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Bill Bennett

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Selling fixed wireless in the face of ignorance

Spark says it aims to double customers on its fixed wireless broadband service.

This was always going to be a tough goal.

Now it will be tougher. That’s thanks to misinformation, conspiracy theories and, there’s no kind way of saying this… ignorance.

These two newspaper headlines appeared next to each other on a newsfeed last weekend. They tell the story.

Newshub half of NZers think 5G dangerous

NBR Spark aims to double fixed wireless cusotmers

A hard sell

Selling fixed wireless broadband is hard work full stop. It competes with fibre, a better option. It doesn’t help that Spark and Vodafone charge fibre-like prices for FWB connections.

In March the Commerce Commission published the Annual Telecommunications Monitoring Report for 2019. It notes:

“Fixed wireless connections increased to 11 percent of total broadband connections at 188,000. However, growth in fixed wireless connections slowed to 14 percent this year, compared to 36 percent growth last year.”

There are reasons sales slowed in 2019. Spark dialled back on selling FWB in the run up to the Rugby World Cup knowing that customers would not have the best streaming video experience.

Saturation point

At the same time the service reached saturation in places where FWB is popular. These tend to be areas where fibre is not available.

Fixed wireless customers share bandwidth. This means if too many attempt to connect at the same time performance drops.

FWB service providers manage this by limiting the number of customers served by any given cell site. In the past they also limited the amount of data a customer could use in a month. Although this is now changing in parts of the country.

Market saturation meant there were parts of the country where Spark could not sign up new FWB customers.

Despite these restrictions Spark has been successful by international standard when it comes to selling fixed wireless.

The Monitoring Report says:

“As at 31 December 2018, New Zealand ranked third highest out of the OECD countries for fixed wireless broadband connections with 3.5 subscriptions per 100 of population, behind Czech Republic at 10.3 and Slovak Republic at 5.7.”

In other words, Spark’s goal of doubling FWB connections was looking heroic before the daft 5G conspiracy theories were imported into New Zealand. Now they look a lot harder.

At the time of writing almost all fixed wireless broadband in New Zealand uses 4G or 4.5G technology. Spark has small 5G FWB sites in the South Island these are a tiny fraction of total user numbers.

No doubt, Spark plans to offer 5G fixed wireless as soon as possible. But right now it is not the focus.

‘Alternative facts’

Conspiracy theorists never let facts like this get in the way of their thinking. Remind yourself that the towers attacked by arsonists were not 5G towers.

What makes the problem harder for Spark is the likelihood there is a strong overlap between those who fear 5G and those who would be the company’s normal target market.

Away from places where customers have no choice but FWB, it is easier for Spark to sell the technology to less sophisticated consumers than to tech-savvy ones.

If you understand technology, you’ll know fibre is a better product. If you don’t understand it, you’re more likely to believe crazy nonsense promoted on Facebook.

There’s no easy way out of this for Spark.

Indeed, the problem is likely to get worse. The crazy ideas about 5G appear to spread faster than positive messages.

For now Spark shareholders are happy to keep investing in 5G and fixed wireless broadband. Yet for the technology to succeed, the company must convince consumers to buy. If half the target market is running scared, that’s going to get harder.

Spark dropping wireless data caps is not what it seems

Spark says fixed wireless broadband customers in parts of the country will no longer have to contend with data caps. The change applies to customers on the UnPlan Metro plan. There will be no extra cost.

It’s a clever move on Spark’s part. And it’s one that plays on popular misconceptions about data usage. To understand why, you need extra context.

Previously Spark fixed wireless broadband customers on the UnPlan Metro plan were restricted to 600GB of data a month.

This sounds paltry when the majority of fibre broadband customers have unlimited downloads. It also leaves customers feeling uneasy that they may bust their caps and get caught with extra charges or have their connections slowed down.

Will anyone notice when data caps go?

In practice, few if any Spark customers will notice any changes.

That’s because 600GB is more than any normal fixed wireless broadband customer can get through in a month.

Let’s look at the numbers in the recent Chorus annual report. The wholesale fibre company reports that an average household on its network chewed through 313GB of data in a month in June 2020. That’s a lot more than the 265GB households were using a year earlier.

Fibre customers on the Chorus network averaged 387GB of data in June.

Both these numbers are a long way behind the soon to be abandoned 600GB data cap on Sparks fixed wireless broadband network.

You could argue that averages don’t mean much. That there are households who get through far more than the average.

This is true. But the number of fibre customers who go past 600Gb in a month will be a small minority.

A faster pipe

Another thing to consider is that fibre is much faster than fixed wireless broadband. Those high-usage fibre customers, the ones who skirt or go past 600GB a month will have plans that are faster than 100Mbps. Many will be on gigabit plans.

Few fixed wireless broadband customers will get more than 50Mbps. Many will get less.

Which means fibre is between two and 20 times the speed. Or, in other words, you can download much more data in an hour. Faster broadband means more data goes down the pipe every hour that you are online.

Given this, it’s unlikely many of Spark’s fixed wireless broadband customers get close to 600GB in a month. In turn, this means going from 600GB to uncapped doesn’t change much for the overwhelming majority of fixed wireless customers.

Which is not to say the switch from capped to uncapped is not welcome. It will remove the nagging fear that a household might go over the cap and face repercussions. That’s a positive.

Wi-Fi 6 — a better way to do wireless

Fibre to the home can be fast. It’s like a six-lane motorway with no speed limit. Yet once that turbo-charged data traffic hits the home, it can slow to a pedestrian crawl.

That’s because home networks tend to use wireless technology. Wi-Fi, the brand name for wireless networking, distributes data in almost every New Zealand home.

Fixed line Ethernet is the faster option. Use it where you can to improve data speeds. You should, at least, connect your TV to your router using an Ethernet cable. That way you won’t get Wi-fi hiccups in the middle of the big match or a Netflix movie.

Cables versus wireless

Beyond that, it’s down to how much you need all that gigabit fibre speed. Stringing cables around the place is expensive. It can be bothersome. Using wireless is far easier, even if it is slow and suffers from 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 the most modern 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 explaining.

When lots of people use the same Wi-Fi router at the same time, you have a data bottleneck.

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 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 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.

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

Wi-Fi 6 catches

There is a catch. You’ll need more than a new router. Wi-Fi 6 needs a hardware upgrade. 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 comes with Wi-Fi 6. Hardware you purchased in the last year may have it. You’ll need to check.

In other words you may not see much benefit upgrading your router until you buy other hardware. My phone and iPad Pro have Wi-Fi 6, but my desktop computer does not.

The other catch is that your service provider might not offer Wi-Fi 6 routers. Few do. The hardware is more expensive than older Wi-Fi routers. If you buy your own expect to pay more than $200.

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 ↩︎

Wireless charging:  Inefficient, bad for the planet

Wireless charging can be a disasterDon’t get too excited by wireless charging. It feels modern yet it often doesn’t work as well as promised and it could be terrible for the environment.

“…the slight convenience of juicing up your phone by plopping it onto a pad rather than plugging it in comes with a surprisingly robust environmental cost.

According to new calculations from OneZero and iFixit, wireless charging is drastically less efficient than charging with a cord, so much so that the widespread adoption of this technology could necessitate the construction of dozens of new power plants around the world.”

Source: Here’s Exactly How Inefficient Wireless Charging Is | Eric Ravenscraft | OneZero

Nokia claimed to have the world’s first wireless phone charging in 2012 with the Nokia Lumia 920.

At the time Nokia said its wireless charging was 90 percent efficient. That means the charger wasted 10 percent of energy, turning it into heat.

This doesn’t square with Eric Ravenscraft’s story at OneZero. He says:

“Charging the phone from completely dead to 100 percent using a cable took an average of 14.26 watt-hours (Wh). Using a wireless charger took, on average, 21.01 Wh.

That comes out to slightly more than 47 percent more energy for the convenience of not plugging in a cable. In other words, the phone had to work harder, generate more heat, and suck up more energy when wirelessly charging to fill the same size battery.”

Ravenscraft found how he positions the phone on the charging mat makes a huge difference. And he found it hard to line things up to get the best results.

Wireless charging hit and miss

Wireless charging can be hit and miss. There are mornings when I pick up my phone and discover that it didn’t charge overnight.

The phone only has to move a millimetre or two for that to happen. It is so sensitive that I can open a desk drawer or type on my keyboard and the phone moves away from a charging position.

In his story Ravenscraft reveals a wireless charger consumes a small amount of power when it isn’t charging a device.

All up, wireless chargers waste a lot of power. It may only be a tiny amount per person, per charger, but multiplied by millions of users around the world it adds up to environmental damage.

In my earlier story, I noted that wireless charging is handy, but plugging in a cable is hardly a big deal. You get almost no advantage for what, in aggregate, is a big environmental cost.

Quantum 800 wireless headset: JBL targets gamers

JBL made the Quantum 800 wireless headset for gamers.

It is a fun product. You could, at a pinch, use it for work, but it doesn’t look businesslike and it hasn’t been optimised for serious tasks. In other words, don’t buy it for work thinking you might use it for gaming.

Wireless gaming headsets are everyday headphones that come with a built-in boom microphone. They let you speak to other gamers while you listen to the game sounds and other online players.

There is no shortage of gaming headsets that need a cable to connect to your computer or games console. Wireless headsets are less common.

Cut the cord

As the name suggests, wireless headsets don’t need a cord. This is much more convenient, but it comes at a price. A wireless headset costs roughly $100 more. In practice the extra is worth it.

The Quantum 800 connects to a PC through a USB transmitter. You can use the Quantum 800 with Bluetooth. This is one backup option and the best way to use the headset with a mobile phone.

Sound quality and latency are worse with Bluetooth than with the USB connection. If you use the headset for gaming, which is the reason you’d choose this over alternatives, the Bluetooth latency is irritating.

JBL’s second backup audio route is a 3.5mm jack which can connect with a cable. This will work with a games console and is handy if the USB connection is not reliable. In testing this never happened for me.

Like all wireless gaming headsets, it can handle work-from-home Zoom or Microsoft Teams calls. That is, you can use it if your co-workers or your boss don’t object to its distinct, non-business-like looks.

JBL Quantum 800 wireless headset

Quantum 800 wireless headset dark looks

JBL has gone for a dark, military look. The headset is shiney black plastic with a non-shiney grey metal finish. Each of the two ear drums has a panel with an missable, large JBL logo that lights up in bright colours when the headset is on you. This is programmable, you can tone things down if you are working.

On the left earpiece the flip down microphone sits on a boom. It is foam covered. You can bend the arm to get a better fit.

There’s plenty of padding around the earpieces. More than enough to keep you comfortable through an extended session. While the headphones have active noise cancellation, the padding helps to keep outside noise away in its own right.

Controls and switches sit along the bottom of both earpieces. There is a USB-C charging port and a volume wheel.

Heavy

As headsets go, the Quantum 800 wireless headset is heavy. They weigh 400g. In comparison my three year old Sony MDR-1000X headphones weigh 300g. Over time you’ll notice the extra 100g. It’s not a deal breaker, but the weight isn’t great.

The USB-C wireless dongle is 70mm long and stands out a long way from a desktop or laptop computer. It’s thin enough to squeeze in between other USB devices

JBL gave the Quantum 800 a better microphone than you might expect. You can tinker with settings to get the levels right. When you’ve done this you’ll get a clear sound. It does what it says on the box. You’ll be able to talk to others during a game and come across clear.

Likewise the mic is great for videoconferences. You get a better sound than relying on your PC or laptop mic. It might not be good enough for recording, say, a podcast unless you’re aiming for a lo-fi effect.

The headset is impressive. It is great value at NZ$400 when you consider its performance and features. If you are a committed gamer, it could be right for you.

Negatives

That said, there are a few reasons why I wouldn’t choose the Quantum 800 wireless headset for myself. They may not affect your decision. The design is fine for games playing. It could be distracting if you use them for work. I don’t like the idea of a huge brightly lit logo on my ears.

Another negative for me, but not for 80 percent of computer users is that JBL has optimised for PC gamers. On a Mac the experience is less complete. At the same time, it is not the best choice for console gamers.

A third negative is the sound quality. It’s fine for gaming and video or Skype calls. Explosions are incredible. There’s too much colour for music. It will work OK for casual listening, but if, say, you work with music apps, you’ll struggle. It doesn’t seem possible to neutralise the EQ enough to get a flat response.

These things aside, you won’t find a better PC gaming headset. I can’t think of anything else aimed at gamers that has active noise cancellation. There are dozens of options and features to explore. You can even simulate surround sound.