Post-lockdown - a period that saw unlimited data for most under Covid-relief measures - Spark and Vodafone have launched duelling rural fixed-wireless broadband deals as they try to keep customers in the fold.
"For the first time in Spark's history, we made the unprecedented decision to lift data caps nationwide for 100 days. This was to support our customers who were having to work, learn and connect from home," Spark product director Tessa Tierney says.
"This challenge showed us that overall our network coped incredibly well – especially considering usage close to doubled.
"This has given us the confidence to increase our data caps in rural areas, where customers don't have access to the same amount of capacity as their urban counterparts."
Rural customers on the 120 gigabyte fixed-wireless broadband plan will automatically increase to 160GB and those on the 240GB plan will increase to 300GB – without needing to pay anything extra – from July 1, 2020, Tierney says.
Vodafone extends unlimited data offer
Meanwhile, Vodafone says it has decided to continue its Covid-19 relief measure for rural users, which saw unlimited free data between midnight and 9am - and encouraged to use options like Netflix's new feature that lets many shows be downloaded at off-peak times for later viewing.
Jason Sharp, general manager of Farmside, Vodafone NZ's specialist rural broadband arm, says: "Our rural customers have been telling us that having access to unlimited data at some part of the day has been incredibly useful for them, and we saw data use between midnight and 9am increase by 40 per cent during lockdown. We will be extending this free data period until July 27."
Sharp adds, "From July 28, we're going to start offering Vodafone and Farmside customers, plus new customers to Farmside, the option to access unlimited data for extended hours, from midnight to midday, as part of a bundle for an additional $29 per month."
2degrees has now wound-down its unlimited free data offer, introduced on March 20 as a Covid relief measure.
"Our rural FWA [fixed-wireless access] customers are now paying $85 a month for 170GB – with no restrictions on when they can use it," a spokesman says.
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Extra data costs $15 per 20GB.
Vodafone's Sharp says his company would like to offer rural customers unlimited data around the clock, but "The reality is we also need to ensure our ongoing business network sustainability so need to start charging customers for additional data if they're keen to access more.
"Urban folk have the ability to access uncapped internet packages due to the difference in infrastructure, and as we're working hard to close the rural-urban divide it was important for us that we also offer our customers the ability to be able to download files to their heart's content for an extended window of time each day. Because the rural wireless broadband network has a finite capacity, and to ensure our customers have a great experience at all times, we are confident offering unlimited data at certain hours is the best approach for all our customers."
There's also a qualification for Spark's new broadband deals: Most, but not all of rural customers have good enough coverage. (See the coverage map on its website for your area.)
Why fixed-wireless is on the rise
Fixed-wireless uses a mobile network to deliver broadband to a home or business, which can then be shared via Wi-Fi. It eliminates the need for a landline and, depending on your mobile coverage and network congestion, it can deliver fibre-like performance. Unlike a mobile data plan, fixed-wireless service can only be used in one place, such as your office or home.
Pre-Covid, Spark and Vodafone were offering duelling plans in the fast-growing fixed-wireless market, which appeals to both telcos because it costs dominant landline network player Chorus, and its clip of the ticket, out of the loop.
Vodafone put several thousand urban fixed-wireless customers on an unlimited data fixed trial, pre-lockdown.
After lockdown hit, Vodafone joined Spark, Vocus and 2degrees in offering unlimited data for fixed-broadband urban customers, and offered its rural customers unlimited data between midnight and 9am (Vodafone is the largest player in rural broadband by some margin following its 2018 purchase of Farmside).
February saw Spark launch an unlimited data offer for fixed-wireless customers in urban areas. And unlike "endless" data plans from Spark and Vodafone in mobile, there's no throttling after a certain amount of data is downloaded.
Expect to see the competition continue to hot up in this market.
At its last financial result, Spark said it had 142,000 fixed-wireless customers and counting (of just under 800,000 total broadband customers), while Vodafone NZ says it wants to shift a quarter of its 400,000 or so broadband customers onto fixed-wireless within two to three years.
5G mobile network upgrades - which will make it easier to offer more unlimited data plans to more customers - will be key to accelerating fixed-wireless adoption.
Spark launched 5G fixed-wireless in a series of small South Island towns late last year. Vodafone, which was first to 5G mobile with its December launch in main centres, plans 5G fixed-wireless later this year.
Meanwhile, Chorus is hitting back.
Just before the outbreak, the landline network operator launched its first "Hyperfibre" service, ramping up UFB fibre's top speed from 1 gigabit per second to 2gbit/s or 4Gbits, with 10gibti/s service promised soon (even 1gbit/s is much faster than today's 5G - although the new mobile technology will catch up as new standard are introduced and networks become pure 5G) . Vocus-owned Orcon has been the first retailer to sell Hyperfibre. Expect the action to ramp up again as Covid recedes.
Chorus on the one side, and Vodafone and Spark on the other, will continue to debate the merits of UFB fibre vs fixed-wireless. But for consumers, it's all good. We're spoiled for choice.