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There could not be more contrast between Spark and Vodafone’s 5G launches. The two launch events tell a tale about the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on carriers.

Last December Vodafone launched its 5G network. On day one it had 100 5G towers in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.

This week Spark’s 5G network opened for business. In Palmerston North.

That’s right. Spark chose New Zealand’s eight largest city to showcase the latest mobile generation.

Toyota

The company says it is working with Toyota to uncap the value of 5G in Palmerston North.

You might think this would involve something exciting like driverless cars. After all, Spark tested New Zealand’s first autonomous vehicles last year.

Instead, the partnership delivered a dreary virtual test drive app. It’s the kind of video streaming application that 4G mobile handles with aplomb.

Vodafone’s launch had holograms, long-distance veterinary surgeons, remote cranes and 5G controlled factories.

Contrast

There could not be more contrast between the two 5G launches. Vodafone had exciting technology and glitz. Spark has Palmerston North and 4G apps.

Vodafone went hard and early. Spark’s launch is timid. The company says it will offer 5G in four more locations before the end of the year. By then it will be a full 12 months behind Vodafone.

To be fair, Spark had to wait for the government to deliver 5G spectrum before it could move. Vodafone had suitable spectrum in its pocket.

While we are being fair, the world has changed a lot since Vodafone’s launch. Spark’s cautious arrival on the 5G scene could be the right strategy for pandemic times.

Prudent

Like New Zealand’s other telcos, Spark may yet have a wall of bad debt to deal with. Not splashing money on a big 5G roll out and a fancy launch looks prudent today. It’s possible Vodafone’s investors wouldn’t have funded a 5G launch if they knew what was coming.

It is not as if rivers of gold will flow into the coffers after a 5G launch. As Telcowatch shows, Vodafone’s market share didn’t move after it launched its 5G network.

Vodafone may look confident. Yet that confidence doesn’t extend to charging customers more to use its 5G network. Likewise, Spark isn’t going to ask the people of Palmerston North to pay a 5G premium.

Even the boring Toyota demonstration app seems sensible and wise. It’s not as if there are any practical applications for everyday users that depend on 5G to work. Why pretend otherwise? Vodafone’s examples looked exciting, but it will be ages before they are everyday reality here.

And that’s the key. While the above story may read like a criticism of Spark, it is not. Spark has cut its coat according to its Covid-19 era cloth. We need to adjust our expectations for less techno-dazzle and more back to basics.

telcowatch 2020 q2 monthly market share

The latest Telcowatch mobile market share report shows the relative performance of New Zealand’s carriers were close to unchanged during the second quarter. This is the period that covered much of the nation’s Covid-19 lockdown.

It paints a picture of a stable market with, apart from a special case we’ll look at later, little switching between carriers.

One conclusion you can read into the numbers is that Vodafone’s considerable investment building a 5G network ahead of its rivals has not paid off in terms of attracting their business.

Vodafone top brand

Vodafone remained the leader with a 37 percent market share. That’s the same market share as in the first quarter. Vodafone has been the largest single carrier brand for a year now.

Spark retains its second spot with 34 percent. Its share fell a fraction during the quarter.

Yet the story is more complicated than these numbers suggest. Spark’s cut-price Skinny brand was the largest climber during the period. It has a 7 percent share of the market.

Spark top carrier

If you add Spark and Skinny, the two are brands that share resources, the total is 41 percent. That figure has been stable now for months.

Meanwhile 2degrees brings up the rear with 23 percent.

In practice each of the three carriers is stable. The movement is all about Spark customers realising they can get what amounts to the same service for less if they switch to the company’s Skinny brand.

Skinny has seen its market share rise for the last three quarters while Spark’s has fallen.

Telcowatch is put together by Datamine. It says it analyses more than 2.9 million unique devices each month. The company restricts its data collection to active mobile devices and does not count machine to machine activity or non-consumer markets. Nor does it measure overseas-based networks operating here.

Copper phone networks have served New Zealand for over 100 years. They won’t be around much longer, at least in cities and towns.

Spark has started to call time on urban copper. It says it plans to retire PSTN in Devonport and Miramar by Christmas. That move will affect around 1000 customers.

It is the first step in Spark’s plan to move customers from copper on to either fixed wireless connections or fibre. In the companies words, these are “the modern alternatives”.

Plain old telephone service

PSTN is the public switched telephone network. That’s the engineers name for the old copper-based telephone system. At times people in the business call it Pots: plain old telephone service.

The key word in that phrase is old.

Spark says PSTN is now at the end of its life and needs replacing. It is now 17 years since equipment makers stopped making PSTN hardware. Spark says it is getting harder to find people with the skills to maintain the technology.

Old folk reluctant

Older customers continue to love Pots. There’s a reluctance to move from a technology they have known for decades.

It is no long essential.

It is possible to deliver services resembling PSTN voice calling on fixed wireless and fibre connections.

The alternatives do not work in a power outage. You can’t, say, make a 111 call if there’s no power. This worries planners and officials, but there are few homes without mobile phones.

Alarms

There are difficulties with security or medical alarms designed for copper network technology. Again, there are modern alternatives in almost every case.

Nevertheless Spark says it will not move anyone who needs special hardware until it has found a replacement.

Getting rid of urban copper will simplify telecommunications and lower costs. We won’t have to run two networks in parallel. Companies like Spark can streamline support operations and reduce costs.

No longer controversial

A move from copper networks may have been controversial a few years ago. Today he majority of customers in cities and towns now use fibre or fixed wireless instead.

Fibre uptake is now 60 percent or better in urban areas. There are 180,000 homes or business using fixed wireless connections. Meanwhile there are more mobile phones in use than there are people.

There are problems in areas not yet covered by fibre. Removing urban copper will put further pressure on the government and fibre companies to extend the reach of the UFB network to these places.

Fibre and beyond

Fibre is now scheduled to reach 87 percent of New Zealand by 2022. It is realistic to stretch fibre coverage up to around 90 percent or a little beyond.

Where that isn’t possible, mobile coverage and Wireless Internet Service Providers can fill in the gaps.

Compared with fibre or wireless, copper is expensive to maintain. It is more expensive to maintain in the rural areas where it is likely to remain.

As the number of lines falls, the support cost per line will rocket. There will come a point where the remaining copper network is economically unsustainable.

The flip side of this is that reducing those costs should free up money to pay for rural network upgrades.

Spark not hanging around

Spark is moving early. The Commerce Commission has published a code for dealing with 111 calls after copper is switched off. This has to be in force by the end of next year. Once that is done Chorus will be allowed to stop offering copper services where fibre is available.

Chorus continues to own and operate the copper networks. They will remain in the ground for now even in the areas where Spark has withdrawn services.

By running pilot programmes in Devonport and Miramar Spark will be able to better understand how decommissioning PSTN might work. The company expects to spend years moving off the services across the rest of the country.

This story has been updated (24-07-20) to reflect out-of-date numbers and timings.

“TICSA has been in place since 2014, and works well. We are confident that New Zealand’s telecommunications networks are secure, and that our regulatory model serves New Zealanders well.”He said every decision was made on a case-by-case basis, and in accordance with New Zealand laws.

Source: Andrew Little says New Zealand won’t follow UK’s Huawei 5G ban | RNZ News

Rachel Thomas at RNZ interviewed me on the likelihood of Huawei being allow to take part in New Zealand’s 5G networks.

Huawei doesn’t meet the standard set out in the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013 (TICSA).

Huawei didn’t pass the test the first time around and everyone goes out of your way to tell you that’s not a ban, that in effect bans it from the network until it passes that test, so we’re already in the ‘not going to be buying Huawei’ camp.

This could change if there is a change of government either here or in the US. The National Party is closer to China than Labour, Green or New Zealand First. A Democrat lead government in the US may want to take the heat out of trade tension with China.

Currently, no telco providers are using Huawei technology as part of their 5G networks in New Zealand – with Vodafone and Spark both working with Nokia.

But Spark and 2 Degrees have refused to say whether they would rule out partnering with Huawei for 5G networks in the future.

Apple Newton MessagePad 130It raised smiles 14 years ago when I carried a 1996 Apple Newton MessagePad 130 into the IDG Auckland office.

IDC is the publisher of titles like Reseller News, ComputerWorld and PC World. It was a workplace where the Newton was instantly recognisable.

The Newton looked odd among the 2006 Motorola flip phones, Blackberrys and Palm Pilots1.

Old dogs, old tricks

Odd, but not too ancient to use. My Newton still worked fine. I could still scrawl notes on the screen with a stylus2. It could still track my diary dates and manage my contacts.

Of course, the Newton couldn’t hook up to much else. The Newton MessagePad predated Wi-fi and Bluetooth. However there was a proprietary cable that would send a trickle of data to and from a PC or Mac.

The Newton needed AA batteries. I had a rechargeable pack that was an afterthought, but my MessagePad didn’t have internal rechargeable power like many modern devices in the 2005.

My motivation for digging the Newton out from the back of the cupboard and giving it another go was twofold.

First, I wanted to see if the technology was as far ahead of its time as it seemed in 1993 when I had my first Newton. In some ways it was.

The second reason was because, at the time, there were rumours Apple was working on something that would replace the Newton. According to the reports that something was also a phone.

The rest is history.

Hardware that goes on and on

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Newton MessagePad 130 was that it was still working after a decade. When the Newton line was first launched there was talk of the devices being short-lived. A year later I sold my working Newton on TradeMe.

So long as it isn’t dropped or hammered by hard use, a digital device can live a long time. It will always be able to do whatever it was purchased for in the first place3.

But keeping devices for years is not fashionable. In some circles it is almost viewed as subversive.

Technology companies carpet bomb journalists like me who covering the sector with new products. There is a constant stream of product launches. New this, improved that, enhanced4 something else and so on.

It can get tiring.

New, improved a bit

Often the new thing is better than the old thing. It is rare that it is so much better that we should bin the old stuff and buy the new. And yet that is what people do. Often far too soon.

The hardware you buy can, and should, last for years. There is more to not jumping to the latest model than being frugal. Electronic hardware is hard on the planet, an ecological time bomb. In the case of some materials it can also be the cause of much misery.

Upgrading less often makes the world a better place.

Wise technology buyers choose hardware with a long life. Even if you don’t intend to hang on to something for ages, you’ll get a better price if you sell your device on when you upgrade.

Hardware that lasts

There are two parts to finding products that last a long time. Some hardware brands take a pride in making things that last. Others design their gear so that it can be upgraded.

According to Asymco, the average life of an Apple device in 2018 was four years and three months. That number has increased since then. I’ve seen estimates that iPhones now last almost five years.

Statista estimates the life of an average phone, iPhone and Android, in the US is around 2.88 years.

The sources and methodologies for the two sets of statistics are different, so we can’t read too much into the numbers. Even so, it appears Android phones are active for much less that iPhones.

Retain value

Supporting evidence for this comes from Trademe. Second hand iPhones retain value far more than second hand Android phones.

Another thing to consider is that Apple has historically provided software updates for longer than Android phone makers.

The point here is not to say one is better than the other. I’ll leave that to you. What’s important is if a phone’s lifespan is important to you, choose an iPhone.

You can do similar research with tablets and various types of computers. Apple hardware tends towards lasting longer than average.

Meanwhile some brands are easier to upgrade. You can’t do much to keep a MacBook Air up to date. It’s a piece of cake to put more memory, more storage or a faster drive in a Windows desktop computer.

Popular helps

There is something else to consider about device long life. If you choose a popular brand, that would be Apple or Samsung for phones, Apple, HP and Dell for laptops and so on, there’s a bigger community of people to support that product over the long haul.

You won’t have trouble finding someone to fix a broken Apple or Samsung phone, you might struggle if you pick a less popular brand like, say, Oppo.

Likewise there is a ready market in components like replacement batteries or screens for popular products. Finding parts for obscure hardware is tough.

You may have other tips for getting more out of your spending on hardware. Feel free to share in the comments below. There is a prize for the best tip.


  1. I had each of these too ↩︎
  2. Apple had fixed the early teething troubles with handwriting recognition, late model Newtons like the 130 were remarkably good at the job. ↩︎
  3. So long as there are no idiotic software updates that render the thing useless. ↩︎
  4. Was there ever such a weaselly marketing word as enhanced? It implies something is better when often it means is some problems are now fixed. ↩︎