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Spark expands uncapped fixed wireless broadband footprint

Last week Spark extended what it calls its ‘uncapped’ fixed wireless broadband footprint. It now reaches another 500,000 potential customers.

The company’s Unplan Metro plan, yes that’s right and yes, it does sound weird, is now available at 1.2 million homes. The expanded fixed wireless broadband footprint includes towns and the rural areas where it is more needed.

Spark says that covers around two-thirds of all homes and more than 10 percent of rural households.

Where fixed wireless scores

Fixed wireless broadband is an alternative to fibre broadband. It’s a great choice if you live in a place where you can’t get fibre.

Performance and reliability is not as good as fibre, but it is better than your practical alternatives.1

If you can get fixed wireless at your address – that is not always a given2 – it installs fast. Spark will courier a modem and you could be online within an hour of it arriving.

It may be worth buying a low-end fixed wireless plan if you have limited broadband needs or are on a tight budget. Spark has a Basic plan for $45 a month with 40GB of data.

That’s more than enough for almost anyone who doesn’t use streaming, video conferencing or online gaming. You’ll be able to make voice calls and handle a limited number of Zoom meetings each month.

Otherwise, for a lot of people fixed wireless represents poor value. In almost every case you’ll be able to buy a faster, more reliable fibre plan with fewer restrictions on data downloads for less money. A number of people were let down by fixed wireless broadband when working from home during lockdowns.

That’s the case even if you buy fibre from Spark, which is among the most expensive options on the market.

What you will pay

Spark’s 5G Wireless Broadband Plan with nominally unlimited data – see below – costs $95. If you’re not on Spark’s 5G networks, and at the time of writing few people are, you can get a 4G fixed wireless plan for $85. Chances are it will be fast enough to meet your broadband needs, but, unlike with fibre, there are no guarantees.

In comparison no-questions-asked 100Mbps unlimited fibre plan from Spark is $90. You can buy similar plans elsewhere for up to $20 less. Flip has a fibre plan that works out at around $60 a month.

An all-you-can-eat 1Gbps fibre plan from Spark costs $110. A mere $15 more than the wireless plan. That’s a faster speed that most people need. Yet it means there will never be any limits on your broadband activity even with a house full of internet fanatics.

Uncapped – that word doesn’t mean what you think it means

While Spark describes Unplan Metro as either ‘uncapped’ or ‘unconstrained’ data, that’s not the full story. In the small print there’s mention of a Fair Use Policy.

This is vague. You have to dig around to get a clear picture of what it could mean. But in simple terms it means Spark can kick you off if it decides you are using too much data.

In other words, it is neither uncapped or unconstrained in the usual sense of those words. The Commerce Commission may yet have something to say about this description.

Spark, Vodafone pushing fixed wireless

Spark, Vodafone, and to a lesser extent 2degrees are both pushing fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fibre.

Spark CEO Jolie Hodson said earlier this year she would like to move between 30 and 40 percent of landline customers to wireless by 2023.

It’s a lucrative business.

Wireless services piggyback off the cellular networks used to connect mobile phones. It requires extra investment to support fixed wireless, but that’s incremental.

The technology bypasses the wholesale fibre networks. More to the point they bypass the fees charged by fibre companies. Spark and Vodafone make a higher margin from wireless broadband than from fibre.

In the past customers have had a mixed experience with wireless. Network upgrades and the switch to 5G will improve that, but the technology is not for everyone.


  1. That may not be the case once the new satellite services get out of beta. ↩︎
  2. Local towers can be full although Spark is upgrading its network fast so you may not need to wait long ↩︎

Flip fibre versus uncapped fixed wireless broadband

Skinny, Vodafone and Flip all chase broadband customers looking for low prices. How do the uncapped fixed wireless broadband plans compare with the lowest cost fibre option?

Skinny now sells an uncapped fixed wireless broadband plan for $60 a month. It’s $10 cheaper if you are a Skinny mobile customer.

Vodafone has a similar product selling for $65 a month. Again, it’s $10 a month cheaper if you have a mobile plan.

These two new uncapped deals give the broadband market a new burst of competition.

At first sight they are roughly in-line with the least expensive fibre broadband plan. That would be Vocus’ Flip brand.

Flip will sell you an unlimited fibre connection for $14 a week. That works out at $728 a year. Skinny’s fixed wireless costs $720 a year.

Similarities

The two have more in common than price. Flip customers living in Chorus fibre areas get a connection running at 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up. In other parts of the country the down speed is 30 Mbps.

On a good day Skinny and Vodafone fixed wireless customers will see similar speeds.

In both cases the speed is more than enough to stream Neon or Netflix. There’s headroom for Zoom video conferences while others are online. Children should be able to do homework while parents work from home.

Differences

You’ll notice the last but one paragraph starts with “On a good day…”. That’s because fixed wireless broadband speeds can change over time. Everyone in an area shares the same wireless spectrum. If a lot of users connect at once, the performance drops.

The most recent Measuring Broadband Report notes the average speed of fixed wireless through the day is 25 Mbps, but the average goes down to 21 Mbps at peak times.

Average is an important word here. There will be people who get above average speeds while others will get below average speeds.

21 Mbps is enough

Even the lower 21 Mbps speed is good enough for streaming video. Yet you may run into problems, fixed wireless broadband is less reliable than fibre. The Measuring Broadband report found no regular outages on fibre. Fixed wireless did not do as well.

While this might spoil your viewing or online gaming, it’s not a big deal. Surveys show urban fixed wireless customers are almost as satisfied with their service as fibre customers.

Latency can be more of a concern. This is the time it takes for a signal to travel to its destination and back. Fibre is low latency. Fixed wireless is, in comparison, high latency. It means online games react slower to your actions. If you work from home it means more lag in video conference calls. Mind you, in video calls this lag is rarely a deal breaker.

The uncapped fixed wireless broadband small print

There is one huge difference between fixed wireless broadband and a low-cost fibre account from a provider like Flip.

When Flip says unlimited plans, there are no ifs, no buts, no qualifications. That’s not the case with fixed wireless.

Both fixed wireless service providers talk about fair use. Vodafone calls its plan Unlimited but that’s not the right word. It’s hard to find the fair use policy on the Vodafone site. This link will help.

The important part says:

“If your usage of our services materially exceeds the range of estimated use patterns, we will consider your usage to be excessive and/or unreasonable. We may contact you to advise you that your usage is in breach of our Fair Use Policy, and request that you stop or alter your usage to come within our Fair Use Policy.”

You couldn’t describe that as clear. Skinny uses different words but it amounts to the same thing. Both tell you unlimited does not mean there are no limits.

Location, location, location

You can buy Flip’s unlimited fibre plan anywhere on the nationwide fibre network. At the moment that’s over 82 percent of the country. In a couple of years it will be close to 90 percent of New Zealand.

Although the mobile data network has a broad reach, unlimited fixed wireless broadband plans is urban areas only. And there’s a limit on how many connections there can be in any given area. Fixed wireless service providers manage performance by limiting the number of connections.

In other words, you may not be able to get fixed wireless at your address.

Flip unlimited fibre costs about the same as today’s uncapped fixed wireless broadband plans. It’s usually faster and always more reliable. No-one is watching to see how much data you use.

The fixed wireless service providers have closed the price-performance gap with fibre ISPs. Wireless may suit your needs better than fibre, but for most people, Flip is a better deal.

Ericsson Mobile Report: The rise of fixed wireless

The June 2021 Ericsson Mobile Report says users are taking up 5G technology at a faster rate than they adopted 4G.

By year end Ericsson forecasts 580 million 5G users worldwide. By 2026 this will rise to 3.5 billion.

It says fixed wireless broadband user numbers will hit 180 million in that year.

This compares with Ericsson’s estimate of 1.2 billion fixed-line broadband connections today. By 2026 that will rise to 1.5 billion.

Fixed wireless everywhere

It says seven out of ten mobile service providers now offer fixed wireless broadband. The number has doubled in three years.

In New Zealand, all three mobile operators sell fixed wireless.

Ericsson prefers the term fixed wireless access or FWA.

It defines FWA as:

“A connection that provides primary broadband access through wireless wide area mobile network enabled customer premises equipment (CPE).

“This includes various form factors of CPEs, such as indoor (desktop and window) and outdoor (rooftop and wall mounted). It does not include portable battery-based Wi-Fi routers or dongles.”

Fibre and fixed wireless, not fibre or

Countries where there is little landline broadband show the fastest growth in fixed wireless connections.

Yet Ericsson says:

The high adoption rate of FWA is also prevalent in countries with a high fibre penetration.

Fixed wireless accounts for a greater share of all mobile network data. Today it is 15 percent of all data on mobile networks. Ericsson says by 2026 that will rise to 20 percent. A total of 64 exabytes.

By 2026 around four fixed wireless connections in ten will be on 5G.

Ericsson Mobile Report says broadband IoT to take over

Ericsson says IoT connections are moving from 2G or 3G networks to 4G and 5G.

It calls the older technologies Massive IoT. The term includes NB-IoT and Cat-M1 IoT.

Ericsson says:

Massive IoT primarily consists of wide-area use cases, connecting large numbers of low-complexity, low-cost devices with long battery life and relatively low throughput.

This includes meters, sensors and tracking devices.

Broadband IT uses higher throughput, lower latency and larger data volumes.

“Typical use cases include cloud-based AR/VR, remote control of machines and vehicles, cloud robotics, advanced cloud gaming and real-time coordination and control of machines and processes.

“Deployment of the first commercial devices supporting time-critical communications is expected during 2022.”

Unlimited rural fixed wireless broadband trial

Vodafone is running an unlimited rural fixed wireless broadband trial.

Farmside is offering the trial. The rural broadband specialist has been a wholly owned Vodafone subsidiary since 2018.

Capacity constraints mean Vodafone has to limit the trial to customers in areas covered by the second stage of the government sponsored RBI programme.

It will run for three months. Customers will pay $80 a month. There is a fair use policy, which means Vodafone may restrict users who abuse the unlimited data offer.

Wholesale operators to get same deal

Wisps (wireless internet service providers) who buy wholesale services from Vodafone can offer unlimited rural fixed wireless broadband deals to their customers.

Farmside trialled unlimited data options last year. These ran from midnight to noon.

Trials aside, rural wireless broadband customers have had to live with data caps until now. This is in contrast with New Zealand’s urban broadband customers. The majority of fibre customers buy unlimited data plans.

Unlimited rural fixed wireless broadband needs capacity

Service providers like Vodafone use data caps to manage demand and reduce congestion on wireless broadband networks. Because users share bandwidth, performance can drop if many attempt to connect at the same time.

Vodafone acting consumer and SME director Ralph Brayham says there is spare capacity on a number of the recently build RBI2 cell sites.

Not everyone will be able to get the unlimited data option. Brayham says Vodafone will contact the households where it is possible. He says: “We’ll then assess whether we can offer unlimited RBI2 data plans longer-term.”

Rural Broadband Initiative part 2

RBI2 is a $150 million program to provide better broadband. When complete it will reach84,000 rural homes and businesses not covered by the first stage of RBI.

The work is being done by The Rural Connectivity Group.

This is a joint venture between Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees.

At the time of writing the RCG has built 250 mobile towers. By the end of 2022 this will be 400 towers.

While Vodafone’s uncapped trial is welcome, the biggest problem facing rural fixed wireless broadband customers is poor performance when there is no line-of-sight to a RBI1 tower.

Innovation studio showcases Spark wireless networks

Spark has opened an innovation studio to let potential customers see how the company’s wireless networks can work for their businesses.

The studio, which is below Spark’s Auckland headquarters, was formally opened this week by digital economy minister Dr David Clark.

Clark put the opening in context. He says the government departments that responded fastest to last year’s Covid pandemic were those who were most technically advanced.

Speaking at the opening, CEO Jolie Hodson says the centre brings all Spark’s wireless networks together in a single place for the first time. Customers can test applications using 4G, 5G, Cat M1, NB IoT and LoRaWAN.

This emphasises the complementary nature of wireless networks. It can often be a case of picking the right network for the application, but there are times where different networks can work together. At the same time it underlines Spark’s ability to provide communications for any application.

Spark previously operated a similar 5G-focused innovation centre in the Wynyard Quarter. One of the lessons from that earlier showcase was that the technologies demonstrated need to cycle regularly. Spark says it doesn’t expect anything in the new studio to stay in place for longer than six months.

More data, less carbon

Hodson says Spark’s wireless technologies have the potential to help companies meet New Zealand’s goal of becoming carbon zero by 2050.

In part that’s because modern wireless technologies can use less electricity to push move bits through the airwaves than earlier technologies.

Environmental themes are everywhere. Spark divided the innovation studio into four zones; utilities management, smart environments, emerging technologies and asset management.

The emerging technology zone, shows a collaboration with car company Toyota. It uses virtual reality to give customers a taste of driving a new vehicle without the need to distribute fleets of demonstration vehicles around the country.

Water quality

Examples elsewhere include a buoy containing sensors that can be used to monitor water quality. A mussel farm on the Firth of Thames uses the buoy. Because it can keep a close watch on water conditions it means mussel farmers can harvest at the best times.

A project involving Auckland Transport and Spark’s Qrious data and analytics division connects sensors on rubbish bins, street lights and benches. The bins can report back when they are full. It means council workers can time bin collection to save fuel and trips while also keeping streets tidier. The system can turn lights on and off as needed, saving power.

Spark has gone for a practical approach to the innovation studio. Hodson says with one or two exceptions everything on show is available for use today. “It’s about closing the gap between marketing and action”.