NZ's broadband is better than Australia's, but mobile data is a different story

by Peter Griffin / 30 June, 2018
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Kiwi-Aussie rivalry plays out in typical win-some, lose-some fashion in the internet access world. 

A few weeks ago in Sydney, I did an interview with ABC Radio about the dire state of Australia’s broadband. The country’s National Broadband Network has been a disaster technically, financially and politically – a failure of leadership that has crippled a piece of infrastructure critical to the country’s economic development.

It was nice to contrast that debacle with the success here of the ultrafast broadband network, which has given a big boost to internet connection speeds all over the country. We are using much more data – on average 250GB (gigabytes) a month for users of fibre last year. As a result, about two-thirds of broadband plans are now “unlimited” – they have no monthly download cap.

That is as it should be – you shouldn’t have to think about how much data you are using in the age of ultra-high-definition video streaming. But what about broadband on your mobile?

Walking Sydney’s streets, I saw billboards for Australia’s new unlimited mobile broadband plans. Telstra is offering its Endless Data BYO Plan for A$69 ($75) a month, including 40GB of mobile data a month at full-speed access, then limited to 1.5Mbps (megabits per second) for unlimited data thereafter. It includes unlimited calling and texting, too.

Vodafone Australia offers three plans: A$60 a month for 40GB of 4G mobile data, A$80 for 70GB and A$120 for 100GB of data. Again, calling and texting are included, but once the cap is reached, the connection speed is limited to the extent that it is really only useful for web surfing, email and standard definition video streaming.

So what’s the situation with unlimited mobile data plans here? Yes, we do have them. 2degrees was first into the market last year, followed by Spark. The 2degrees $129-a-month Max plan includes unlimited calling, texting and data without speed restriction. However, it is subject to a fair-use policy: use must be “reasonable and not excessive”, which is determined by comparing your use to the average on that plan.

Spark has an $80-a-month unlimited-data plan with calling and texts included, but the connection speed is reduced when you’ve used 22GB of data. It has a number of bundled extras, including Spotify Premium, Lightbox and free access to Spark’s network of Wi-Fi hotspots.

But there is one big catch with those two unlimited data plans: you can’t use them for tethering devices to your phone; that is, to create a mobile hotspot to supply internet access to a laptop, say.

That’s a deal-breaker for me. Allowing the connection to be used to connect your computer, tablet or TV would open the game up completely, particularly for business people on the move.

The mobile players aren’t willing to go there – yet. In the meantime, capped data plans will suit most people. According to Statistics New Zealand, the average mobile data usage on 3.8 million mobile phones in June 2017 was 1.7GB a month. That will have roughly doubled by now.

I recently shifted to a contract-free Skinny Mobile plan, which includes 10GB of data and unlimited calling and texting for $46 a month, which is pretty good value. After three months of use, I have 14GB of “rollover data” available, which means I haven’t used my full monthly allowance so have it in reserve.

Similarly reasonable deals are offered by the three mobile carriers and the rise of sharing plans allows you to spread data use across multiple devices, which is handy. The true debut of unlimited mobile broadband will probably come with the roll-out of “5G” networks in the next few years, which will offer boosted capacity and connection speeds.

By then, there will be more appetite for mobile data, too. The Statistics NZ survey showed that in the year to June 30, 2017, the total number of home broadband connections decreased 3%. More of us want to go mobile only, which will fuel the rise of unlimited mobile data plans.

This article was first published in the June 16, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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