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An infrastructure sharing agreement with Vodafone means 2degrees can expand its network reach by around 200 towers.

Most of the towers are in less densely populated areas. These are places where, until now, customers would need to roam on the Vodafone network.

The agreement between the two telcos echoes the network sharing work being done by the Rural Connectivity Group. Vodafone and 2degrees, along with Spark, are partners in the RCG.

Vodafone has installed Multi Operator Radio Access Network (MoRAN) hardware on the towers. They allow 2degrees to use its own spectrum.

Performance gains

2degrees says customers will notice improved download speeds, as well as better video calling and streaming.

Adding these towers means the carrier can fill in the remaining gaps in the company’s coverage which. Before the agreement the network reached about 98.5 percent of the population. Yet it covered considerably less geographic area than Vodafone or Spark.

The carrier says the move will see an end to national roaming and all customers will “receive the full 2degrees experience”.

Martin Sharrock, 2degrees’ chief technology officer, says; “Using our spectrum in these areas for the first time is like adding a new motorway for our customers to use, they move from sharing our partners’ network to a network dedicated just for 2degrees. This is possible without building new cell towers.”

2degrees smart move

It’s a smart move by both companies. Vodafone gets to earn a handy extra revenue stream without undermining its competitive position. Although carriers don’t look at the revenue generated per tower, that extra income means the 200 or so more remote sites will do a better job of earning their keep.

Meanwhile, 2degrees gets to extend its reach without the need for capital expenditure.

Capital is going to be tight. The company will need to build a 5G network. That’s expensive, but majority shareholder Trilogy International Partners is struggling.

In the past 2degrees has used vendor financing from Huawei, its network equipment partner, to expand its coverage. With Huawei locked out from building a 5G network in New Zealand that avenue is also closed.

Gebbies Valley is the site of the Rural Connectivity Group latest mobile broadband tower.

I had to look the place up on a map before writing this story. That’s kind of the point.

The RCG’s job is to fill broadband and mobile voice coverage gaps. A government subsidy helps. The RCG is a joint venture between New Zealand’s three mobile carriers: Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees.

It runs an open access network. Some of the money funding comes from the Telecommunications Development Levy.  The Provincial Growth Fund also contributes. Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees invested $75 million in the project.

Today there are 100 working rural broadband towers.

Fixed wireless broadband

Each tower offers 4G fixed wireless broadband and 4G voice calling to the local community. To keep costs low, Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees share the antennae. The towers have fibre backhaul, which improves the performance.

Gebbies Valley has Voice-over-LTE equipment which means users can make high quality voice calls. There will also be 3G voice calling, that’s not commissioned yet. This will cover a black spot on State Highway 75.

A media statement from Communications Minister Kris Faafoi says it is a significant milestone for the second phase of the Rural Broadband Initiative. This a government funded project to deliver broadband services to the more remote parts of New Zealand.

Faafoi says the RCG towers now provide broadband access to 8,121 homes and businesses. They also mean extra mobile coverage for 343km of state highway and connect 23 tourism locations.

Eventually RBI2 will cater for 84,000 rural homes and businesses. It will improve mobile coverage on 1400km of state highways and connect 168 tourist sites.

While the project is planned to officially finish in 2023, there’s a somewhat open-ended nature to RBI2.

Early on in the programme, the government asked the RCG to build as many towers as possible with the allocated pool of money. Since then more funds have been tipped in and there’s no reason to think it will all stop at the formal end of the project.

Working from home may mean you need a better domestic data networks. That way you can Zoom with colleague while others watch Netflix or give the Playstation a workout. Here’s what you need to know before you upgrade.

Basics

Before we get down to details, some basics. If you have a UFB fibre connection, this enters your house at something called the Optical Network Terminal. You may also hear people call it an ONT.

Most of the time, the ONT connects direct to your home Wi-fi router.

Chorus ONT
A Chorus Optical Network Terminal

If you have copper broadband, then you need a modem and a Wi-fi router, although these days the two devices often sit in the same box.

Fixed wireless broadband users have a box which may be called a modem, router or something similar.

A router is a specialised computer that switches data to and from circuits. Some people call them switches. Typically there will be one incoming port and four outgoing ports.

They all use something called Ethernet, which is a 40-year-old wire network technology. Ethernet is reliable and can run at speeds from a few megabits per second up to 400 gigabits per second.

Today’s home routers also offer Wi-fi. This is a wireless networking technology. It’s what most people use most of the time.

Wi-fi can be fiddly to get going at first, but once working tends to be the easiest way to move data around the house. As we shall see, Wi-fi is great, but has limitations.

Wired is best

If you can use wired network connections at home, do so. At a minimum this means a direct cable from your home router to your TV. If you have shared data storage connect that to your router with a cable too.

Ideally you’d connect a shared printed direct to your router using an Ethernet cable. That tends to be awkward given that most people chose to have their Onts and routers next to the TV, which is often not the best place for a printer.

Wire is fast

Wires will always give you better speeds and more reliable connections.

Modern home routers often, but not always, offer gigabit Ethernet. Some might only have a single gigabit port with the rest running at 100Mbps. Either of these will be more than enough to get data from your fibre connection to your TV.

Using wire connections is even more important if you have a gigabit fibre internet connection: see below.

Wired networks may offer the best performance, but there’s more to networking than raw speed. Sometimes a slower connection is the better option.

Ethernet

Ethernet comes with a couple of catches. First, running Ethernet around the house isn’t easy or cheap.

Paying someone else to do the wiring job can be expensive, although it can be wiser in the long term if that’s what you really need. In truth, you can almost always get away without going that far.

The second catch is that Ethernet may often be less help than you’d think. That’s because a lot of modern devices don’t use it. Your tablet and phone certainly won’t come with an Ethernet port.

Many modern printers made for homes and home offices don’t have Ethernet. Which is handy as it means you can put them where they are less disruptive.

So, like it or not, Wi-fi will have to do a lot of your home network heavy lifting.

Gigabit broadband, slowcoach Wi-fi

The problem with Wi-fi at the moment is that most home wireless networks can’t run at speeds faster than about 500Mbps.

That is if you are lucky. Typically you’ll see slower speeds.

To make matters worse, everything connected to Wi-fi shares the same bandwidth. What’s more, Wi-fi doesn’t travel too well through solid objects.

Wi-fi signals can usually get through the plasterboard walls in New Zealand house. Yet performance can drop off dramatically the further you are from the router or the more solid material there is between you and the router.

It’s not unusual for home network speeds to drop below 100mbps. Which is disappointing if you have a gigabit broadband plan.

Given the number of phones, tablets, computers, games consoles and other kit in a modern house, your devices might only get tens of megabits per second each.

The good news is that not everything uses the bandwidth at the same time.

Which means if you connect to, say, Speedtest, from a home computer connected to gigabit fibre but linked to your broadband port via Wi-fi and nothing else is running you might see speeds of 300Mbps to 400Mbps on a good day. Some connections will be slower.

One way to reduce congestion is to use a mesh network. These spread the wireless signals around

Wi-fi 6 will fix some of this

There’s a new version of Wi-fi that promises to fix some of these problems. Wi-fi 6, or 802.11ax as it is sometimes known, promises faster speeds, less congestion and less pressure on device batteries.

You need to be careful reading specifications for Wi-fi router devices. Read the marketing material for a router using the older Wi-fi 5 standard and you might see a claim it runs at 3Gbps.

This will be a theoretical maximum speed. You will never see anything like that. In reality individual device speeds top out at around 500Mbps.

A Wi-fi 6 router might say 10Gbps on the box. In practice you may only see a small speed increase if you connect a Wi-fi 6 equipped laptop to a Wi-fi 6 router when compared to Wi-fi 5 speeds.

Although there may be a bigger speed jump.

If you think this language sounds like hedging, it is. Like anything to do with wireless communications, speed depends on a number of factors. You may not be able to control all of them.

Congestion

While you should see minor, yet noticeable speed improvements with Wi-fi 6 on individual devices, that isn’t the technology’s main goal.

Wi-fi 6 is more about improving network performance when there are lots of devices connected. It does a better job of managing congestion.

As more and more devices connect to the network, congestion gets worse leaving less headroom for each individual connection. Wi-fi 6 lets a router communicate with more devices at the same time.

Security is the other advantage Wi-fi 6 has over Wi-fi 5. It uses a security protocol called WPA3 that makes it even harder for hackers to guess passwords.

Getting to Wi-fi 6

This all sounds great, but there is one huge drawback to Wi-fi 6. It isn’t a simple software upgrade, it is all about hardware.

To get its benefits you will not only need a Wi-fi 6 router, but you will also need new Wi-fi 6 equipped devices.

A new Wi-fi modem might be a few hundred dollars. New everything else will run to thousands.

Wi-fi 6 equipped devices are only now coming on to the market. Apple’s latest iPad Pro models have Wi-fi 6. At the time of writing no Apple Mac models do.

In fact, you will struggle to find Wi-fi 6 devices in general. When I checked I managed to find one new Dell laptop and one HP laptop with Wi-fi 6 support. If there are Wi-Fi 6 TVs or smart home devices they have yet to be announced in New Zealand.

This means unless you have one or more Wi-Fi 6 devices, it is pointless upgrading your router.

One last point. Wi-fi 6 delivers screaming performance when you have a mesh router using the technology. They are expensive at the time of writing, New Zealand prices start at around $1000, but they can flood your home with fast wireless.

UFB progress q1 2020

Crown Infrastructure Partners reports a total of 966,773 homes and businesses were connected to the UFB fibre network at the end of March.

A further 17,038 connections were added in the first three months of 2020.

Across the country UFB uptake is now at 58 percent. Rolleston remains the most connected town with a 76 percent uptake.

The extended UFB build, that’s the first and second phases, has reached 91 percent and is running slightly ahead of schedule.

Faster and faster UFB

There is a clear move to the fastest UFB plans. CIP CEO Graham Mitchell says just under 22,000 homes and businesses moved to gigabit connections in the first quarter.

Around 82 percent of New Zealanders can now connect to the fibre network. It operated 169 cities and towns across the country.

Outside of urban areas the Rural Broadband Initiative increased its footprint by 3,078 homes and businesses in the first quarter of 2020. The network also connected 52 marae — if you are an overseas reader that’s a Māori meeting house.

A total of 27 new rural cellular towers began operating in the quarter. There are now 86 new rural towers nationwide serving around 46,000 connections.

How are we doing?

The big picture is positive. The fibre network proved its worth before the Covid–19 lockdown, but that only went to amplify its importance.

Fibre reaches a little over four-fifths of New Zealanders. Things are a little less clearcut when it comes to the remainder of the country.

Those rural users who live in sight of an RBI tower and are not waiting for a spare connection have a good fixed wireless experience. Performance can slow a little at times, but for most purposes RBI fixed wireless delivers.

Likewise people with the good fortune to be serviced by one of the Wisps — wireless internet service providers — are likely to get the broadband they need.

The problem comes for everyone else. That’s, perhaps as much as 10 percent of the population, probably more like six or seven percent. These are people who don’t have fibre, a capable Wisp or line of sight to a cellular tower.

Given the small number and the importance of decent broadband, it should be possible over time to fill in more and more of these gaps. The cost per connection might be high and it may be unrealistic to expect these people to pay the same as city folk. That is a decision for telcos and government policymakers.

Measuring Broadband New Zealand Report May 2020

Demand was off the scale. Yet New Zealand’s fibre and copper broadband networks almost never skipped a beat during the 20200 Covid-19 lockdown.

Both technologies did well enough to earn a tick from the Commerce Commission

To no-one’s surprise, fixed wireless broadband did not fare as well. It was never going to.

The Commerce Commission uses UK-based SamKnows to track broadband performance. The Measuring Broadband New Zealand Autumn Report, May 2020 shows there was no significant decrease in download speeds on fibre or copper networks.

Fixed wireless speed drops

SamKnows reports average fixed wireless download speeds fell by around 25 percent.

There is a simple reason for the difference between the technologies. On a fibre network a customer has a direct line from their connection point back to the local roadside cabinet. In effect the same happens with copper.

Fixed wireless broadband users share their connection with others. That means speeds drop at busy times. During the lockdown the networks were busy for a lot more time than would otherwise be normal.

Latency

On a similar note, the report found fibre responsiveness consistently outperformed all other technologies. Fibre latency came in at under 20ms 90 percent of the time. This is important for applications like Zoom video calls and makes a huge difference to the online gaming experience.

The report says:

“Fixed Wireless connections will be more likely to experience issues with latency-sensitive applications such as online gaming or video calls.
”

SamKnows reports that games hosted in New Zealand had lower latency than games hosted overseas.

Fibre to the max

Telecommunications commissioner Dr Stephen Gale says: “Chorus and other providers reported record levels of online activity. But despite that increase, the latest report from our independent testing partner, SamKnows, shows that copper and Fibre 100 plans continued to perform well, with average download speeds unaffected.

“We’re pleased to see that Fibre Max speeds have again increased, but there is still a significant variation of results on these plans. We are working with the industry to understand the causes of this, which involves looking at hardware and the performance of individual networks.”

The report, published by the Commerce Commission, notes the average download speed of Fibre Max plans, that is gigabit wholesale fibre, increased by around 50Mbps since the earlier report. The jump is down to improved performance by a single service provider.