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Communications Minister Kris Faafoi says the government will offer spare 3.5GHz spectrum to mobile networks and Māori by the middle of next year. He should put some aside for the Wisps or wireless internet service providers.

Carriers need extra spectrum to offer fuller 5G mobile services. A full 5G service needs 80 to 100 MHz of spectrum to delver the faster speeds and other benefits 5G promises.

Vodafone has a 5G network, at present it only allows fast downloads. Among other things, it needs more spectrum for faster uploads.

Spark also runs a 5G network. It’s tiny and only serves a handful of South Island towns. At the moment it is only used for fixed wireless broadband customers. Spark is leasing spectrum from another company. It needs its own.

Next year’s auction is an interim move. The licences auctioned run until the end of 2022. Usually governments sell spectrum licences for 20 years or so. By 2022 the government plans to have a longer term alternative in place.

Wisps

In an ideal world, both the temporary fix and the long-term 5G allocation will leave capacity for New Zealand’s Wisps.

These are wireless internet service providers. That is, smaller companies who fill the gaps not reached by large telecommunications companies. Most Wisps work on lean margins. They service markets that are not viable for large telcos with their cost structures.

Wisps are often owner-operator businesses. You might find the boss climbing a pole somewhere in the bush or driving a quad bike to a remote site. They are an important lifeline for some rural communities.

New Zealand has a couple of dozen Wisps, maybe 30. Most of them depend on the 3.5GHz spectrum to connect farmers and other rural customers. For many remote users this is the only practical way of connecting to the outside world.

The government is working with 17 Wisps to boost coverage in remote areas.

Radio waves in the 3.5GHz spectrum band are, in effect, line-of-sight.

From an engineering point of view it should be possible for Wisps to go on using these frequencies while the big telcos use the same spectrum in busier areas.

Yet that’s not how licences usually work. So we need a mechanism to stop the big guys from using their financial clout to muscle in on the smaller players.

In February Faafoi said there will be spectrum for Wisps to carry on operating. There needs to be. These companies are a vital link in New Zealand’s telecommunications chain. Their customers are the nation’s largest exporters. They could do with some answers now so they can plan.

Hats off the Vodafone for building New Zealand’s first meaningful 5G network.1

It’s a big step for New Zealand telecommunications and an even bigger step for Vodafone.

A year ago it looked like the company would be starved of the resources needed to make a significant 5G splash. That changed when Infratil and Brookfield fund a $3.5 billion split from the UK-based parent company.

100 Vodafone 5G sites open today

Today there are 100 sites. While this sounds good, in practice it means scattered pockets of 5G in a sea of 4G mobile coverage. Vodafone says it will upgrade the 4G sites to 5G-like speeds and increase the number of 5G sites to around 1500 in the next few years.

Performance on Vodafone’s initial network is impressive. This morning social media was full of screen shots showing handsets downloading at speeds of around 500mbps. Actually the screen shots showed download test sites, which amounts to the same thing.

Even so that is not the gigabit speeds that 5G companies have promised. In a media statement, technology director Tony Baird explained why this isn’t happening yet. He says:

“We’re using 3.5GHz spectrum to launch 5G, and our current radio spectrum holdings will mean that Vodafone customers see an uplift of up to 10 times current 4G speeds.

“However to reach the one gigabit speeds that we’re seeing internationally, we’ll need approximately 100MHz of 3.5GHz spectrum so will continue to work with the government on the early allocation and auction processes.”

It’s worth remembering today’s 5G is uncluttered. There’s almost no-one using it. That’s going to help early performance. The technology should cope better than 4G with lots of traffic, but we’re months away from that happening.

New 5G handset needed

You can’t just walk into a 5G zone and get high speed mobile broadband. You need to buy an expensive new handset first. There are two models at the moment. Both are from Samsung and both are Android models. If you can live with Android you’ll be good to go.

If other 5G equipped phones from other brands are on the way to New Zealand, the companies making them are keeping quiet about it. Realistically there won’t be a wide choice, and certainly not suitable iPhones until at least this time next year.

Premium price

By then Vodafone will charge a premium for 5G network access. The company says suitably equipped customers can use the 5G network at no extra cost until the end of June. From then they will need to pay an extra $10 a month for the service.

This echoes what happened in the early days of 4G. Although the premium didn’t last long once competition kicked in. This time Vodafone has at least six months start on its competitors, maybe much longer.

It may have been reasonable to ask 4G users to pay a premium, they got a noticeable performance upgrade. The practical benefits of upgrading to 5G will be less obvious to most phone customers.

Yes, they will see faster speeds. Videos will download faster. On paper you can browse faster.

Yet there are no practical mobile applications for ordinary users  that need extra speed. Not yet. 4G mobile has plenty of bandwidth to watch high resolution video on a handheld device. And when was the last time you hit a bottleneck browsing on 4G?

Gamers

Gamers may find something worth paying a premium for. They won’t see higher resolution, but they should see lower latency from using 5G.

That’s good, but $10 a month just to get a better gaming response seems a bit steep for all but the most hard-core gamers.

Unlike 4G, most of the benefit of 5G goes to Vodafone and its enterprise customers. The technology means many more paying customers can use cellular at the same time, which gives Vodafone an opportunity to sell more. It also gives the company shiny new things to sell, like network slices and internet-of-things services.

In that sense charging mobile users a premium is like asking supermarket shoppers to pay more because a new Pak’n Save is opening down the road.

If Vodafone is going to get non-business customers to upgrade their mobile and pay more, it needs a better reason than fast. Phones already do fast-enough with 4G.


  1. Spark’s handful of South Island fixed wireless sites pales in comparison. ↩︎

Vodafone’s 5G network is about to launch. Soon you’ll see marketing for 5G fixed wireless broadband marketing. Spark will no doubt follow.

Let’s step back for a moment and take a reality check.

There’s a lot to be said for 5G. It’s fast, energy efficient and has low latency. Carriers can pack in many more connections per square kilometre.

Most of the benefits of 5G will go to industrial users and to organisations that can make use of network slicing. That’s the ability to set aside bandwidth for private use. The other main beneficiaries will be the cellular companies who can sell more connections and cut running costs.

Machine to machine 5G

5G is ideal when machines talk to machine. It will make the internet-of-things sing and dance.

Yet it isn’t always the best broadband product for residential users. Many people will be better off sticking with wired connections.

In theory 5G can deliver fibre-like speeds. Overseas users see 300mbps or even a little higher. This is plenty for streaming video and other high bandwidth applications, but not enough if you have a digital household with many people sharing the same connection.

There’s another catch. Wireless connections are nothing like as reliable as fibre. If you need a consistent connection, say you have a monitoring application, you’ll soon run up against limitations. There are also stories of Netflix buffering like crazy in prime time when everyone on a tower goes online.

Line of sight

One other point, 5G is a line-of-sight service. There are nuances, but in general you need to see the cell tower to use it. In some cases overseas a connection that works fine in winter can stop working when there are leaves on the trees if those trees are in the wrong place.

You should consider 5G fixed wireless if:

  • You live near a 5G tower and can’t get fibre. You may be down a right of way or in an apartment where people are bloody-minded about running cable to your place.
  • You are off the fibre map1.
  • You have light broadband needs, don’t need a lot of bandwidth and reliability isn’t essential. Your home will struggle to run multiple streaming video sessions or handle big downloads at the same time.
  • The address isn’t permanent. Students and other short term residents might prefer a connection that can be up in seconds and taken with you when you leave.
  • You live in shared house and a shared broadband account is too hard to organise.

The irony is the New Zealanders who would most benefit from 5G fixed wireless broadband, that’s the people living on low density fringe areas and lifestyle blocks not served by fibre, are unlikely to get it early. They may get 5G later, but don’t hold your breath.


  1. Although, for now, that probably also means you off the 5G fixed wireless map ↩︎

Writing at the NZ Herald, Chris Keall reports on Spark increasing the data cap on fixed wireless plans to 600GB.

Spark only offers 600GB in Auckland where there are usually better broadband options. The company isn’t so generous out in the sticks where there’s no fibre and wireless is the only game in town.

Rural people who need 600GB wireless data can’t buy it.

Keall writes: “Spark has supersized the data cap on its fixed-wireless broadband plan to a stonking 600 gigabytes – removing one of the historic barriers to this fast internet technology, at least for Auckland customers.”

Limited offer

Make that some Auckland customers.

Spark’s press release talks about eligible customers. It certainly isn’t everyone. The deal is not available at my address nor at any of the first five Auckland addresses I typed into Spark’s website.

Later in the story Keall writes: “The telco couldn’t immediately say which areas of Auckland and how many customers were eligible.”

We don’t even know if it is most of the city, half the city or one-tenth of the city. Going by my entirely unscientific survey, it’s unlikely coverage is at the top end of that list.

Keall goes on to write: “The bandwidth is often good enough for high-def video streaming, though results vary depending on your proximity to the nearest cell site, among other factors.”

The key word here is often.

Fast enough?

I’ve heard from readers who can stream high-definition video on Spark’s fixed wireless network. They love it. I’ve also heard from people who can’t stream.

Even Spark was wary of making this kind of promise when it was selling the Spark Sport Rugby World Cup package.

It’s unlikely the Keall household will be customers. He says: “In mine, where two parents stream all their TV, one teen spends a lot of time on PlayStation Online and another sets TikTok records, we usually chew threw between 800GB and 1TB (1000GB).”

When I tried fixed wireless broadband I got a decent 40mbps or so, but at that stage I was the only connection on the local tower. A neighbour gets up to 18mbps, but says the speed drops in the evening.

Apart from the data cap, today’s fixed wireless doesn’t have the bandwidth to cater for this kind of family use. That may change when 5G is available. Yet going on reports from overseas, even 5G will struggle under the Keall-load.

Where available, fixed wireless broadband is the best option for people who are off the fibre map. It makes sense for people who don’t use enough bandwidth or data to justify a fibre line. It is a good idea if you are too far from the curb, or down a difficult to deal with right of way.

Fixed wireless broadband can be cheap.

At $65, Spark’s bottom of the range fixed wireless plan can cost less than even the cheapest fibre plan so long as you stay below 60GB of data a month.

Given that unlimited fibre plans start at around $70 a month, wireless may not be the best value for money.

You don’t need to be psychic to unpick Spark’s timing. Vodafone plans to launch its 5G network before Christmas.

One thing to watch is whether Vodafone will attempt to compete head-on with Spark’s fixed wireless. On paper its 5G fixed wireless will be faster and data will be more abundant. The key question is price.

Vodafone may choose an aggressive price, but that could undermine any messages about the superiority of 5G.

Either way, you can expect to be bombarded with marketing about the relative merits of the different technologies. Spark’s 600GB announcement is the opening salvo.