Spark wants to launch a 5G mobile network on July 1, 2020, managing director Simon Moutter revealed this morning.
Surrounded by members of Emirates Team NZ, the telco boss officially started a countdown clock today at his company's new 5G Lab at Auckland's Wynyard Quarter.
Moutter said a pre-commercial 5G service would help Team NZ analyse performance data and stream video in real-time as it prepares for the 2021 America's Cup.
He said it was possible 5G would allow viewers to watch Cup races via virtual reality headsets, with immersive high definition video fed from Team NZ's boat in real time during races.
He added that on an everyday level, mobile data traffic was roughly doubling every 12 months, 5G (which is much faster than the 4G or fourth generation technology used by mobile networks today) would be needed just to make sure cellular network didn't get congested over the next few years.
"Data volumes will start to exceed 4G's sensible limits around 2020/2021."
Moutter said for Spark to hit its July 2020 deadline, the government has to auction spectrum early to mid next year.
Although Spark's desired 5G launch date is 509 days away, it will take a lot of time to build and test the network, and overcome issues such as interference, Moutter said - no doubt mindful of his company's disastrous "XT" 3G network launch, when it was first taken to the High Court by Vodafone over interference, then suffered multi-day outages caused by technical glitches.
But Moutter also conceded it was tricky to give an exact timeline when Communications Minister Kris Faafoi and MBIE have yet to say when the government will hold a 5G spectrum auction - or confirm whether it will include the "C-band" spectrum that Spark is keen on.
Moutter said with Australia's 5G auction taking place this month, "If we don't start to make spectrum policy decisions quickly, we will be left behind by our close neighbours and many other countries."
He noted that the UK and South Korea will see 5G networks in 2019, while US telco AT&T will start a rollout this year.
The Spark boss said his company was talking constructively with the government, but he added he was getting "impatient" as other countries moved ahead.
Communications Minister Kris Faafoi said the auction will take place in time for Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees to build 5G networks that can be launched in early 2020, but talking to the Herald this afternoon, he did not yield to Moutter's demand to get a wriggle on.
"I have discussed with Simon Moutter directly the need to maximise the benefits of 5G for all New Zealand. Spark does want to move with speed but the Government has to balance that with broader considerations and the long-term impact of these decisions." Faafoi said.
"There are a number of significant considerations that need to be worked through such as, spectrum-related Treaty of Waitangi obligations, ensuring appropriate security measures and the method for spectrum allocation."
The 5G auction is a potential windfall for the government. Spark ($149m), Vodafone ($66m) and 2degrees ($44m) spent a total of $259m on various chunks of 4G spectrum in 2014. But as reserve prices are set, Faafoi also has to weigh the fact that the cost of bids will ultimately be passed on to consumers.
Faafoi and GCSB Minister Andrew Little are also yet to confirm whether Spark partner Huawei will be allowed as a 5G technology supplier (another area where Moutter has been vocal).
In the meantime, Spark's 5G Lab, located in the Grid AKL shared space at Wynyard Quarter, includes two live 5G cellsites. The telco says businesses can use the lab to experiment with 5G applications.
"It's also a place to showcase technologies that will redefine the way we work, live and play e.g. robotics, virtual reality, facial recognition, Internet of Things, smart cities, emergency services drones, and driverless cars," Moutter said.
New Vodafone boss Jason Paris has taken a more softly-softly line on 5G. He told the Herald his company would "embrace 5G like it's our best friend."
But he also said telcos had to get out of a cycle of investing ahead of customer demand.
There are no 5G-compatible smartphones today, and none on the horizon.
"If we released 5G tomorrow in New Zealand, I don't think you'd be willing to pay $5 or $10 more for it. As an industry, we have to get out of this 'invest more and get less' mode," he said.
"What I want to see before we accelerate 5G is the customer use cases that justify us accelerating it and bringing it forward.
"We'll embrace it, we'll be up with the best, but I would like to see us create some value for us as well as our customers from this - not just cost for us and discounts for our customers."
What is 5G?
• 5G or "fifth generation" mobile network technology is much faster than the 4G mobile networks operated by Spark, Vodafone and 2degrees today.
• Exactly how fast is a "how long is a piece of string?" scenario, as it will depend how close you are to the nearest 5G cell tower, how many people are using the network at the same time and other factors.
• But broadly speaking a 5G mobile connection should be just as fast as most UFB fibre landline broadband connections.
• Just as importantly, 5G has much lower latency than 4G - that's industry speak for lag or small delays between sending packets of data that can interrupt any two-way exchange such as a video call. This means some people might consider a 5G mobile connection as a replacement for UFB fibre.
• To connect to a mobile network at 5G speeds, you'll need an iPhone or Android phone or tablet that supports 5G. None do today, and it will probably be at least another product cycle or two before the likes of Apple and Samsung add 5G capability to their products.
• Although humans will use 5G to stream high def videos more smoothly, the new mobile technology's extra bandwidth will be partly hogged by gadgets swapping data with each other. Moutter said today that by 2020, there would be four internet-connected devices for every person on the planet - most of them part of the "internet of things" or machines talking to machines.