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Why wireless broadband is the most compelling early use of 5G

Forget virtual reality games on your mobile phone and wirelessly controlled robots and factories.

As Spark and Vodafone gear up to launch 5G mobile services in New Zealand, the most promising immediate use of the higher-speed network is delivering wireless broadband at the sort of speeds you typically require a fibre optic connection for.

Spark said this week that it would extend a 5G wireless broadband trial in Alexandra to five other South Island towns ahead of Christmas. It hasn’t released pricing details or the size of data plans, but is touting a huge jump in download speeds compared to its existing wireless broadband delivered over the 4G network.

“What we’re seeing in working with our trial customers in Alexandra, is they are now getting speeds of at least 20 times greater than they had before 5G, and sometimes considerably more than this,” says Rajesh Singh, Spark’s general manager of value management.

Both Spark and Vodafone currently offer 4G wireless broadband services in metro and rural areas, allowing higher-speeds and better quality access than the copper-line broadband connections that many outside the Ultra-Fast Broadband (UFB) network still rely on.

Spark has around 150,000 wireless broadband subscribers, while Vodafone has 46,000, mainly in rural areas. Other wireless operators serve an additional 75,000 or so customers in rural communities where mobile coverage is patchy.

While allowing Spark and Vodafone to reach non-UFB areas, wireless broadband is also being pursued as an alternative to fibre and copper connections because it's more economical.

Read more: What is 5G? | The road to cheap electric cars in New Zealand

Rajesh Singh. Photo/Supplied

Big ambitions for fixed wireless

Rather than paying a monthly charge per customer to network wholesaler Chorus, Spark and Vodafone can deliver broadband over their own network infrastructure.

With 5G, wireless broadband is delivered from a modem that plugs into a power socket and connects to a cell site, just as a mobile phone does. There is no need for a wireless antenna to be fitted to receive a connection.

“It is completely self-installed, literally a modem with a SIM-card in it. You receive the box and you are up and running instantly. For us, it is the ability to provide a seamless wireless connection almost instantly. The feedback has been quite positive,” says Singh.

That advantage and the boosted speeds 5G networks can offer, is what makes wireless broadband the most compelling early use of 5G for Tony Baird, Vodafone’s chief technology officer.

“I’d like to see around 25 per cent of our customers on wireless,” he told NOTED.

That would mean around 100,000 Vodafone customers accessing broadband wirelessly, within two to three years.

“With 5G you get to the point where you can have some really high data bundles.

“You can have much higher gigabyte limits.”

Spark recently increased its wireless broadband plan data limit to 600GB (gigabytes) for customers in parts of Auckland. Rural users still have lower data caps. But higher data caps or unlimited plans will be the norm in the 5G world.

Another advantage of wireless broadband is that you can simply unplug the 5G modem and take it with you to a new location, though both Baird and Singh said 5G wireless services would probably be geo-locked.

Moving house or business location, a user could then register a new address and be up and running quickly. That will appeal to those frustrated by long installation delays and the price often associated with getting a fibre connection.

Chorus, which offers wholesale connections to national fibre and copper networks, said this week that it would launch 2Gbps (gigabit per second) and 4Gbps connections over its fibre work, rising to 8Gbps sometime in the future. That would continue to make it an attractive option as 5G enters the picture, particularly for businesses with access to the UFB network.

Tony Baird. Photo/Supplied

Spectrum uncertainty

But 5G wireless broadband coverage will be limited until Spark and Vodafone can get their hands on blocks of radio spectrum that will be sold off as part of a government auction likely to take place in 2020.

Spark is using repurposed 2.6GHz (gigahertz) radio spectrum to offer 5G wireless broadband in parts of the South Island as well as spectrum belonging to Dense Air, a London-based company that owns a chunk of 2.6GHz spectrum in New Zealand.

“All of the towns before Christmas will be using [2.6GHz],” says Singh.

“3.5GHz is obviously our preferred spectrum option. If we can get access to that early it would be easier for us to deploy to the major centres.”

Singh said he had “no idea” when spectrum enabling a national roll-out of Spark’s 5G services would be available. It would depend on the timing and outcome of the spectrum auction, where Vodafone and 2Degrees will also be bidding for 3.5GHz spectrum to run their 5G services.

“It is frustrating that we can't get access to the spectrum,” says Singh.

“In order for us to operate and run a successful 5G network, we need that amount of spectrum to do that.”

Vodafone for its part has some spectrum available that it acquired when it bought TelstraClear. That will allow it to launch 5G services in parts of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown from next month, with 100 base stations to be upgraded with the new technology.

A further 400 Vodafone base stations are being added around the country to fill out 4G coverage, which Baird says is also a “critical plank” of extending its wireless broadband services.

Read more: How 5G will actually affect smartphone users

Australia’s 5G push

Across the Tasman, Australian operator Optus has put its 5G focus on wireless broadband, making its service available to 138,000 households earlier this month.

“Whilst it’s early days, our initial 5G service has been wowing customers who are experiencing a current average speed at peak time of 164Mbps (megabits per second), with the top speed achieved over 5G of 400Mbps at this point in time,” Optus chief executive Allen Lew told Australian media.

That could see wireless broadband increasingly pitched as a cheaper and faster alternative to Australia’s problem-plagued National Broadband Network (NBN) which delivers much lower average speeds than New Zealand’s equivalent, the taxpayer-subsidised UFB.

Technology commentator and Sky News correspondent Djuro Sen has been testing the Optus 5G wireless broadband service at his home in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

"It is a genuine alternative to the NBN and for some a replacement,” he says,

"I'm getting download speeds close to 300Mbps. The NBN is limited to 100Mbps and getting up to 50Mbps [for uploads].”

While impressed with the performance, Sen says wireless broadband does have limitations.

"There are too many drops out for critical monitoring systems like security and medical – at these early stages. For example, my always-on Nest security system goes offline many times a day,” he says.

"The key to this surveillance service is a solid connection, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's for this reason I'm also getting the NBN connected.”

There’s also one other important factor during setup: “Position. You need the best possible line of sight, near a window or it won't work as promised.”

In Alexandra and other South Island towns Spark will bring 5G wireless broadband to, Huawei modems are being used, though the radio access network (RAN) equipment providing the service is supplied by Nokia.

A Nokia 5G modem.

Spark’s plan B

Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei remains locked out of Spark’s 5G network build due to security concerns raised by the Government Communications Security Bureau under the Telecommunications (Interception Capability and Security) Act 2013 (TICSA).

“We have already obtained approval through TICSA to use Nokia 5G RAN equipment for our recently announced deployment in Alexandra, and for our upcoming locations before Christmas,” says Singh.

Spark withdrew its original TICSA application, which proposed going all-in on Huawei to build its 5G network, a position it had to reconsider in light of the Government’s concerns.

Singh says they will work through the TICSA approval process in due course with other RAN vendors, prior to any deployment of their equipment.

Read more: What the controversy over Huawei and 5G is all about

What about 5G mobile?

Vodafone will be the first to offer commercial 5G services for smartphones from next month, initially at no extra cost to 4G plans.

But coverage will be limited to parts of those main centres with customers dropping back to 4G in areas where 5G base stations haven’t yet been installed. Vodafone is also using Nokia for its 5G network build, putting the Finnish equipment maker in the box seat to dominate NZ’s 5G infrastructure build – at least for the RAN which delivers wireless coverage to users.

Vodafone is yet to reveal what 5G handsets will be available for customers. Samsung is already taking expressions of interest from customers, so its Galaxy Note 10+ and S10 handsets are likely to make an early debut. They are already available on Telstra’s 5G network in Australia.

5G mobile customers would initially enjoy much higher connection speeds than available with 4G, but the services that make the most out of 5G’s speed and low latency, such as video gaming, streaming and holographic calling, will be slower to arrive.

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