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Vodafone’s 5G network is about to launch. Soon you’ll see marketing for 5G fixed wireless broadband marketing. Spark will no doubt follow.

Let’s step back for a moment and take a reality check.

There’s a lot to be said for 5G. It’s fast, energy efficient and has low latency. Carriers can pack in many more connections per square kilometre.

Most of the benefits of 5G will go to industrial users and to organisations that can make use of network slicing. That’s the ability to set aside bandwidth for private use. The other main beneficiaries will be the cellular companies who can sell more connections and cut running costs.

Machine to machine 5G

5G is ideal when machines talk to machine. It will make the internet-of-things sing and dance.

Yet it isn’t always the best broadband product for residential users. Many people will be better off sticking with wired connections.

In theory 5G can deliver fibre-like speeds. Overseas users see 300mbps or even a little higher. This is plenty for streaming video and other high bandwidth applications, but not enough if you have a digital household with many people sharing the same connection.

There’s another catch. Wireless connections are nothing like as reliable as fibre. If you need a consistent connection, say you have a monitoring application, you’ll soon run up against limitations. There are also stories of Netflix buffering like crazy in prime time when everyone on a tower goes online.

Line of sight

One other point, 5G is a line-of-sight service. There are nuances, but in general you need to see the cell tower to use it. In some cases overseas a connection that works fine in winter can stop working when there are leaves on the trees if those trees are in the wrong place.

You should consider 5G fixed wireless if:

  • You live near a 5G tower and can’t get fibre. You may be down a right of way or in an apartment where people are bloody-minded about running cable to your place.
  • You are off the fibre map1.
  • You have light broadband needs, don’t need a lot of bandwidth and reliability isn’t essential. Your home will struggle to run multiple streaming video sessions or handle big downloads at the same time.
  • The address isn’t permanent. Students and other short term residents might prefer a connection that can be up in seconds and taken with you when you leave.
  • You live in shared house and a shared broadband account is too hard to organise.

The irony is the New Zealanders who would most benefit from 5G fixed wireless broadband, that’s the people living on low density fringe areas and lifestyle blocks not served by fibre, are unlikely to get it early. They may get 5G later, but don’t hold your breath.


  1. Although, for now, that probably also means you off the 5G fixed wireless map ↩︎

Good on the Professor Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, for setting up a web site to address 5G fears.

It counters much of the disinformation in circulation.

Sadly the presentation is awful. It is so poor that the message doesn’t stand much chance of reaching ordinary folk.

Some of the campaigns and disinformation sites attempting to undermine the science are so much slicker.

Not engaging

Take a look at the home page. Web sites don’t get much less engaging.

chief science advisor 5G site
The Prime Minister’s chief science advisor 5G site

It has large blocks of text across a very wide measure. That makes it hard to read. While the text is broken up into blocks lower down the front page, there is a daunting slab of text to get through at the top.

The second paragraph is over 100 words long. You need a Year 12 reading age to comprehend the text. That’s way too high, beyond the majority of readers. Even people are able to read such dense material, tend not to bother.

In other words it reads more like academic or government writing than, say, newspaper or magazine copy.

When official equals boring, unreadable

Now there is a case for this. It is, after all, an official government science response. Yet, it is up against disinformation campaigns that know exactly how to reach the target audience.

It’s good that the designer1 uses links in another colour. This breaks up the blocks giving the reader’s eye signposts as they wade through the dreary text.

Even the text chosen here is wrong. It should be larger, although I’m impressed that it uses a bold typeface, that helps with accessibility for readers with poor eyesight.

What we have here is important. The site contains the information people need. In places the language is clear enough. I like this part:

“The currently available scientific evidence makes it extremely unlikely that there will be any adverse effects on human or environmental health.”

For a scientist it is reasonably tight. Although the journalist in me says this could also be clearer:

“Scientists think it is unlikely 5G will harm you or the environment”.

Commercial alternative

Compare the chief science advisor’s page with this page from Vodafone group out of the UK.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone 5G safety page from UK

It’s unambiguous, straight to the point and easy to read. Even though it gets technical and deep in places, it still does a better job of explaining the issues.

Of course, you might be thinking that it is one thing for a chief science advisor to tell the 5G safety story and another thing entirely for folk that are flogging the technology to tell the story. You’d be right.

Yet the New Zealand government could have made an important piece of public information more engaging. Look at Vodafone’s 5G infographic below. It packs a lot of complex information into a simple, easy to understand image.

The funny thing is, New Zealand’s often doesn’t have this problem with other public information campaigns when it hires an advertising agency to get the message across. Maybe that’s what’s needed here.

Vodafone UK 5G safety page
Vodafone’s 5G infographic makes an otherwise hard to explain concept easy to understand.

  1. I’m assuming it was designed and not just templated together, but I could be wrong about that. ↩︎

This year’s Norton 360 offers the most comprehensive set of cross-platform computer security tools. It is a safe choice. Yet it is expensive and is not necessarily the right choice for everyone. It’s a poor option for Apple users who don’t get all the benefits.

Norton 360 is aimed at consumers, people who work from home, freelancers and sole proprietors. You might buy it if you have a handful of vulnerable devices to protect. If you run a bigger operation you should look elsewhere for an alternative built for business or corporate users.

Even if you fall into Norton’s target market, it may not be necessary to buy security software at all. In fact, I recommend you don’t unless you are in a group that needs extra protection.

Should you decide you want protection, then Norton 360 is a safe choice. It’s popular. According to Norton there are 50 million users. It wouldn’t stay popular if it didn’t deliver benefits.

Norton fails to deliver on Apple kit

If you run Windows, it’s a solid option. In practice I found it was overkill for my Apple-centric home business. You might find otherwise.

Norton 360 is a comprehensive suite of security tools covering Windows, MacOS, Android and iOS devices. Here I only look at the product on MacOS and iOS.

According to the marketing you get anti-virus and anti-spam software, a full VPN, a firewall, parental controls1 and back-up.

Because these are a family of tools, they all dovetail neatly with each other. That’s not always the experience when you mix and match security components from multiple sources.

LifeLock

There’s also a feature called Lifelock. This promises to help protect against identity theft, although it can feel alarming to use.

I didn’t test LifeLock because the first rule of privacy protection is to not hand over important personal details to every Tom, Dick and Harriet who come asking for them. If you read on, you’ll see why I’m not planning to maintain the kind of long-term relationship that might make LifeLock worthwhile.

Norton 360 comes in an array of versions, each includes a different number of licences. You can buy a single licence product, or two or three or five or ten.

The price rises as you go up the levels. Spend NZ$100 and you get a single licence, spend NZ$250 and you get ten. Keep in mind these are subscriptions for a single year’s use.

Slow start

Getting started on a Mac isn’t as easy as Norton wants you to think. The process takes 30 minutes, a lot of that is waiting around for things to download even on a gigabit fibre connection. Clearly Norton is not geared up for fast download speeds, that doesn’t make me confident about using the back-up feature.

There’s a moment in the install process where the software directs you to change the MacOS Security and Privacy settings in the General Preferences. After this, you then have to reboot the computer and then, ridiculously go back to the settings and do it all over again.

Maybe it is necessary. It certainly grates.

I should also point out Norton doesn’t explain why you should change these settings. It may seem obvious, but that’s not good enough. Security is about trust. Expecting customers to unlock the gates without offering a good reason goes against good security principles.

This all seems irritating and time consuming, but it would be a small price to pay if Norton made a Mac safer. And that’s the problem. It’s not clear that Norton 360 makes much difference. It’s also not clear it adds NZ$200 worth of value.

My Norton

Once everything is loaded, there’s a My Norton home page with five tabs. These are: Device Security; Secure VPN; Password Manager; Parental Controls and Cloud Backup.

Let’s run through the feature list and see where there is value and where there is none.

Top of the list is Device Security. This includes malware scanning and a firewall. There’s no indication that Norton’s firewall is an improvement on the free, built-in MacOS firewall. No obvious value there.

This is less clear cut with the malware scanning. I’ve owned Macs for seven years and have never seen any malware on any of the Apple devices in my home2. At one point there were eight devices when all the family had Macs and iPads.

You might have a different experience or indulge in riskier behaviour that lets malware in. While there’s no value in malware scanning for me, I accept it may help others.

VPN the highlight

Norton’s Secure VPN is excellent. Earlier standalone versions nagged you if you attempted to use Bittorrent, even legal torrents. And it didn’t like some legitimate streaming services. There is no longer any of that nonsense. At least not in the time the VPN has been running.

The Password Manager does nothing for me. Similar functionality is part of Apple operating systems and there are excellent tools such as 1password that do a better job. Again, other people may find it helpful. I don’t.

My children have grown up and left home, so parental controls are not needed. It turns out that they are not part of the deal for Mac users although it does work with iOS.

Back-up missing in action

Norton’s cloud back-up is also missing in action for Mac users. In theory you get 100GB of online storage to play with on the NZ$200 a year plan. If you are a light Windows computer user this may be enough to back-up your files. You can get extra storage if you buy a more expensive plan, but the price seems high if that’s all you want.

Either way, there is no MacOS back-up software.

There’s an option to buy what Norton calls the Ultimate Help Desk for another $150 a year. It’s not clear from the website if that is US or NZ dollars.

It’s hard to love the way Norton wants a hefty up-front NZ$200 and then charge more for extras which you might reasonably expect to be part of the deal. But sadly that’s the way of the world, consumers seem to tolerate apps with in-app purchase, so may be I’m out of touch for even mentioning this.

What’s missing?

In a package of this price and complexity, I’d expect to see something for protecting users against ransomware. Maybe that’s in there somewhere, but I haven’t found it.

I wasn’t a fan of parental controls when my children were young, they don’t seem to guard against the biggest risk which is online bullying. Yet not having a Mac version wipes some of the perceived value of Norton 360 for Apple users.

The lack of back-up also detracts from the product’s value for Mac owners. In effect only three of the five main feature groups are available for Mac owners. You have to wonder why these features are shown on the MacOS version of the MyNorton home page if they don’t exist.

From a MacOS point of view, Norton 360 is an expensive disappointment. The brightest spot is the Secure VPN. You get five one year VPN licences for $200. Norton sells a stand-alone VPN product, five one year licences purchased that way cost NZ$140, you have to ask yourself if the firewall and malware protection are worth another NZ$60. I’m not convinced they are.


  1. See what I mean about it not being aimed at business users? ↩︎
  2. This is not 100 percent true. We have seen Windows malware in email spam folders. But that’s not a concern for a Mac user. ↩︎

Vodafone’s 5G network will launch any day now. Spark wants you to know it already has New Zealand’s first commercial 5G service.

That’s only part of the story.

If Vodafone is about to dive headlong into the pool, Spark dipped a toe in the shallow end.

When it launches Vodafone will have over 100 5G towers in parts of the three biggest cities and in Queenstown. Spark’s network is restricted to what it calls heartland communities.

This is code for small South Island towns. More precisely; Alexandra, Westport, Clyde, Twizel, Tekapo and Hokitika. Collectively the population of these places is around 16,000.

Small reach

That is about one-third of one percent of New Zealand’s population.

Vodafone won’t have city-wide coverage in its launch cities. Even so, its network could cover getting on for half the population. Even a pessimistic look at the numbers suggests Vodafone will reach 100 times as many potential 5G customers as Spark.

That’s not all. Spark’s network only offers fixed wireless broadband. While fixed wireless might suit some people, most people would see it as a second rate alternative to fibre.

Tekapo and Clyde don’t have fibre, the other places do.

Not preferred 5G spectrum

There’s another angle to this. Spark’s network will use 2600MHz spectrum. The company says this is not its preferred 5G spectrum. Spark doesn’t own the spectrum, it belongs to Dense Air.

The number of commercial Spark 5G heartland community customers for the next few months will be measured in hundreds, not thousands. Vodafone probably expects to sign more customers in a single day.

Spark does also have 5G around parts of Auckland Harbour for the America’s Cup racers. But that’s a private network.

Fate has been cruel to Spark’s 5G ambition. Spark’s plan to show 5G leadership have been hit by three external forces.

First, there is the GCSB’s unwillingness to sign off on preferred partner Huawei building the network.

Spectrum

Second, the government has ignored Spark’s pleas to speed up the Spectrum auction. And third, Vodafone pulled a rabbit out of a hat when the parent company sold the New Zealand operation to new owners willing to invest early in a new 5G network.

Of course the idea carriers are jockeying to win a 5G race is ridiculous. The technology will be around for 10 years. Getting it right is more important than getting it first. Few customers will jump ship just because they have to wait a few months.

While there may be a small first mover advantage, the real winner will be the carrier that can make its network pay over the long haul.

Last week engineers completed the first UFB stage. The so-called UFB1 fibre network reaches three quarters of the country.

UFB2 will stretch that to around 87 percent. We can take fibre further, but that needs taxpayer money. A lot of it.

When New Zealand built its copper telephone network, government saw it as a nation-building exercise. Copper phone wires reached almost everywhere.

The number you often see quoted is that it reached 99 percent of the country. It could have been one or two percent less. That’s not the point.

Copper went everywhere

What’s important is that it felt as if copper reached every part of New Zealand. Perception is important.

There’s no technical reason the fibre network couldn’t do the same. The arguments against running fibre everywhere are economic. A nationwide fibre network is expensive.

Yes, it was expensive laying copper to outlying settlements and buildings. We did that at a time when there was less money around.

State-owned monopoly

We also did it at a time the telecommunications network was a government owned monopoly.

The copper network was built as a public service, not a profit making business. Laying copper to the nation’s furthest reaches and maintaining the network created good-paying jobs for workers in regional New Zealand. That would have been a consideration. We rarely hear that argument today.

In a sense it was still about getting the maximum return on the investment, but not in the way modern companies measure investments and returns. There was a social component.

How far can we go with fibre?

We’re not about to go back to a state-owned telecommunications monopoly1. But there is still a social component to network building. So how far can we go given today’s conditions?

The easy answer is somewhere between the 87 percent already earmarked and the 99 percent the copper network achieved. It won’t be 99 percent, it will be more than 87 percent.

If pushed I’d say a little over 90 percent in the next five years with further add-ons later. But that depends on many moving parts. It also depends on technology not changing, which experience says is a mug’s bet.

Brutal economics

Many forces drive network extension decision making. The most brutal economic fact is that the further you go, the more it costs to add each extra address to the network.

By the time you get to the last few percent the cost is way higher than can be justified by an investor looking for a rational economic return. At least as things stand today.

A nation building government could find the money.

The good news is that fibre uptake is much higher than anticipated at the start of the UFB project. It’s already close to 60 percent and will climb well beyond that number.

This means investing money connecting what were once marginal addresses is now more likely to pay off.

There will be places not included in the 87 percent covered by UFB1 and UFB2 where connection makes sound economic sense.

Politics of fibre

Another force pushing the number higher is political. People in rural areas see people in towns getting Netflix and high quality streaming Rugby pictures. Their kids want to play Xbox games.

People want fibre and may pressure politicians to deliver. Never underestimate rural New Zealand’s ability to lobby government.

By now the people connected to fixed wireless broadband on the RBI network know they have second rate broadband. It will take a long time for their service to improve, if ever. There are stories of capacity problems.

Not everyone who wants a wireless connection can get one. It is unlikely rural fixed wireless will ever match fibre. That’s more pressure.

One way or another government needs to subsidise further network extension. So the answer to the how far will the network goes question is a matter of the willingness of governments and taxpayers to put people in rural New Zealand on an equal digital footing.

Before you ask how far will fibre go, ask yourself how much you are willing to pay?


  1. Discuss this by all means. Even if you think it is desirable, it’s unlikely. ↩︎