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Bill Bennett

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Tag: Vodafone

New Zealand’s largest mobile carrier. Acquired TelstraClear in 2012 making a full service telecommunications company and the second largest ISP.

Spark’s timid Covid-era 5G mobile launch

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 shows steady mobile market through lockdown

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.

Vodafone, 2degrees shine in mobile experience report

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.

2degrees fills network gaps with Vodafone deal

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.”

2degrees 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.

Commerce Commission revisits mobile regulation

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.