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Is upgrading to Wi-Fi 6 a smart move?

Upgrading your home network to Wi-Fi 6 will give you the full benefit of a fast broadband connection but it may be best to wait until you update your devices. 

Fibre to the home can be fast. Think of it as a six-lane motorway with no speed limit. Yet once that turbo-charged data traffic hits your home, it can slow to a crawl as the motorway shrinks to a pedestrian footpath.

That’s because home networks are often slower than broadband connections. They tend to use wireless technology. Wi-Fi, the brand name for wireless networking, distributes data around almost every New Zealand home.

Chances are your internet service provider sent you a Wi-Fi router when you signed up for your broadband plan.

The problem is that Wi-Fi is usually slow. It can be a bottleneck. Or at least the Wi-Fi on your ISP-supplied router. Wi-Fi 6 goes a long way to fixing this, but you might not be ready to upgrade yet.

Ethernet where you can

Ethernet is faster and more reliable than Wi-Fi. Most Wi-Fi routers include Ethernet ports on the back.

You should use Ethernet where you can to improve data speeds. You should, at least, connect your TV to your router using an Ethernet cable direct to your router.

That way you won’t get Wi-fi hiccups in the middle of the big match or a Netflix movie.

Cables versus wireless

Ethernet has been popular for office network for decades. A few people use it for home networks. The problem is that installing Ethernet at home can be expensive and disruptive. It’s also inflexible. If you move your home office from one room to another you need to wire-in a new connection. That means more expense, more disruption.

Wireless is easier even if it is slower and prone to congestion.

There is a lot you can do about these negatives. The most obvious and, in the long term, the best option is to move to Wi-Fi 6. It is a more up-to-date version of wireless network technology.

Wi-Fi 6 can be faster than older Wi-fi, although you may not always notice much of a speed bump1. The more important thing about Wi-Fi 6 is that it works better when you have many connected devices.

And it’s likely you do.

Wi-Fi 6 eases data congestion

The average home has around 20 internet connected devices. Switched on devices will attempt to communicate with your router all the time.

The technical term for this is congestion. Unlike a lot of network jargon, it doesn’t need much explaining. Going back to the motorway analogy, congestion is when there is so much traffic things slow-down and eventually move to a crawl.

When lots of people use the same Wi-Fi router at the same time, you have data congestion. Every internet connected device in your house that is powered up will be competing with all the others to connect to your Wi-Fi network.

The technical name for Wi-Fi 6 is 802.11ax. When the Wi-Fi Alliance updated home wireless technology in the past the focus was on speed improvements.

Greater capacity

Wi-Fi 6 does this. But more important it increases capacity and improves power efficiency. It will perform better when there are many devices.

The speed improvement is significant. In theory a Wi-Fi 6 router can push data through the air at 1.2Gbps. This compares with 800mbps on the earlier Wi-Fi standard.

In practice you will never see those speeds.

There are all kinds of gotchas slowing connections. The big one is that everything on the network shares the bandwidth. Your neighbours’s Wi-Fi can interfere and slow yours if you are unlucky2. Wireless data will slow down going through walls. There are other factors beyond the scope of this post.

The key thing is that you should see faster Wi-Fi 6 connections: 30 percent faster than old school Wi-Fi. You’re going to need that extra speed if you have a gigabit fibre connection.

Capacity boost from Wi-Fi 6

More speed is great. Yet the increased capacity is every better. You don’t need to know the technology behind this, but if you have a spare week, go and research Orthogonal Frequency Division Multi Access.

In effect this technology splits radio channels into smaller chunks, then sends simultaneous blocks of data through them.

Doing things this way has an interesting by-product: lower latency. This is the time it takes for a signal to do a round trip from, say, your laptop, to and from a server. Wireless latency, think of mobile data, tends to be far higher than with fixed networks.

Latency

Latency is one of those measurements where lower means better.

Lower latency is great for gamers. With a high latency connection your game rival can take a shot at you before you see them.

With lower latency you should see less lag when chatting to others on, say, a Zoom video conference. There are times when this can be a problem, although in the bigger scheme of things, it’s not essential.

Power efficiency

The greater power efficiency in Wi-Fi means battery powered devices will run longer between charges. Again, it’s not a huge improvement when you look at a single household. Yet when millions of homes save a small amount of power we burn less fuel.

There’s another aspect of battery life that might not be of interest right now, but could be in the future. It means that small Internet-of-things devices can go years without needing a charge. This technology is now turning up in domestic products and may soon be useful.

You might, for example, want to place a security sensor by your front door. In the past it would have needed a power cable or for you to continually replace its battery. A lower power drain means you won’t need to change batteries for ages.

One last advantage of Wi-Fi 6 is that it has better security than earlier versions. It uses WPA3 which makes it harder for intruders to run a password guessing attack. Your home network can never be secure enough.

Wi-Fi 6 catches

There is a catch. You’ll need to buy a new router. They are not expensive, at the time of writing the cheapest Wi-Fi 6 routers on sales in New Zealand cost more than $300. In time ISPs will provide Wi-Fi 6 routers, a handful already do this.

A new router is only the start. Moving to Wi-Fi 6 means you will need to upgrade your devices. You won’t be able to go to a website and download a software upgrade that lets your existing devices use it.

Almost every new device now on sale comes with Wi-Fi 6. Hardware you purchased in the 18 months will probably have it. You’ll need to check. Otherwise those older devices won’t use Wi-Fi 6. That’s not a huge problem, the newer Wi-Fi 6 routers will support older devices, you just won’t see the speed benefit on this devices.

The next step up from Wi-Fi 6 is Wi-Fi 6E, for that to work, regulators need to free up 6GHz spectrum


  1. Mainly because you need new hardware to get the benefit. The story explains this later. ↩︎
  2. Although there are things you can do to reduce this problem ↩︎

Rural fixed wireless costs three times urban price

Spark charges unlucky rural customers almost three times as much as city dwellers for fixed wireless broadband.

The banner price for Spark’s Everyday Wireless plan is $60 a month. For that you 4G fixed wireless broadband and unlimited data. There are contracts, but you can get an open term deal meaning you can go elsewhere when you choose without a penalty.

Meanwhile Spark’s Naked Rural Wireless plan costs $176 a month if you use an antenna and $166 if you don’t.

Naked Rural Wireless is built on the same 4G technology as the Everyday Wireless plan.

Rural fixed wireless data caps

There is a data cap of 300GB. If you want more data, that costs a dollar per gigabyte.

To get Naked Rural Wireless you have to sign for a 24 month contract. If you want to leave before the contract finishes there is a $350 early termination fee.

Vodafone has a $65 a month unlimited 4G wireless broadband plan for urban customers. It sells rural plans through its Farmside subsidiary. A rural plan with a 200GB data cap costs $166 a month. Extra data is $20 for 15GB.

Broadband competition

In the cities and towns, Spark and Vodafone sell fixed wireless broadband in direct competition with fibre and copper based broadband services.

While there can be competition in rural areas, that isn’t always the case. In effect there are places where Spark and Vodafone have a local broadband monopoly.

To be fair. It costs more to provide telecommunications services to rural areas. There is more low-hanging fruit in urban areas.

Yet it doesn’t cost three times as much to service a rural customer. In many cases a government subsidy helped pay to build rural towers.

Wireless Internet Service Providers

Wireless Internet Service Providers or Wisps offer rural services in competition with Spark and Vodafone-Farmside.

They tend to be small, regional players. This makes it hard to compare their prices directly with Spark and Vodafone-Farmside,

Yet in places, they can offer a similar fixed wireless product at a lower cost.

At the time of writing Taranaki-based Primo has a $99 rural wireless plan with 250GB. The company’s unlimited plan is $149.

Filling the rural broadband coverage gaps

Wisps, do a great job filling in the rural broadband coverage gaps. Anecdotally they are more popular with customers than the large telcos and are more flexible.

Prices for fixed line telecommunications services are the same throughout New Zealand. This applies to the UFB fibre network and the copper phone network.

The idea that everyone pays the same is part of the Telecommunications Act. In legal terms it is known as non-discrimination.

Another idea that’s important is known as equivalence.

Can’t play favourites

In plain English non-discrimination and equivalence mean network operators can’t play favourites. They can’t favour partners or wholesale customers, even if they are part of the same business.

Chorus has to give equivalence and non-discrimination undertakings to the Crown on its copper network. All the fibre companies do the same on the UFB network.

There are similar undertakings for the Rural Broadband Initiative covering Chorus, Vodafone and the Rural Connectivity Group. There are no undertakings for Wisps.

In effect, Vodafone can’t charge other telcos more to use its rural towers than it charges its own retail business. This should encourage competition.

Fierce competition in towns

As things stand in early 2022, the competition for urban broadband is intense. Prices are stripped back, margins are lower and customers get great deals.

Out of town the competition can be less intense. In many rural places there is a limited range of options, if any. And customers can need to join a waiting list to get a connection.

Fresh competition from low earth orbit satellites like Starlink will give the market a shake. We’re not seeing that make a huge impact yet. Give it time.

Government could give many rural customers better broadband options by extending the fibre footprint. Soon New Zealand’s UFB fibre network will reach 87 percent of the population. Realistically the fibre footprint could extend further, say to 92 percent or more.

It will cost money, but it would be a powerful nation-building investment. We managed to foot the bill building a New Zealand-wide copper network when there was far less money around.

Yet, for now, unlucky rural fixed wireless broadband customer have to pay three times as much, can consume less data and face stiffer contracts than their urban cousins. We can fix this.

Spark expands uncapped fixed wireless broadband

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.