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Spark and Vodafone sell fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fibre. The service is far from rubbish. Yet it isn’t up to the demands New Zealanders will make of it while spending more time at home during the Covid–19 outbreak.

Companies are asking employees to work from home. Schools haven’t yet sent students home, but may. Because of social distancing people stay at home instead of going to the movies, the pub or other activities.

All this means people will be more reliant on broadband connections. For work-from-home employees, broadband is their livelihood. For everyone else it is a useful communications tool. It also delivers entertainment needed to stave off the boredom of stopping at home.

Insufficient data

All those examples need data. A lot of it. That’s one thing fixed wireless broadband can’t do. Most fixed wireless broadband plans come with data caps that limit a customer’s data. Which leaves people with a problem if broadband is the main Source of entertainment during the outbreak.

There are two other issues that suggest fixed wireless broadband is not up to the demands people will make of it.

First, fixed wireless is prone to congestion. A fixed wireless tower shares bandwidth between users. If there’s only one user at a given moment, connection speeds can be good. If everyone is online at once, the performance drops. It can drop below the level needed to sustain a video stream.

Swampy Covid–19

During the Covid–19 pandemic most people will spend the evening at home most of the time. The demand may swamp fixed wireless towers.

Spark slowed fixed wireless broadband sales in the run-up to Rugby World Cup for this reason. It knew customers would not have a good streaming experience.

With everyone at home, the data traffic is set to beat the highest Rugby World Cup levels.

The second part of this is that with congestion, some users may not be able to connect at times. It’s one thing to miss the last 15 minutes of a movie. It’s another thing to have your main channel to the rest of the world shut off during the Covid–19 pandemic.

Which brings me to the third problem. Clogged fixed wireless broadband networks can impact mobile wireless reception and coverage. The mobile network is our vital lifeline. Few people still have copper voice line connections. If busy fixed wireless broadband towers make it hard to make phone calls we are all in trouble. We will need phones more than ever during the outbreak.

What should the telcos do?

First, stop selling fixed wireless broadband where fibre is an option. Get customers onto fibre where possible. Where there’s a mix of fibre and non-fibre premises, leave fixed wireless for people who can’t yet get fibre.

Where fibre is not available, it makes sense to give towers a capacity upgrade. Move to 4.5G or a higher technology. And then do a better job of managing the capacity. Which, means not milking the network too hard.

Fixed wireless has a role to play in the broadband mix. Pretending it competes with fibre diminishes its overall value.

Vodafone’s new Pay Monthly and Business mobile plans mean customers no longer run out of data

Source: Vodafone serves up endless data for data-hungry customers

Vodafone’s new mobile plans are a clever charm offensive.

Instead of letting you get to the end of your monthly data and turning off the tap, Vodafone’s new plans slow the stream to a trickle. In the phone business this is known as throttling.

This, in itself, is hardly new. Spark and 2degrees both have high end plans where they throttle speeds when customers use too much data. The difference is this applies to all monthly account customers.

Vodafone calls this ‘endless data’.

For some people reading this, the second part is even more interesting. The new plans all allow hot spotting at no extra charge. Hot spotting, sometimes called tethering, is when you, in effect, turn your phone into a Wi-Fi router. Then you can hook up a tablet or a laptop to you phone.

Throttling means that when you’ve used all the data in your plan, you can still download. But those downloads take place at a much slower rate. The press release says speeds are up to 100mbps at normal times, but will drop to 1.2mbps.

As the release points out this is more than enough to check mail, messages or maps. It won’t be enough to stream HD video or play demanding games. If you use your phone for work and that work doesn’t involve video conferencing, you’ll probably be sweet.

The new plan is a kinder, gentler way of dealing with people who run over their paid-for data. It should pay off for Vodafone which seems to be have something of a renaissance at the moment with its early 5G launch and other initiatives.

It also gives Vodafone another rod to beat Spark with. As things stand the more generous plans are a reason to switch carrier. That is until Spark sharpens its pencil.

Last week Spark announced its first half results for the six months to December 31. It is a solid report showing strong revenue growth.

Spark looks to be heading on the right track. Yet there is an interesting angle on one of the company’s strategic moves.

Nine paragraphs into the market release there is this quote from CEO Jolie Hodson:

“We made a deliberate decision to limit wireless broadband sales in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup, as a conservative measure to ensure customers had a great viewing experience while we introduced our new streaming service. Our capacity was more than sufficient, so we expect this to be a one-off and connection growth to return to trend in the second half.”

In other words Spark back-pedalled on fixed wireless broadband sales because senior management didn’t want customers to have a disappointing Rugby World Cup streaming experience.

Fixed wireless alternative

Spark pushes fixed wireless broadband to its customers as an alternative to fibre. It’s a strategic move because Spark owns its wireless network. That means the company doesn’t pay a wholesale fee to a fibre company. It keeps all the money and that makes for a higher profit margin.

Investors love that.

Downplaying fixed wireless broadband in the run up to the Rugby World Cup made sense. Although fixed wireless broadband should be able to give customers enough bandwidth to watch high definition streaming video, that’s not always the case in practice.

Unlike fibre, which has consistent and predictable performance, fixed wireless broadband performance varies from place to place. In some cases it also varies at different times of the day.

Fixed wireless broadband bandwidth is shared. So if a lot of people connect at once, speeds can drop. The Rugby World Cup saw data traffic peak across the nation. That put pressure on more marginal fixed wireless broadband connections.

Good at times

Fixed wireless broadband can be good. I’ve heard from happy fixed wireless customers who enjoy decent speeds and uninterrupted connections.

There are others who say their service does not do an adequate job with streaming video.

One common complaint is that wireless broadband speeds are not consistent. In some cases speeds vary in a regular pattern over the course of a day. Others say they get intermittent slow downs.

Conservative on fixed wireless broadband

Spark describes the decision to back-pedal on selling fixed wireless as conservative. That may be the case. But it underlines that the company is not confident about its fixed wireless performance.

There was no conservatism about selling fibre broadband to customers in the run up to the Rugby World Cup.

The message is clear: Spark knows fixed wireless broadband is a lower quality product. It knows customers get a better experience on fibre.

That said, fixed wireless broadband is often an acceptable alternative for customers living in areas that are not served by fibre. It is the main technology for Rural Broadband Initiative customers.

Again, going by user anecdotes, some people who can’t get fibre find fixed wireless performs better than their local copper broadband service. Others do better with a fast copper connection.

SamKnows

This is all anecdotal. Yet there is some evidence in the Spring 2019 Measuring Broadband New Zealand report prepared for Commerce Commission by SamKnows.

Broadband download speeds peak versus 24-7 performance

Customers with a 100 mbps fibre plan saw average download speeds of 99mbps. During peak time the dial barely moved. Samknows reported peak speeds at 98.6 mbps.

With fixed wireless broadband the average speed is 25.8 mbps. At peak times this drops to 22.7 mbps. That’s not a huge drop, but it squares with the anecdotal evidence that some customers see big drops while others see little or no drop.

Fixed wireless broadband latency

The SamKnows data also looks at latency. This is the time it takes for data to do a round trip. If latency is high, online users of applications like video conferencing and gaming can expect stuttering and dropouts. SamKnows says 30 ms is high.

SamKnows found nine in ten fibre connections had latency below 20 ms. In comparison 95 precent of fixed wireless connections had latency of over 30 ms. The average latency is around 50 ms.

Of all the latency tests performed on Fibre connections, 92% were below 20ms. At the other end of the chart, 95% of Fixed Wireless latency results were above 30ms.

Dropouts

That’s past the point where dropouts start. With everyday TV streaming, buffering can shoulder some of that load. Even so, it is a worse customer experience.

SamKnows’ summary says:

“…many fixed wireless connections will experience issues with latency-sensitive applications such as video calls and gaming.”

VDSL2+ can deliver near fibre speeds and in some cases is consistent and reliable. Before fibre came down my road I had a Spark VDSL2+ connection that delivered a consistent speed of more than 70mbps.

In three years it never wavered. You can read about my fixed wireless experience in this post. The speed was never anything like as fast as the VDSL2+ connection.

Fibre most reliable

Of course VDSL2+ is not as good as fibre. In the report summary SamKnows says:

“Households with multiple user should consider fibre, if available, for the most reliable performance.”

Spark knows all of this. The reason it pushes fixed wireless broadband is that the margins are higher. That’s because there is no wholesale charge.

For many Spark customers fixed wireless broadband is the right product. But let’s not pretend it isn’t an inferior product to fibre. Spark is willing to let its investors know that.

Disclaimer: I edit The Download magazine for Chorus as a contractor. It covers the company, the telecommunications industry and fibre broadband. These are my views and not those of Chorus. 

Can you get cancer or other illnesses from cellphones? What about Wi-Fi networks? Are there 5G health risks?

The answer is a definitive no. There are no ifs and buts. Wireless communications pose no health risks.

How can we so certain there is no problem?

The first answer is that wireless networks have been widespread for 30 years now. Over that time many scientists have researched the subject. They have found a heating effect from high power wireless equipment. But that’s not used for communications. We’ll come back to this later.

4G cell tower

Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theorists suggest scientists and governments suppress bad results. They don’t. As you will see if you read on, we can be sure of this.

This brings us to the second reason why we know wireless is safe. There are no queues of patients showing up at hospitals with cellphone cancer. The technology has had 30 years to do its worst and still there are no signs of an epidemic.

It’s not hard to understand why there are conspiracy theories. Governments and industries have lied to people in the past.

Its’s also not hard to understand why radiation seems frightening. There are harmful versions of radiation. That’s why dentists and their assistants wear lead lined overalls to take X-rays.

Ionising and non-ionising

This is because X-Rays are ionising radiation.

In plain English ionising means radiation knocks molecules about. In living cells ionising radiation can trigger cancer.

Wireless signals are non-ionising radiation. Which means it doesn’t knock molecules about. There is no cancer effect.

Both types of radiation are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Everyday wireless communications only uses non-ionising parts of the spectrum.

Non-ionising wireless radiation does generate heat. You can see this everyday with microwave ovens. They cook food. A microwave over could cook you if you climbed inside.

You need a lot of power to heat anything with electromagnetic energy. A lot more energy than you need to send and receive wireless signals. Microwave overs use hundreds of watts. If you stand at the bottom of a cellular tower the energy will be much less than a single watt.

The networks in place today operate at levels that are about one percent of the power needed to warm a human body.

Cooking with wireless

We learnt the hard way about electromagnetic heating. In the 1940s, high power equipment cooked people working on the UK’s radar defence. Since then we’ve learned how to shield radio waves. Your home microwave over includes a shield.

There are people who blame cellular electromagnetic fields for health problems.

One complaint is that electromagnetic radiation causes people to feel tired or confused. You also hear about headaches. Laboratory tests using placebos suggest these problems are not caused by radio waves.

Other causes can explain these symptoms. Hay fever has a similar effect and is often hard to track down. There are other possibilities.

As humans we often look for the most obvious answers for problems we don’t understand. If someone suggests a phone caused your ailment, it may sound plausible. Even if it is not. You might as well blame aliens.

5G is different, not that different

This brings us up to date at the dawn of the 5G era. Some anti–5G campaigners point out the technology is different to earlier cellular technologies. That’s true. 5G uses a wider range of frequencies. When and if cellular companies build denser tower networks, they will bath us more often in this wider range of frequencies.

Even so, the frequencies are still non-ionising radiation.

And although there will be more antennae, we will still be subject to low total levels of radiation. If if you are in range of a dozens of towers, there will not be enoough power for a measurable heating effect. There is no 5G health risk from heating.

Another comforting thought is that 5G uses higher frequency radiation. One of the characteristics of higher frequencies is that they penetrate less distance. They will only get a millimetre or two into your body.

In other words, 5G radiation is not going to kill you. It won’t even make you sick.

The risk is zero. Compare that with the risk of picking up your 5G phone while driving a car. That’s something you do need to worry about.

Can you trust them?

You might accept all this and still worry that governments and the industry are lying about 5G risks.

First, while we’ve never had to deal with the 5G spread of frequencies in the past, the science doesn’t change. It’s still non-ionising.

Second, communications industries are competitive. If a phone maker lied about their product, rivals wouldn’t hesitate to blow the whistle.

Likewise, if a 5G service provider bent the truth, rivals in competing technologies like fibre broadband wouldn’t hold back. This isn’t happening.

5G health rumours

The hardest aspect of this for some readers is that it feels like all radiation is dangerous. It may also feel like we are being lied to. Even with plenty of convincing evidence some people still think 5G feels wrong. Some of this is manipulation. There are people playing with your mind on matters like this.

You might ask yourself why people spread these rumours (paywall). It’s a huge problem and not only for 5G. Similar misinformation stops people from vaccinating children. In part, spreading these stories makes some people feel powerful and important.

There’s another angle, dark forces want to break any trust you might have in authorities. They want to turn you away from fact-based reasoning. This paves the way for their power plays. This aspect is well beyond the scope of this story.

At this point go back to what you can see with your own eyes. There are no busy hospital phone radiation departments. You don’t know anyone phone radiation has harmed or killed. Nor do your doctors or anyone else.

In short, you can stop worrying about 5G radiation. There are plenty of other things you should worry about more than 5G health risks.

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.