Vodafone’s rural broadband unit Farmside says a wave of new customers joined immediately after June 1. That’s Moving Day in the dairy farming calendar. The day when farmers traditionally move equipment, stock and people to new farms.
Farmside general manager Jason Sharp says the business has now passed 15,000 customers. Most connect via RBI fixed wireless but many Farmside customers have fibre or satellite connections.
Sharp says Farmside saw a 74 percent increase in the amount of data used by RBI customers and a 35 percent increase in satellite data during Covid-19 lockdown levels 3 and 4.
Farmside says it was able to continue connecting remote customers during lockdown and prioritised work for those who needed a physical installation.
Pandemic changed rural broadband
Earlier this year Sharp noted that pandemic had a huge effect on rural broadband.
He says: “As I reflect back on what was an incredibly busy period, it was also a turning point for rural communities forced to go online in ways never experienced before. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to achieve. I also see lots of opportunity for the future of the internet in the country.
“In the past month we’ve seen stock auctions go online, our major agriculture exhibition become the Fieldays Online event and online discussion groups replace face to face gatherings. This comes with a broader reach in terms of markets – but also relies on good internet connectivity so that parts of the country aren’t left behind.”
Rural broadband challenge
That’s the challenge facing rural internet providers like Farmside. Despite continued government investment in infrastructure, the fixed wireless broadband technology used for most rural connections was never intended for the kind of intense use that has become an everyday fact of life.
When RBI was first planned about 12 years ago, the idea of streaming Netflix or interactive games to farms and other remote locations wasn’t in anyone’s sights. And that’s before we get to streaming the Rugby World Cup.
At the time fixed wireless broadband looked more than adequate for most rural business applications. Since then the amount of data used to run a farm has exploded.
Sharp says: “… satellite connections have become even more important for those who aren’t within the 35km range of rural wireless broadband – or because the landscape renders line of sight to a cell tower impossible.”
New satellite options are coming online which should improve matters for the most remote users. And there are potential upgrades for fixed wireless that can improve data speeds and allow for larger data caps. Yet the best way to level the playing field for rural broadband customers would be to extend the reach of fibre networks further into the bush.
IDC vice-president HughUjhazy says 5G is going to be huge for the mobile carriers
He says: “We’ve done a telco capex [capital expenditure] forecast for the Asia-Pacific region excluding China and Japan. The fastest growing single capex item is the build out of 5G radio access networks. It’s going to grow at 93 percent compound annual growth rate [CAGR] over the next five years. That’s in a context of a decline of about 1.6 percent CAGR decline in in their total capex. So, it’s obviously going to be big for operators.”
For Ujhazy, 5G remains mainly an enterprise play, but there is also a consumer play in the mix. He says carriers need 5G technologybecause it simplifies and streamlines their job of provisioning and managing a cellular customer. They also need it so they can keep offering the increase in performance and capacity that we’ve all come to expect.
Ujhazy has changed his view of network slicing in the last year. “I didn’t believe in the private networks that are possible with 5G. Vodafone Global changed my mind. They said they have about 160 different requirements – that’s expressions of customer interest – already on the table.Sothere will be a place for it. I’m not sure how that will make sense over time. But it is coming.”
No overnight change
Another aspect of 5G is that it won’t be an overnight revolution. He says: “It is going to be with us for the next 20 years. There’s no need to run up to the buffet to grab a quick bite, it will be here for a while.
“Everything about the landscape for 5G is a co-existence strategy with 4G. And that 4G network isn’t going anywhere probably for the next two decades. When we look at things like broad widescale coverage over long distances, a lot of that is best left to 4G.”
The big change will come with stand-alone 5G. Once the millimetre spectrum is available, that will be where customers get to see the promised high speeds. He says: “It is only going to be there in pockets where it is needed. You’ll see a blended environment in terms of the Gs for some time.”
This mixed environment goes for all the Gs: 3, 4 and 5G. Ujhazy says each of them does something interesting. “The 3G is used today for M2M [machine to machine], for cellular connected devices that will probably move to narrowband. Some markets are retiring their 3G, but the message here is all about the overall portfolio of connectivity options you now have as a user.
“It’s the same for enterprise customers and consumers. You have everything from fibre to Wi-Fi 6 to 4G and 5G. We’ve got more choices than ever before and building the right strategy for that is the challenge we face.”
It’s a safe bet that no-one will ever get to pay a surcharge for using the company’s new mobile network.
When the 5G network launched, Vodafone said it would charge customers an extra $10 a month to use the service, but would waive the charge for the first six months.
That period is now extended to 18 months. By then, the company’s 5G network will face the same competitive pressure that has pushed down mobile call charges.
We’ve been here before. Vodafone attempted to charge customers more for 4G when that network was first introduced.
At that time there was a noticeable difference in data performance between the 3G and 4G networks.
While there is a huge speed boost for 5G mobile users, there are no everyday applications that make use of this1.
High resolution streaming video works fine on 4G most of the time. Mobile users upgrading to 5G won’t notice a thing. In other words, Vodafone would be asking consumers to pay more for bragging rights only.
It doesn’t help that 5G coverage remains patchy. Yes you can connected at 100s of megabits per second on parts of Lambton Quay, but walk 100 metres and you’re back on 4G. At the same time, only a handful of somewhat dreary phones are capable of using 5G at the moment.
It’s understandable that Vodafone wants to recover the hundreds of millions of dollars that it will have invested in building a 5G network.
5G surcharge is on the nose
Yet asking mobile users for more is on the nose. Apart from those customers see no noticeable performance benefits, one of the main reason carriers want 5G is that it is more efficient to operate. It lowers the cost per customer and the cost per gigabyte of delivered data.
With 5G carriers can support more customers, add new services and, ultimately, make more profit. Yes, it is a good thing, but is hardly a compelling sales pitch to put to consumers and certainly not a reason to get them to dig deeper into their pockets.
The irony here is that Vodafone simultaneously upgraded its 4G network. Customers using that will notice improved performance.
There may be enterprise applications for 5G by then, but those users rarely pay their own phone bills. ↩︎
The first part includes an interview with Matt Hitti, who looks after strategy and architecture for Vodafone. He thinks the impact will be profound.
The key is that 5G will trigger a massive change in the way organisations work with remote sensors. 5G has much greater capacity. This means it can push more data through the air while also pushing it faster. Extra capacity also means many more devices can connect to the network at the same time.
Connecting sensors to wireless networks isn’t new. Connecting many more sensors and sensors capable of much greater throughput is. Hitti says some of those sensors will be high definition video cameras.
I’ve been writing about 5G for five years now. When you get behind the obvious hype and marketing, one thing is clear: 5G is not really about mobile phones and consumers. Its focus is machine to machine connections.
The consumer aspect is largely a smoke screen. You may want 5G on your phone, but you don’t need it.
Business, on the other hand, does need 5G, not just for internet of things applications, but for tasks like remote control of cranes and building reconfigurable factories. Spark demonstrates this with its Americas Cup projects. Hitti talks of 5G applications where computing power is pushed out to the edge of networks so incoming data can be processes and given a response in real time.
This is the true 5G story and frankly it’s a lot more interesting and exciting than any consumer application. Most of the important stuff will happen out of sight in the background. And yes, it will transform the city.
New Zealand voice networks recorded the highest call volumes in history this week. There was a peak on Tuesday. This followed Prime Minister Jacinda Arden’s announcement she was raising the Covid-19 alert level from two to four and the country would begin a four-week lockdown.
All carriers experienced congestion. Callers overloaded government call centres with enquiries. The congestion affected the three mobile networks and Spark’s landline calling network.
A Spark spokesperson says: “Following the prime minister’s Covid-19 announcement today, telecommunications providers experienced call volumes beyond any level of calling ever seen in New Zealand. This is creating significant congestion for voice calling at an industry-wide level.”
The TCF spoke for the industry saying telecommunications companies were working quickly and collaboratively to fix the issues arising from congestion.
Carriers called on phone users to switch to digital communications technologies using the nation’s fibre network to free up voice lines.
Customer services struggling
Customer service teams struggled to cope. In part this is because operators closed their overseas call centres or are running them at a reduced level to protect staff from infection risks. There were also much high call volumes.
Vodafone issued a plea to its customers to use the company’s mobile app, chatbot and website where possible to reduce the load on call centre staff. The company asked customers were to contact the company’s social media team which extended their hour to cope with the extra demand.
The company says: “Due to precautionary measures in New Zealand and internationally, our customer care teams are managing the impacts of Covid-19 while dealing with higher call volumes. We have major call centres in different offices in New Zealand and India, and a small specialist customer care team in the Philippines – and while we’re able to redirect work and calls for some customers between them, we are also planning for future impacts including what we can expect will be further increased restrictions on movement in cities worldwide.”