Communications Minister Kris Faafoi says the government will offer spare 3.5GHz spectrum to mobile networks and Māori by the middle of next year. He should put some aside for the Wisps or wireless internet service providers.
Carriers need extra spectrum to offer fuller 5G mobile services. A full 5G service needs 80 to 100 MHz of spectrum to delver the faster speeds and other benefits 5G promises.
Vodafone has a 5G network, at present it only allows fast downloads. Among other things, it needs more spectrum for faster uploads.
Spark also runs a 5G network. It’s tiny and only serves a handful of South Island towns. At the moment it is only used for fixed wireless broadband customers. Spark is leasing spectrum from another company. It needs its own.
Next year’s auction is an interim move. The licences auctioned run until the end of 2022. Usually governments sell spectrum licences for 20 years or so. By 2022 the government plans to have a longer term alternative in place.
In an ideal world, both the temporary fix and the long-term 5G allocation will leave capacity for New Zealand’s Wisps.
Wisps are often owner-operator businesses. You might find the boss climbing a pole somewhere in the bush or driving a quad bike to a remote site. They are an important lifeline for some rural communities.
New Zealand has a couple of dozen Wisps, maybe 30. Most of them depend on the 3.5GHz spectrum to connect farmers and other rural customers. For many remote users this is the only practical way of connecting to the outside world.
The government is working with 17 Wisps to boost coverage in remote areas.
Radio waves in the 3.5GHz spectrum band are, in effect, line-of-sight.
From an engineering point of view it should be possible for Wisps to go on using these frequencies while the big telcos use the same spectrum in busier areas.
Yet that’s not how licences usually work. So we need a mechanism to stop the big guys from using their financial clout to muscle in on the smaller players.
In February Faafoi said there will be spectrum for Wisps to carry on operating. There needs to be. These companies are a vital link in New Zealand’s telecommunications chain. Their customers are the nation’s largest exporters. They could do with some answers now so they can plan.
Every year throws up a long list of news stories, product launches and events. This year was better than most. Here are six 2019 stories that resonated with me. It’s a personal, unordered list and it’s written from a New Zealand perspective. You may have other highlights. Feel free to share them in the comments below.
Apple AirPods Pro
Apple used a busy, noisy Auckland cafe to show off the AirPods Pro. By the time they hit New Zealand there was already an excited buzz about the noise cancelling ear buds. I expected a positive experience.
Even so, the sound quality was surprising. It wasn’t only the active noise cancelling, although that’s impressive enough. The AirPods sound is accurate. It doesn’t seem possible that something so small could sound so good.
Until 2019 it had been a long time since I left a product demonstration with a smile on my face. Then it happened twice in a short period. First with the Apple AirPods Pro, then a second time with the Samsung Galaxy Fold.
The price tag is be north of three grand (NZ$3400). Samsung’s first generation folding phone is a touch more fragile than I’d like. Yet here is the first major breakthrough in handset design since Apple’s first iPhone. Samsung has broken the mould and come up with real innovation.
Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is less a phone, more a small tablet that you can fold and carry in a pocket. You might even see it as a pocket computer. Either way, it is beyond impressive.
When folded it is a long slim phone, a little thicker and heavier than we’ve come to expect. Unfolded it is about the size of an iPad Mini and does much the same job.
Huawei showed its folding phone earlier at Mobile World Congress. A brief look confirmed it was a contender. So far, only one of the two models on show in Barcelona has made it to market in New Zealand.
No doubt there will soon be more, better folding phone designs. I’d love to see what Apple can do with this format: how about an iPhone that morphs into an iPad?
But for now, this is Samsung’s triumph.
Spark Sport, Sky Sport Now
Spark Sport’s Rugby World Cup service came in for flak and some cruel media attention. That’s what you get for interfering with New Zealand’s favourite sporting code.
In my experience the streaming service worked fine during the RWC. I’ve racked up well over a hundred hours with the app. A lot of that was watching Premier League football1.
There have been hiccups, yet it is better experience than the BeIN service it replaced. My only gripe was I enjoyed the preview shows and the run-up coverage before big games on BeIN. Spark offers less of that. Also, half time is not so much fun without pundits.
Spark’s entry into streaming sport services has seen Sky lift its game. The new Sky Sport Now app has 12 channels of sport around the clock.
Sky Sport Now has excellent cricket coverage. It fills the European and international football gaps left by Spark. Most of the time there are enough channels to cover every game. Although there was one Champion’s League round where my team, Chelsea, only showed up as a replay later in the day.
I’m not complaining. The service is excellent. It’s good to see Spark and Sky compete by offering the best customer experience. It would be great if we had more of this kind of competitive tension.
The two streaming sport options are great value. Buying Sky Now and Spark Sport works out less each month than an old-style subscription to Sky’s satellite service. By my reckoning, there’s a broader selection of content to watch. That’s a win.
Deebot Ozmo 900
Robot vacuums aren’t new. The Deebot Ozmo 900 updates the idea. It offers mopping as well as vacuuming. I had low expectations before I saw it in action. It impressed me once we used it. This is the only way to go.
The best part about the Ozmo 900 is that it’s low-slung body can get under beds, cupboards and tables. These are places where manual vacuuming gets hard. Another great aspect is, because it does all the work, you can vacuum more often keeping the house cleaner.
For me one of the clearest signs the original UFB project succeeded is that government found more money to connect another 169 areas. The so-called UFB2 takes coverage to around 85 percent of the country.
Another clear sign of success was Spark’s decision to stream Rugby World Cup coverage.
Next year, Chorus and central North Island fibre company UFF will offer 2Gbps and 4Gbps fibre. We’ve come a long way from ten years ago. Then a 30mbps fibre service looked like the last word in modern data communications.
The Vodafone giant awakes
In recent years it seemed as if Vodafone’s New Zealand operation wasn’t going anywhere. In part this was because the parent company felt it had better things to invest in than the second telco in a small, remote country.
There has also been an investment in customer support. That’s something that was an embarrassment in the past.
These initiatives are important, yet there’s more to the change. It’s as if Vodafone has had a vitamin injection. Now there is an energy to the business that wasn’t there before. It helps that Paris recruited fresh talent to senior positions, but it goes beyond that. It is as if the company has awoken from a slumber.
What it means in practice is that Spark faces greater competitive pressure than it did 18 months ago. Likewise the next tier of telcos; 2degrees, Vocus and so on, are also feeling the heat. Ten years after government restructured the industry we are seeing the competition those moves aimed to unleash.
Six of the biggest tech moments of 2019 are positives. The seventh is also a positive, but it’s a positive that came about because of an horrific negative.
In May Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke at the Christchurch Call summit in Paris. It was a response to the Christchurch mosque shootings. The terrorist shooter filmed his crimes, streaming them online in real time.
The summit attempts to force social media companies to take more responsibity for material they publish. During the year, 48 countries signed an agreement to stop social media publishing terror messages. The US didn’t sign.
It isn’t clear if the initiative will work. Yet it is a first step towards wrestling control of online media away from the murderers and criminals who use it as a weapon. I suspect there is more to do, but the longest of journeys starts with a single step.
It could be more than 200 hours, I’m not counting ↩︎
Science fiction doesn’t do a great job of predicting the future. When it comes to telecommunications, it does worse.
At the time of writing, Netflix is streaming Blade Runner, a classic science fiction movie from 1982.
Blade Runner is interesting because the action is set in 2019. In other words, it is a view from almost 40 years ago of how we live today.
What did it get right and what did it get wrong? Some things are way off target. Early on, the hero, Rick Deckard, meets a policeman driving a flying car. We’re not even remotely near driving flying cars in 2019.
That’s a huge miss.
Also early on, an advertisement floats overhead. Again, flying adverts are not an everyday feature of our lives. The nearest we get are banners floating behind light aircraft.
However, the advertising hoardings are giant screens. That is on the money. Large advertising screens are now a familiar sight in cities, although, thankfully, unlike in the film, they don’t project sound with their images.
Thanks to climate change, Los Angeles, the film’s setting, suffers constant rain. The writers were correct in predicting climate change, but we have heatwaves and storms, not constant downpours.
One flying advertisement encourages people to emigrate ‘off-world’. Travelling to the stars seems a tempting offer looking at the movie’s depiction of 2019 life.
But really? We still shoot rockets into the sky, but no-one has been back to the moon since 1972, let alone travelled the solar system or deeper into space.
And we know Blade Runner’s people travel beyond the solar system because later in the film one of the characters talks about seeing “attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion”.
Then we get to the main theme of the movie: bio-engineered replicants. These aren’t robots in the usual sense, but artificial humans. We are nowhere near this kind of technology in 2019.
As an aside, the film is based on a 1968 book called Do androids dream of electric sheep? Androids play a large part in life today, but they’re not human-like, they are mobile phones.
This brings us to telecommunications. Where are the mobile phones that dominate 2019 life? Almost everybody in the real world has one.
It’s not as if mobile phones weren’t around in 1982. The first, albeit heavy and unwieldy models, were introduced in 1949. Motorola had practical commercial handsets in 1973.
And where is broadband or any other kind of digital service? In 1982, some homes had tele-text machines. And email started in the 1970s. I had a work email account in 1982. Sure, it was dial-up and extremely slow, but no-one in the film has anything remotely like internet access.
Blade Runner is entertaining and thought provoking, but as a foretaste of 2019 it doesn’t come close.
A year ago it looked like the company would be starved of the resources needed to make a significant 5G splash. That changed when Infratil and Brookfield fund a $3.5 billion split from the UK-based parent company.
100 Vodafone 5G sites open today
Today there are 100 sites. While this sounds good, in practice it means scattered pockets of 5G in a sea of 4G mobile coverage. Vodafone says it will upgrade the 4G sites to 5G-like speeds and increase the number of 5G sites to around 1500 in the next few years.
Performance on Vodafone’s initial network is impressive. This morning social media was full of screen shots showing handsets downloading at speeds of around 500mbps. Actually the screen shots showed download test sites, which amounts to the same thing.
“We’re using 3.5GHz spectrum to launch 5G, and our current radio spectrum holdings will mean that Vodafone customers see an uplift of up to 10 times current 4G speeds.
“However to reach the one gigabit speeds that we’re seeing internationally, we’ll need approximately 100MHz of 3.5GHz spectrum so will continue to work with the government on the early allocation and auction processes.”
It’s worth remembering today’s 5G is uncluttered. There’s almost no-one using it. That’s going to help early performance. The technology should cope better than 4G with lots of traffic, but we’re months away from that happening.
New 5G handset needed
You can’t just walk into a 5G zone and get high speed mobile broadband. You need to buy an expensive new handset first. There are two models at the moment. Both are from Samsung and both are Android models. If you can live with Android you’ll be good to go.
If other 5G equipped phones from other brands are on the way to New Zealand, the companies making them are keeping quiet about it. Realistically there won’t be a wide choice, and certainly not suitable iPhones until at least this time next year.
By then Vodafone will charge a premium for 5G network access. The company says suitably equipped customers can use the 5G network at no extra cost until the end of June. From then they will need to pay an extra $10 a month for the service.
This echoes what happened in the early days of 4G. Although the premium didn’t last long once competition kicked in. This time Vodafone has at least six months start on its competitors, maybe much longer.
It may have been reasonable to ask 4G users to pay a premium, they got a noticeable performance upgrade. The practical benefits of upgrading to 5G will be less obvious to most phone customers.
Yes, they will see faster speeds. Videos will download faster. On paper you can browse faster.
Yet there are no practical mobile applications for ordinary users that need extra speed. Not yet. 4G mobile has plenty of bandwidth to watch high resolution video on a handheld device. And when was the last time you hit a bottleneck browsing on 4G?
Gamers may find something worth paying a premium for. They won’t see higher resolution, but they should see lower latency from using 5G.
That’s good, but $10 a month just to get a better gaming response seems a bit steep for all but the most hard-core gamers.
Unlike 4G, most of the benefit of 5G goes to Vodafone and its enterprise customers. The technology means many more paying customers can use cellular at the same time, which gives Vodafone an opportunity to sell more. It also gives the company shiny new things to sell, like network slices and internet-of-things services.
In that sense charging mobile users a premium is like asking supermarket shoppers to pay more because a new Pak’n Save is opening down the road.
If Vodafone is going to get non-business customers to upgrade their mobile and pay more, it needs a better reason than fast. Phones already do fast-enough with 4G.
Spark’s handful of South Island fixed wireless sites pales in comparison. ↩︎
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 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.
Although, for now, that probably also means you off the 5G fixed wireless map ↩︎