web analytics

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

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.

A group of Rakon shareholders are getting impatient with its undervaluation and want directors to put the company on the block.

In Tech company shareholders frustrated at low value RNZ reports:

A group representing 14 percent has written to the board asking it to immediately market the company to international investors through a tender, amid reports that some Australian investment funds have been showing interest.

“[We] believe the company is significantly undervalued and the company is failing to highlight this value to outside investors,” the letter said.

The story doesn’t carry a byline.

Rakon’s disgruntled shareholders want the company sold to international investors as a way of unlocking their investment. They make it clear they don’t think they will get a big payout from what should be a boom as the 5G mobile telephony market gathers momentum.

Waiting for 5G acceleration

RNZ goes on to quote Rakon chief executive and managing director Brent Robinson. He says:

“As 5G accelerates, so will Rakon and its financial position will be more attractive.

“Be patient, it’s early days for 5G and I believe Rakon’s performance should improve a lot, as far as profits are concerned over the next few years.”

Rakon is a 50 year old New Zealand technology company. It makes frequency control components including quartz crystals. Telecommunication accounts for over half the company’s revenue.

On paper, Rakon is well placed to profit from the worldwide 5G roll out. It appears to be the kind of company New Zealand’s economy needs.

Mobile carriers are spending billions building 5G networks and will continue spending vast sums for the best part of a decade as they build out 5G further and further. Rakon sells its components to 5G equipment makers like Huawei and Nokia. It should be a bonanza.

Not fast enough

The problem is that despite the huge investments in 5G, the roll-outs are not proceeding at the predicted speed. Asia is moving fast. Vodafone has already built a network here, Spark is about to follow. Other countries are not moving as quickly.

It doesn’t help that Rakon’s customers are caught up in a trade war, possibly an espionage row, between the US and China. It is possible that Rakon can supply one team, but not the other. That would hurt its market.

Rakon’s share price has languished to the point where it is a possible takeover target. The shareholder letter suggests at least some of Rakon’s owners want out.

 

A bill introduced in parliament this week aims to tackle extremist content.

The Films, Videos, and Publications Classification (Urgent Interim Classification of Publications and Prevention of Online Harm) Amendment Bill introduces new criminal offences. It hands power to a chief censor who can make immediate decisions to block content.

It also allows the government to create and deploy internet filters. The filters would screen out material the chief censor decides is objectionable.

Response to Christchurch terror live-streaming

The bill matches the proposal first tabled in cabinet last December by Internal Affairs Minister Tracey Martin.

It aims to update the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act 1993 after last year’s live-streaming of the Christchurch terror attack.

The focus is on stopping the people or organisations from livestreaming objectionable content. It does not target companies who provide the infrastructure used to distribute content.

Take down notices and filters

Yet carriers and hosts will need to acknowledge government imposed take-down notices. This includes removing links to objectionable content. Failure to do so could result in civil action and fines.

The legislation will allow the Department of Internal Affairs to create internet filters. The DIA must consult with internet service providers before it launches a filter.

InternetNZ opposes the filter plan. In a media statement CEO Jordan Carter says there can be dangerous side effects from a filter.

He also says: “The proposed filters would work at the network level, in a way that is a mile wide and a millimetre deep.

“People who want to get around these filters can easily do so by using a VPN, technology that many Kiwis have been using when working from home recently.”

Filters can be ineffective

As Carter points out, the problem with filters is that they often don’t work as intended. Determined people who want to see or distribute objectionable material can workaround them. Everyone else may suffer a degraded internet experience.

Internet filters are, by their nature, blunt tools. There’s a trade off between failing to block bad material and blocking harmless content.

The same goes for artistic content. Filters are incapable of drawing lines in the right place.

False positives, false negatives

In the past researchers have found that filters designed to shield young people from pornography might block 90 percent of adult content. At the same time they can block up to a quarter of inoffensive pages.

Tinker with algorithms to permit more inoffensive material generally means letting more porn through.

Filter advocates talk about artificial intelligence helping, but that often makes matters worse. Filters don’t understand context or nuance. AI is usually terrible at context or nuance.

Risks elsewhere

Much of the focus with internet filters is on dealing with web pages. These days they account for a fraction of online material. Peer-to-peer networks, instant messaging and social media platforms are a bigger problem.

There are other issues with filtering. Protecting children might be straightforward, but teenagers are often more tech-savvy than adults.

Filtering can create a false sense of safety. It’s the same when not-very-tech-savvy people install security software. They feel safe from malware threats but can relax and fall victim to phishing or other scams.

While filters they are often set up with good intent, they can be used for broader censorship, even shutting down political opponents.

On the positive side

In practice, the slippery-slope argument doesn’t wash. New Zealand already has successful voluntary filters blocking child abuse material. That appears to be working well. There has been no slippery slope effect.

Determined viewers can bypass these filters. Yet they stop everyday users from stumbling over the objectionable material.

New Zealand’s child abuse filter gives service providers the option to opt-in. There is independent oversight.

The planned filter in the new legislation would be compulsory. There is no mention of formal oversight.

If you look at the latest International Telecommunications Union affordability rankings you’d get the impression that New Zealand is doing better than Australia at mobile, but is behind on fixed broadband.

That’s not the case, but it looks that way because of the methods used to create international table rankings. The rankings are not meaningless, but they are hard to interpret and make sense of.

The ITU ranks New Zealand at number eight in the world for high-consumption mobile-data-and-voice. Australia sits at 22.

Meanwhile New Zealand is 41 for fixed broadband while Australia sits at 36.

Not the lived experience

These two rankings are opposite to the everyday experience of telecommunications customers in the two countries.

These kind of ranking tables are often a little strange. That’s because they tend to use artificial user cases to illustrate difference between markets where in reality there is a lot of nuance.

Remember here the tables are about affordability. The ITU measures and compares the prices of entry-level fixed broadband plans.

It then compares these prices with a nation’s gross national income (GNI). This is a way of relating prices to people’s earnings.

Affordability

As a rule countries with a lower income pay proportionately more for telecommunications services. Which is a way of saying they are less affordable.1

It turns out New Zealand’s entry level plan is a 50mbps fibre plan with a 60GB cap. Prices are converted to US dollars. In this case it comes in at US$44.97. The price also includes 15 percent GST.

That may well be the lowest plan on offer in New Zealand, but it’s a plan almost no-one buys.

Australia’s entry level plan is 20mbps with a 100GB cap. It sells for US$52.30. Australian GST is 10 percent. In other words the plan used for comparison is far slower and more expensive, yet includes more data.

According to the ITU when the GNI is taken into account Australia gets an affordably score of 1.2 while New Zealand gets a score of 1.3. So we sit a few places behind Australia in the fixed broadband table.

Mobile voice and data

The same methodological weirdness works in New Zealand’s favour when it comes to measuring high consumption mobile voice and data plans.

New Zealand’s plan costs US$14.53 and buys 200 voice minutes, 500 SMS messages and 1.8GB of data. Australians get unlimited calls, unlimited SMS and a whopping 15GB of mobile data for US$36.61.

Going back to the affordability scores, New Zealand gets 0.4 while Australia gets 0.8.

These ITU tables are useful when comparing, say, New Zealand’s year-on-year performance. That tells you if telecommunications is becoming better or worse value.

They are also useful in aggregate. The latest report tells us that entry level mobile-voice is affordable in most countries. It tells us prices have fallen in the last few year relative to income.

It also says that while fixed broadband prices around the world have remained more or less stable, download speeds have increased.

Yet when it comes to benchmarking, say, New Zealand’s performance against other countries, it’s hard to tease out useful data. Anyone who has operated in Australia and New Zealand knows our fixed broadband is better priced, while Australian mobile data is less expensive.


  1. Economists reading this may think this explanation is too simple. ↩︎