Project Auckland: Mobile data is main priority

By Bill Bennett

Spark is making sure the Auckland region is well covered with mobile connection, reports Bill Bennett
Silverdale is home to one of the world's first 4.5G mobile sites; five times as many connections as 4G sites.
Silverdale is home to one of the world's first 4.5G mobile sites; five times as many connections as 4G sites.

If you want fast wireless data now, move to Silverdale. Spark recently installed one of the world's first 4.5G mobile sites in the suburb.

The tower there can handle about five times as many connections as today's 4G cellular sites. Data speeds are three, four or even five times faster than you'd see elsewhere.

It's a taste of the future. With the right equipment, people can download at gigabit speeds, although 4.5G devices are not available yet. In a few years, however, gigabit mobile data will be the new normal.

Spark New Zealand chief operating officer Mark Beder says the company chose Silverdale for its second 4.5G site because it's a fast-growing area. It is typical of how Auckland's outer areas will expand in coming years as the city continues to expand.

Silverdale also has several business parks and there are huge new residential developments underway.

He says the Silverdale mobile tower already sees higher than usual traffic.

The company has another 4.5G site in central Christchurch and both foreshadow a move to 5G mobile data networks sometime after 2020. Spark is investing in the spectrum, equipment and infrastructure needed to support next generation wireless. The company is pushing to get there early because it anticipates that's what customers will want.

Beder says demand for mobile data is growing at a huge pace as communications moves centrestage in people's lives.

"That means we need to look at it in a different way. People have long viewed services such as power and water as essential. At Spark we see communications and the infrastructure needed to support it in the same light.

"We'd like to see more consideration given to telecommunications infrastructure and for councils and others to include it in their planning. It needs to be included in planning for other infrastructure such as roads, tunnels and railways.

"People have become a lot more dependent on communications. Not just voice but also data."

He says the need is there and so is the consumer desire.

"Take my family as an example. If we look back five years, our use of data has grown exponentially. We've gone from something like 5GB of data a month to 150GB.

"The way we use information technology now is also different. It's become an essential service for our customers."

Five years ago, cellphones were all about voice calls and text messages. Today they are pocket computers. People use them more for connecting to the internet. They use phones to pay bills, shop and hail rides.

We'd like to see more consideration given to telecommunications infrastructure and for councils and others to include it in their planning. It needs to be included in planning for other infrastructure such as roads, tunnels and railways.
Mark Beder, Spark New Zealand chief operating officer

Mobile is also about entertainment as well as work. Beder says.

"Who would have guessed five years ago there would be hundreds of people on the streets playing Pokemon Go?

"We use our phones to download music with services like Spotify and to watch video on services like Lightbox."

He says about two-thirds of Spark customers use their phones to connect to the internet. When it comes to those customers aged between 18 and 29 that number climbs to 85 per cent.

Beder says one of the drivers for Spark's Auckland infrastructure investment is to ensure the right level of coverage as the city expands.

"We want to stay ahead of the game. An example of this is the 4.5G towers. The devices aren't ready yet, but we want our network to be ready when they are."

A decade or so ago most of the attention went on covering the central business district. Now the focus is on the wider Auckland region all the way from Drury to the Rodney district.

Beder says investment is critical to get the right service and capabilities out there for our customers.

"It's not just about expanding the coverage but increasing the capacity".

One example of this is the new Waterview Tunnel, expected to open early next year. Beder says Spark invested to deliver good connectivity and coverage as travellers pass through the tunnel.

Likewise, there has been considerable investment on the waterfront and around the Britomart area to ensure networks are not swamped when cruise ship passengers arrive with hundreds of roaming mobile phones.

It's not just mobile. Beder says Spark has also been investing in building the fibre and optical transport networks to support its operations. The investment isn't likely to stop soon.

He says Spark is already planning to increase capacity in Auckland as the city grows over the next 10 to 20 years.

Resilience is an important part of this planning. Beder says it is built in to all Spark's networks which are designed with alternative routes and back-ups.

He says his team was at the office within an hour of the recent earthquake in Kaikoura, and staff worked with other telcos to restore communications in the town. But even careful planning isn't always enough.

- NZ Herald

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