This is the second post in a series looking at how 5G’s reality might differ from perception. The first, Don’t expect a 5G big bang, boils down to how, often, the move from 4G to 5G technology will be almost seamless.

Author William Gibson summed up a lot about technology when he said: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

That’s how it’s going to be with 5G mobile.

America’s Cup 5G

Spark New Zealand’s 5G plan is a good example of how this works. Managing director Simon Moutter has repeatedly said that his company aims to have a 5G network working on Auckland’s waterfront in time for the 2020 America’s Cup yacht races.

His idea is to showcase New Zealand technology to the world. Or at least the part of the world that watches yacht races. At the same time it will send a powerful signal to New Zealanders about Spark’s capability.

The company has a nationwide mobile network. Its 4G coverage extends to places where more than 97 percent of the population live, work or play. There are hundreds of 4G towers.

The 5G network pencilled in for 2020 is likely to be half a dozen or so sites. It won’t even cover all over central Auckland. There’s nothing wrong with this. It makes sense to start with a modest network build and then extend it to reach elsewhere.

For guidance look at 4.5G

Spark has done exactly this with its 4.5G network. At first there was a single site in central Christchurch. Then another, then another and so on. Although we’re on the cusp of the fifth generation, the 4.5G technology still hasn’t rolled out across New Zealand. It’s there in some towns and cities, not others.

New Zealand is not alone with this. Very few countries are building national 5G networks from scratch. The upgrade is expensive and the higher bandwidth, lower latency 5G offers is not essential everywhere. At least not yet. It will be over time.

It will take years, if ever, for New Zealand to get uniform nationwide 5G coverage. There’s a clue for this in Spark’s capital expenditure plans. Simon Moutter has previously said the company will fund its 5G roll out from its existing budget. In other words, the company doesn’t plan to spend up big in year one rolling out new hardware everywhere. It could take a decade.

There’s another aspect to this uneven distribution which we’ll look at in another post: it’s possible different places will end up with different types of 5G.

Vodafone 5G MWC Barcelona 2019.jpegVisitors to this year’s Mobile World Congress were bombarded with messages emphasising that 2019 is the year of 5G mobile. At the giant Huawei stand and a mini-conference the day before the main event the slogan was 5G is on.

Many carriers announced they had either started their 5G roll-outs or will soon. Hardware and systems companies showed off the fifth generation mobile network kit they hope to sell to carriers. There was even a smattering of 5G enabled handsets.

At times it was impressive. Often the stories told were fascinating and informative, but the most important messages were not on any flashy displays or in any official press releases. The subtext to the conference tells a different story.

5G will bring changes, eventually

Yes, 5G mobile going to change communications… eventually. What we’re not going to see is a big bang. At least not in terms of service. We’re almost certainly going to see a big bang in terms of marketing.

The transition from 4G to 5G is, in effect seamless. Carriers installed the first 4G networks a decade ago. At the time and in the run up to the first 4G launches, many in the industry talked about LTE or Long Term Evolution.

That name is a clue about what is happening now with the move to 5G. I’m going to explain this without getting too technical.

The next generation

5G is the fifth generation of the mobile phone standard. About 20 years ago the mobile phone companies agreed to standardise technologies around the world. Over time networks have increased performance, call quality has improved. The amount of data shifted through the same amount of spectrum has increased.

Things kicked off for real with 2G. This was the start of digital mobile calling. 3G pushed more data through the air. 4G was, essentially a move to an all digital service. Its designers optimised the network for all digital, all the time.

Each generation upgrade from 2G to 3G to 4G mean the way data pushes though the air used a new basic technique. 5G didn’t do this. In the strict technical is really 4G with hundreds of small incremental tweaks to improve performance. There is no Great Leap Forward. Think of it as the next Long Term Evolution step.

More capacity, much more capacity

From a telco point of view 5G is more efficient. Over time it will make it cheaper and easier for mobile phone companies to add capacity. For now, that demand for more mobile capacity seems unlimited.

At first 5G will use existing radio frequencies. But it will allow carriers to add more spectrum at higher frequencies. The physics of wireless means higher frequency signals don’t travel as far, so there will be denser networks of smaller towers to add future capacity.

This will cost a fortune to build. The price of a tower is coming down, but the number of towers will go up. At the same time 5G should be cheaper to run… at least cheaper per gigabit of data. It also allows telcos to slice up their networks and sell them in different ways. They might sell services to driverless car companies or Internet of Things users.

Eventually 5G will use more spectrum. Last week the government announced it will auction some 3.5GHz spectrum. But some carriers, Spark would be one, Vodafone could be another, already have enough spectrum already to deliver a basic 5G service.

In recent years carriers have moved some sites from 4G to what is often called 4.5G. This is, in effect, an upgrade of 4G to offer faster speeds and greater capacity. Quietly, in the background, the technology has improved more than one since then.

We don’t generally use the terms, but there are people who talk of 4.6G, 4.7G and so on. This goes all the way to 4.9G and from there can go on to 4.95G or 4.99G.

Incremental

Marketing and industry hype aside, the move from here to 5G is incremental. Or, more accurately, it means lots of incremental steps. This is exactly what is happening overseas with some carriers rebranding advanced 4G networks as 5G purely for marketing reasons.

Most handset users are not going to notice the change. If your phone already downloads at 30 Mbps there aren’t many apps that need faster speeds. Even high quality video streaming will struggle to use all that bandwidth.

This is not to say there aren’t mobile phone apps that will one day need more bandwidth. We’re just not using them yet. As far as mobile users are concerned, it will be hard to spot much change as networks move from 4G to 5G. However, as we’ll see in a later post, phone users on the move are not the real focus for 5G networks.

The arrival of Dense Air has big implications for New Zealand’s cellular market, apart from anything else it will spice up the next spectrum auction.

London-based Dense Air has purchased a considerable amount of New Zealand wireless spectrum from Malcolm Dick’s Blue Reach business and Cayman Wireless.

The company intends to set up a wholesale small cell mobile network. Dense Air says it will not compete direct with existing mobile carriers. It says it can begin operation “almost immediately”.

Dense Air now has rights to 70 MHz of spectrum in the 2.5GHz band. Of this, it acquired 30 MHz from former CallPlus owner Malcolm Dick who previously talked about running a similar wholesale cellular operation using his Blue Reach brand. The rest comes from Cayman Wireless which is a part of Craig Wireless, a Canadian company.

The New Zealand Herald reports Dense Air paid a total of almost $26 million for the spectrum. That is about 13 times the amount the owners paid for the spectrum in 2007.

Spectrum price

There are implications for prices when the government decides to auction 5G spectrum some time in the next 18 months or so. If Dense Air decides to enter that auction it will push prices higher and could edge out cash-strapped 2degrees and Vodafone.

Dense Air is unknown in New Zealand. The company began operation in February of this year and part of US-based Airspan.

The company says it is a new class of wholesale network operator. It aims to “enhance and extend” coverage and capacity for existing mobile carriers and says it will run as a “carrier of carriers”.

Small cell sites

In practice this means Dense Air will build and run a series of 4G and 5G small cell sites. The aim is to compliment existing networks. It says that in most cases these will extend existing networks in places that need denser coverage. This might be places such as shopping malls, office parks, campuses or sports stadiums. Dense Air says its small cell approach can dramatically improve performance and capacity.

That said, Dense Air has more than enough spectrum to compete with all three carriers in New Zealand. Should it choose to do so, it could offer MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) services. This could be of interest to telcos such as Vocus or MyRepublic, both wish to offer mobile services but own neither spectrum nor their own cellular networks.

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 black spots.

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.