2degrees is finally going live with 5G today, a good two years after its rivals.
The faster, more capable mobile network technology is in central areas of Auckland and Wellington, and in limited areas of Christchurch (see a coverage map here).
More suburbs in these three cities will have sites coming online week-by-week as 2022 continues, chief technology officer Martin Sharrock says.
The more glaring omission is not geographic, however, but the lack of support for Apple's iPhone or most models made by Android market leader Samsung.
There are just three 5G phones supported with the initial launch, and all are expensive models: Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 2 and Flip 3, and Oppo's Find X3 Pro.
But 2degrees has been testing multiple handsets from Apple, Samsung and others on its upgraded network, and more handset support is expected to be announced shortly.
2degrees' line has always been that there was no need to rush a 5G upgrade, given standards were still evolving, and its 4G network offered pacey performance.
But in the background, there were two other factors: The GCSB's move to ban Huawei from mobile network upgrades, and a corporate parent looking for an exit.
Both narratives have, ultimately, led to a happy ending for 2degrees.
In November 2018, the GCSB blocked an application from Spark to use Huawei gear in its proposed 5G upgrade, and the spy agency's leadership only hardened its opposition over the next two years as the Chinese company offered various workarounds.
The development was a blow for Spark, but one that it could absorb as it retained Cisco and Ericsson for the "core" (or brains) of its mobile network but substituted Nokia Networks and Samsung for Huawei at its "edge" (that is, the electronics used on cell sites).
2degress, by contrast, was a nearly all-Huawei shop, using the Chinese giant's kit at both its core and its edge.
After an initial period of waiting for the geopolitical winds to clear, 2degrees moved on, selecting Sweden's Ericsson to upgrade both its core and edge to 5G.
Also, Huawei's 4G kit is also being ripped out and replaced on 2degrees' network with Ericsson gear. Sharrock says the result is better mobile performance overall, given 4G has advanced since its initial rollout.
"Having a brand-new modern network from Ericsson on 3G, 4G and 5G will give us the flexibility to dynamically allocate more spectrum to 5G over time," Sharrock told the Herald.
On the ownership side, late last year 2degrees' majority shareholder, the Seattle-based Trilogy International Partners, announced a deal to sell its Kiwi telco asset to Voyage Australia, a joint venture between the ASX-listed Macquarie Group and Australia's largest superannuation fund, Aware Super.
Voyage had already acquired Orcon Group (formerly Vocus NZ) a few months earlier. The Aussie firm now plans to merge Orcon with 2degrees in a deal widely expected to gain Commerce Commission approval in March (neither Spark nor Vodafone has lodged an objection).
Unlike Trilogy, which carried a heavy debt load, Macquarie and Aware have deep pockets.
All players waiting for auction
All of the three mobile network operators are waiting on the Government to name a date to action "C-Band" spectrum that will allow them to expand the capability of their 5G networks.
With an iwi claim on spectrum addressed, to a fashion, all parties now expect the auction to take place this year.
"Having secure spectrum will ensure continued capacity for growth in 5G services and innovative solutions for customers. 2degrees are hoping 100MHz will be available to enable the best possible service on this spectrum band," Sharrock said.
2degrees was relatively muted with its cheque book at the 4G auction in 2016 as Spark and Vodafone bought more of the various chunks of airwaves that were put on the block.
This time around, 2degrees has more heavy-duty financial resources under its presumptive new owners (Sharrock notes its 5G upgrade is fully funded, regardless).
However, industry and political chatter strongly indicates that the Government will cap bidding this time around if Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees are willing to accept network deployment provisions - widely expected to include a provision for more rural coverage - as a trade-off.
Vodafone NZ and Spark have both recently revealed that they're assessing plans to spin-out their cell tower networks. For Spark, it could be a vehicle to raise $100m.
Sharrock said his company was keeping a watching brief.
"Right now, our focus is on our network and the experience we offer for customers, but we are watching this space with interest," the 2degrees CTO said.