D-Link’s NZ$600 Covr attempts to help home users fill Wi-Fi blackspots. I say attempts because the results are hit and miss. Most of the time it misses.

The kit first arrived at Castle Bennett in May. I tried and failed to make it work at the time. This week I tried it again and got it to work. Yet, as we shall see, it disappointed.

In the last few days I’ve been busy revisiting and retesting all the routers and related kit that I have to hand.

Chorus installed my fibre this week. I’ve a gigabit line. So for the first time Wi-Fi is my speed bottle neck. There’s a slew of products which, on paper, promise Wi-Fi speeds greater than 1 Gbps. None of them come close.

More about that in another post. Let’s get back to Covr.

During testing it worked as expected for a fleeting moment. The system was unable to create a stable network for more than 20 minutes at a time. When it did manage to work, the performance was erratic and poor.

Covr is an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days of home networking.

If you were there you’ll know what I mean. In those days a new piece of software could make a network grind to a halt. At times it felt like a sneeze could put a home network out of action for hours.

D-Link Cover home wireless mesh network nodes

Mesh network

D-Link’s Covr is an example of something known as a mesh network. This is a way of spreading Wi-Fi signals over a larger area than a single wireless router might cover. In effect you have three connected wireless routers, but to the user they look and act like a single router.

Mesh networks are common in offices, campuses and large buildings.

You might want a mesh network if you have a large home or the house is laid out in a way that means the Wi-Fi isn’t strong enough in places where you want it. Say you’ve had fibre installed next to your TV at one end of the house and a kid’s bedroom at the other end gets a poor Wi-Fi signal.

There are other consumer mesh network products on the market. Most seem to suffer from similar flaws. This suggests to me this is because the technology isn’t quite ready for everyday users.

If Apple hadn’t lost interest in home networking, mesh technology would be ripe for that company’s attention. Apple has a knack for packaging unpolished technologies in a consumer friendly ready-to-use format.

Not so simple

In the Covr box are three wireless access points. One is the main unit. D-link calls them nodes.

Each node has a power supply. And that means it needs a power socket. The power cables are about a metre long, so you’re restricted to putting nodes near power outlets. There is a rival home network technology that uses power outlets. You might want to consider that instead of Covr.

The box also holds a single Ethernet cable and, for the aesthetically minded, alternative colour fascia plates for the access points. Presumably this is to make sure your nodes don’t clash with the curtains. I find this silly because even if you change the cover the nodes still stand out.

There’s also a sheet of paper optimistically labelled Simple Setup Guide. You can work through this, or you can download an iOS or Android app that walks you through the process.

As we shall see, the app didn’t work for me. Which meant I had to return to the paper instructions.

Covr app

The app tells you to connect the main node to a power supply and to turn off your modem. You then connect the access point to the modem with the Ethernet cable and switch everything on. Once everything is running, you are then asked to log into the Covr wireless router from your phone.

In my case this simply did not happen. The iPhone could find the router, but it couldn’t log on. Nor could my small iPad Pro or my other iPad Pro. I then tried to do this all over again with an Android phone. Once more, there was nothing. Four attempts with four devices didn’t work. Not a sausage.

When I first tried Covr I gave up in frustration at this point. This time around I attempted to manually log-in to the router from a desktop Mac. It worked. I managed to get into the web-based control panel.

Part of the panel shows a map of the network. If one of the connections, and this includes the connection from the main node to the internet, is broken it shows up in red. At this point things appeared to be running fine. The next task is to configure the secondary nodes.

Secondary nodes

In some ways configuring secondary nodes is clever. As already mentioned, you have to find an extra power socket to do this. Given the master node needs to connect to a modem which needs to connect to the fibre ONT and all three need a power supply, you need four power points to configure Covr. I had to use a distribution board. There are other cables here, so it is a rats’ nest.

Once you have power, you then connect the secondary node to the main one using the Ethernet cable. After a few minutes the light changes colour. When it turns white, you’re configured.

At this point you can unplug, move the secondary node to a Wi-Fi blackspot and connect it by wireless back to the mothership. The light flashes orange then glows white when you can connect. You may need to move it about for a while until it turns white. Let’s hope all your Wi-Fi blackspots are in easy reach of a power socket.

A working wireless mesh?

At this point I had a working wireless mesh. Well almost. None of the mobile devices would connect. But I did have strong signals around the house and all the PCs in the house were able to connect.

After about 20 minutes of a working mesh network, the main Covr node lost its internet connection. I should point out that nothing had moved, there were no external events, no visible triggers.

Next the secondary nodes dropped off the mesh network. I spent an hour troubleshooting, but nothing I did changed things.

Eventually I decided to reboot everything and start once more from scratch. It took about an hour to get back to the same point with a working mesh. About an hour later it all fell apart again.

This was the pattern all day. Actually I’m not sure about that. I gave up the third time the network collapse. Life is too short. In the end I packed the Covr bits and pieces back in the box. It’s not for me.

Performance issues

During the brief interludes while things were humming, I tested the internet connection speed from the iMac. It was getting around 150 mbps up and down. This is less than half the usual connection speed through the main UFB modem and wireless router. Typically the iMac ‘sees’ 350 to 420 mbps. So the price of filling in Wi-Fi blackspot is a much slower connection.

It turns out poor performance is by design. Mesh networks in offices and factories have a separate channel to manage traffic between nodes. Covr uses the same Wi-Fi bandwidth that connects devices to the access points. In other words it shares the connection with your devices. This explains why we only saw half the usual connection speed.

I can’t recommend D-link’s Covr. It seems half-finished. There was a firmware update that I installed before testing, so the software is up-to-date.

Of course, you might have a different experience. The fact that none of the devices, other than the computer, would connect is a deal-breaker. For me the slow network speed is also a problem. I’d prefer to spend the NZ$600 asking price on a better quality wireless router and learn to live with any Wi-Fi blackspots.

D-Link Covr review: fails to fix Wi-Fi woes was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

New customers signing for Vodafone’s home fibre plans can get an Ultra Hub Plus modem as part of the deal. This means they get a connection on the carrier’s mobile network straight away. Lucky customers will connect via 4G. Less fortunate ones may have to do with a 3G connection.

Ultra Hub Plus is an interim fix while customers wait for fibre. It means their connection is not disrupted during the installation. Once they are on the UFB network, it then acts as an always on backup connection. Like a lot of these things it is good in parts.

Vodafone’s press release says the Ultra Hub Plus makes for a smoother switch to fibre.

It goes on to describe the Ultra Hub Plus as a “game changer”: isn’t everything these days? The release also says it is super easy to set up and use and a seamless experience.

I tested the device and found Vodafone isn’t exaggerating on those counts. Yet it’s not all wonderful. The Hub’s fixed wireless broadband performance is only so-so.

Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus

Easy as

When you sign up, Vodafone dispatches an Ultra Hub Plus modem by courier. Open the box and along with the modem and its power supply are a couple of sheets of paper. One says: “Five minute easy start”.

Experience says that a marketing department that uses words like “game changer” then adds both ultra and plus to an otherwise straightforward product name might not take a lot of care over a claim like five-minute easy start.

In practice, Vodafone’s claim is modest. I had a working connection in four minutes.

You plug the device in, then hit the power button. The instruction sheet says the modem’s wi-fi is active in around 90 second and the 4G or 3G connection is ready in three minutes and thirty seconds.

Both sets of indicator lights switched on more or less on schedule.

Wi-fi router

The next step is to connect wireless devices to the modem. Vodafone includes another sheet of paper with a QR code. All you need to do is point an iPhone or iPad camera at the code and those devices will connect.

If you use Android, you’ll need to download a QR app first. Depending on your circumstance, this could take you past the five minutes. But not by much.

With Apple devices, you only need to scan once, all your other Apple kit learns the password by what seems like telepathy. In truth this is one of those Apple features which feels a little like magic.

Ethernet

There are three Ethernet ports on the back of the Ultra Hub Plus, so connecting a laptop or desktop with a port is a breeze. Connecting by wi-fi is also straightforward. Either use the scan code or press the WPS button and find the Hub in your wi-fi router list.

This is as easy and fast as Vodafone’s marketing promises.

It is not the end of the set up story.

While the set-up speed for Ultra Hub Plus is impressive, the broadband speed is not great.

As you can see from the screen shots, I get around 13 mbps down, less than 5 mbps up.

Throttle

While higher speeds are possible in theory, Vodafone says it throttles the speed to 12 down and 6 up. At the same time, it tweaked the hardware to deliver a decent level of service.

How decent? In practice the throttled, optimised throughput is plenty for acceptable high-definition television streaming. When I first tried, we saw plenty of buffering. Once things started the modem seemed to cope with the stream.

Next I tested Sky’s Fan Pass and BeIn Sport on an iPad. In both cases the apps stumbled at first. Each gave me an initial error message. Fan Pass thought there wasn’t a network connection for a few seconds. BeIn went blank.

None of this happens with my normal connection. It might scare less tech-savvy users, but everything worked fine only seconds later.

In both cases the picture was acceptable soon after. There was a little stutter at first, then it settled down. I even managed to get two streams running at the same time. Which says a lot about acceptable baseline speeds for non-specialist home internet users.

Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus verdict

There’s a clever balance here between ‘enough broadband to tied you over’ and ‘not clogging the mobile network with fixed wireless traffic’ or ‘encouraging customers to choose this instead of fibre’. Vodafone has the mix spot on for what the Ultra Hub Plus promises on the box.

The Ultra Hub Plus’ ability to act as a back-up connection for when fibre fails is also smart.

Fibre doesn’t break down often, except in a power cut which, ironically, would also take out the Ultra Hub Plus. In that case then you’ll need to use a mobile phone. Many of us are so dependent on broadband that an alternative channel, that’s still able to handle Netflix is an insurance policy.

Christchurch skylineSpark says it is on track to begin rolling out a 5G mobile network in 2020.

The company says services will go live later that year.

This confirms the date the company has already said it would begin its next generation network build. It depends on the spectrum becoming available, then an auction or other form of allocation taking place in the next 18 months or so.

The confirmation comes after the company conducted trials earlier this year. Spark says the Wellington outdoor trial was a success with customers getting download speeds of up to 9 Gbps. An indoor trial in Auckland saw speeds as high as 18.2 Gbps.

While some telcos overseas are building new networks from scratch, Spark says it will start by adding 5G services to its existing 4G and 4.5G networks.

Spark says it will extend this when there is enough demand.

With existing cell sites there’s a smooth upgrade path. At least there is if a carrier sticks with the same equipment supplier. 

Spark managing director Simon Moutter says the company is working on mapping expected cell site densities to learn where there is a need for new cell sites.

He says: “We have already begun a build program to increase the number of cell sites in our existing mobile network – which will enable us to meet near-term capacity demand as well as lay the groundwork for network densification required for 5G.”

No extra CapEx

The company says it is expects to fund its network through its existing capital expenditure programme. This does not include buying any extra spectrum needed for 5G.

Spark spends around 11 to 12 percent of its revenue on capital expenditure. Spark’s 5G briefing paper says:

As Spark responds to demand we will be investing just ahead of it. Cost efficiency that will deliver ever-greater output with the same investment inputs is the primary driver of early 5G deployment.

By 2020, we expect our wireless-network specific capex to be between 25-35 percent of Spark’s overall capex envelope. This implies intended annual wireless network investment of approximately $100m to $140m, compared with an average of just over $100m for the past five years.

This excludes spectrum purchases and any material move towards widespread rollout of new cell sites using mmWave band spectrum. During this period, we expect our total capex (excluding spectrum) will remain in line with our desired range of 11 to 12 percent of revenues.

This is something of a surprise.

5G network equipment tends to be less expensive than 4G hardware. But to deliver the next generation network’s full promise, a carrier needs more spectrum and at higher frequencies it will need more small towers.

Many of these towers will be smaller than existing 4G towers – in some cases they can fit on lamp posts or telegraph poles, but even so, Spark’s comment about capital expenditure suggests one of two possibilities.

It won’t happen overnight

The first possibility is that Spark’s network roll out will be incremental and relatively slow. This follows the pattern of the company’s roll-out of 4.5G.

It is two years since Spark first installed a 4.5G tower in the centre of Christchurch. There are more today, but coverage is far from nationwide.

It looks likely the 5G roll out will begin before Spark has upgraded every worthwhile cell site to 4.5G. Presumably many sites will go straight from 4G to 5G.

The second possibility is that Spark isn’t aiming for the same high density network being planned for large urban centres elsewhere in the world. At least not at first.

Neither of these are important in the short-term.

Indeed, today’s mobile phone users can’t tell the difference between using a 4.5G tower and a 4G tower. There’s no pressing need to upgrade the network on their behalf.

And places like Eden Park in a test match aside, New Zealand doesn’t have the density of people you might find in Hong Kong or New York.

Spark may want to push forward on plans to offer 5G-driven fixed wireless broadband as an alternative to fibre. It already does this with 4G. This is a strategic business decision. If there’s enough demand for more fixed wireless then the internal business case for increased capital expenditure is easy to make.

5G innovation lab

Spark plans to open a 5G Innovation Lab later this year in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter. This will let companies test their applications on a private 5G network before the full roll-out.

The company says: 

“Providing early access to a pre-commercial 5G network through our global relationships with leading equipment vendors like Huawei, Cisco and Nokia will give our local partners a competitive boost, fast-tracking these businesses’ 5G developments.”

Significantly Spark has not named the network equipment provider it will work with on the programme.

The company used Huawei to build the 4G network and has previously worked on 4.5G and its test site  with the Chinese equipment maker. Huawei has to be in consideration for the contract despite the political problems the company faces getting business in the US and Australia.

Yet Spark deliberately named Nokia and, surprisingly, Cisco. The latter is not known as a technology provider for cellular networks. This could be a way of putting pressure on Huawei in order to get a better deal. 

Spectrum is a potential concern.

In a briefing paper Spark called on the government to make more spectrum available. All the carriers are pushing hard. They have a case.

This is already in motion, but the company wants this done in time for the new network to be running ready for the 2021 America’s Cup in Auckland. Hence the earlier comment about the need to get this wrapped up in the next 18 months or so. 

Spark says it needs large blocks off spectrum in the C-Band, that’s 3400 to 4200 MHz. It says it needs at least 80 MHz blocks and preferably 100 MHz blocks to build networks with 5G performance. It also calls for even larger blocks at higher frequencies.

In 2015 I travelled to Shenzhen in China to learn more about 5G mobile technology at Huawei’s headquarters.

Huawei’s brand is best known in New Zealand for phone handsets. That is only part of the company’s story. Huawei is also the world’s largest telecoms-equipment-maker and a world-scale economic powerhouse.

Spark New Zealand and 2degrees use Huawei kit to power their cellular networks. Moreover, Huawei is leading the charge towards next generation mobile networks.

Huawei headquarter, Shenzhen, China
Huawei headquarters – Shenzhen, China

5G was always going to happen

Everyone in the phone business always knew there would be a generation to follow 4G. Cellular technology is far from done.

Yet at the time of my visit 5G was still a new idea only starting to take shape. In 2015 many telcos around the world were still finishing their 4G networks.

The hype machine hadn’t kicked in and technologists were still batting ideas around.

Some concepts were just that: concepts.

Huawei’s 5G perspective

During the visit I got my first comprehensive overview of the Huawei’s perspective on the technology from Alex Wang, the company’s VP of wireless marketing.

This is from the NZ Herald story I wrote about the trip:

“Dealing with more connections is one reason telecommunications companies need 5G. Wang says the formal definition of 5G has yet to be agreed, but one of the items of the list is for it to support massive connectivity.

The goal is for cell sites able to cope with one million connections in a square kilometre — effectively that means one mobile device per square metre. By comparison today’s 4G cell sites might handle 1000 to 3000 devices.”

Wang also said the goal was to get latency down to 1 ms and to support data speeds of up to 10 Gbps. This second goal has since been changed to 20 Gbps. Most of the other numbers remain as planned in 2015.

Phones at the speed of light

As any physics student will be able to tell you, light, or radio waves, travels through a vacuum at about 300 kilometres in a millisecond. The speed through air is not much different.

The original 5G target speed of 10 Gbps is ten times the speed of today’s fastest home fibre connections. The newer 20 Gbps target is twenty times faster.

Without getting deeper into electromagnetic physics or engineering, these goals are ambitious.

You can’t push wireless data that fast with the existing mobile radio spectrum. There isn’t enough free bandwidth for three carriers to hit these targets in densely populated areas.

More spectrum needed

Which means carriers need to find new spectrum if they are to deliver 5G. Or, more to the point, government’s have to reorganise existing spectrum allocations. In most cases they then sell it to carriers in an auction.

New Zealand’s Radio Spectrum Management, part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, [is already working on 5G plans](https://www.rsm.govt.nz/projects-auctions/current-projects/preparing-for-5g-in-new-zealand/submissions-received).

[So is the Commerce Commission](http://www.comcom.govt.nz/regulated-industries/telecommunications/telecommunications-media-releases/detail/2018/proposal-to-retain-power-to-regulate-national-mobile-roaming-). Telecommunications Commissioner Dr Stephen Gale said:

“We believe the power to regulate remains an important competition safeguard, especially with 5G networks and potential new entrants on the horizon”.

A costly exercise

Spectrum isn’t cheap. Governments usually auction it in blocks at a time. Each block sits in a separate band of spectrum.

The last New Zealand government wisely decided not to cash in on the last big spectrum auction for blocks in the 700 Mhz band. That left carriers with the funds to exploit the new bandwidth almost straight away. 

Contrast this with the UK where bidder spent £1.4 billion buying 5G spectrum. This was more than twice the anticipated cost. The winning bidders spent money they could have used for the capital expense of building a network. It’s likely to mean a slower build and higher costs for users. 

Aggregation

In the past different services have run in different frequency bands.

One of the features of 5G is that carriers will be able to mash together greater amounts of bandwidth from different bands. Or to use their language: aggregate spectrum.

This already happens a little with 4G. Spectrum aggregation is central to 5G. Aggregation opens the door to merging what now may seem like different technologies, in particular cellular and wi-fi. How that works in practice will be interesting.

In the next post on 5G we’ll look more at the spectrum issue. 

Vodafone says it will offer fixed wireless broadband to customers who are ‘frustrated’ waiting for a fibre connection. Customers signing for 12 months of the Vodafone Ultimate Home Fibre plan get an Ultra Hub Plus modem as part of the deal. In a media release, Vodafone says this will give them a “mobile broadband connection over Vodafone’s 4G/3G mobile network while they wait for their fibre broadband to be installed.”

The release quotes the outgoing Vodafone consumer director Matt Williams. He talks about “significant installation delays“.

According to Chorus, the average wait for a fibre connection is now 13 days. Enable says it generally connects customers in stand-alone buildings in under two weeks. These numbers do not sound like “significant installation delays”.

Installations can drag on longer for people in apartment blocks and more complex housing. So it is possible Vodafone’s wireless broadband offer will help in these cases.

Wireless broadband is a backward step

Most people who order a Vodafone Ultimate Home Fibre will either be on copper or Vodafone’s FibreX. Many will already have broadband speeds far faster than they could get from a 4G/3G fixed wireless network.

Broadband Compare reports Vodafone Home Basic 4G has a 36 Mbps download speed. It uploads at 10 Mbps.

Yet, the press release announcing the Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus modem deal promises less than that:

Maximum speeds will apply while the customer is connected to the mobile network through their Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus (up to 12 Mbps Download / up to 6 Mbps Upload).

Vodafone’s own Everyday Home VDSL plan has a Broadband Compare listed speed of 50 Mbps down and 10 Mbps Up. The company’s Smart Connect FibreX plan runs at 200 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. Even Vodafone’s ADSL plan is 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.

These speeds are only estimates. I have a Spark VDSL connection that runs at around 70 Mbps down and close to 20 Mbps up. There is a range of speeds, but the Broadband Compare figures are realistic averages. We can take them as a guide.

Life in the slow lane

Many Vodafone customers waiting for fibre will get slower broadband if they opt for Ultra Hub Plus.

That’s not all. The 36 Mbps speed is what you should get with a 4G connection. As Vodafone’s own marketing makes clear, some users will be on a 3G connection. Vodafone’s press release announcing the Ultra Hub Plus modem deal says (my emphasis):

The Vodafone Ultra Hub Plus 4G/3G connect and mobile backup are only available in 4G/3G coverage areas with sufficient capacity. 4G/3G not available everywhere.

The small print also says:

Traffic management and fair use policy applies.

In other words Vodafone can cut you off if you use it a lot. The copper plans mentioned above all have unlimited data options. So customers used to unlimited data might find this aspect frustrating.

Vodafone’s Ultra Hub Plus modem wireless broadband deal is not much of a drawcard at all.

Disconnection

Williams is on more solid ground when he says: “…others say they are putting off a move to fibre because they simply don’t want to be disconnected while they wait”.

It’s not as connection cuts anyone off for long. Most fibre installs only take a few hours. And if they are Vodafone customers then there’s a good chance they’ll have mobile phones. It’s not hard to get internet access on a modern mobile phone.

If that’s not enough, then, at a pinch, they can tether. That way phoned connect laptops or desktop computers for an hour of two while a connection goes in.

Another part of the press release says:

In addition to enabling customers to be connected while they wait for fibre installation, the Ultra Hub Plus modem will also provide a mobile backup connection allowing customers to stay connected in the event a fault affects their fibre service.  Once the fault is repaired, the modem will automatically switch back to fibre, which ensures customers are always connected.

This is a good idea. Automatic failover is a good way of handling problems. Although fibre networks are more reliable than copper or fixed wireless broadband. Back-up is a nice-to-have. It would be wonderful for people who can only get a copper connection. Most people on the fibre network will never use it.

Vodafone wireless broadband offer: Reality check was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.