The good news: Spark has begun trialling a super fast flavour of 5G mobile broadband in North Canterbury.
The bad: Even though telcos' temporary 5G licences, issued in 2020, expire after October, it's still not clear when the 5G auction will happen - and in fact a number of new political headaches emerged during a submissions process (more on which shortly).
The 5G technology Spark has been trialling, with technology partner Nokia, is called 5G millimetre wave (mmWave).
The trial - billed as a rural NZ first - has been taking place at Mouse Point in North Canterbury, with PGG Wrightson and other pilot customers (it's a closed trial, using spectrum "on loan" from MBIE, so if you're in the area and thinking about hopping on board, you're out of luck).
Spark says the trial has blown the lid off speed tests, with a peak 2.4 gigabits per second at a range of 3km and 1.4Gpbs at 7km. For context, most internet service providers' UFB fibre offerings top out with the 1Gbps Fibre Max.
(Chorus also offers 2, 4 and 8 gigabit per second Hyperfibre, and grouses that the small number of customers on Spark's trial would have buoyed the result.)
It's nice to see those numbers, but there was never really any doubt that mmWave 5G would have blistering capacity, which translates to high speeds and minimal latency (the lag you can get with slower two-way mobile broadband connections.
Spark and Vodafone NZ have long talked up its potential - which in real-life will be to help boost 5G in dense urban areas (for mmWave, which uses spectrum above 26GHz is higher capacity but has a shorter throw than the 3.4GHz to 3.8GHz airwaves used for today's 5G). Vodafone has said it's so fast it could replace Wi-Fi inside offices (for trial purposes, a remote location like Mouse Point suited for avoiding any possible radio interference).
With Spark's Mouse Point trial, PGG Wrightson boss Stephen Guerin, says, "Connectivity for some of our more rural store locations can be a real challenge. We believe that bringing high-speed connectivity into these stores will allow our people to operate more efficiently for our customers. For instance, our livestreaming service for livestock auctions, bidr, runs live auctions from saleyards and on-farm. This type of new connectivity technology could provide our online customers with high-definition livestreaming with minimal delays of our auctions."
And Spark tech lead Renee Mateparae sees 5G mmWave applications in areas like 4K ultra-HD video streaming, machine learning, intelligent transport systems, e-health and education.
There's probably quite a lot of political and commercial arm-wrestling to go before we see any of that, however.
In 2020, then Communications Minister Kris Faafoi and MBIE kicked the can down the road, handing the telcos loaner 3.5GHz - 3.75GHz spectrum for a token price (those lots expire on October 31)
From here, we need auctions for long-term 3.5GHz spectrum rights, and an auction for chunks of airwaves above 26GHz for mmWave 5G.
On the latter, an MBIE spokesperson told the Herald, "MBIE hopes to make mmWave spectrum available as soon as practicable. MBIE has conducted technical consultation on the 24-30 GHz range, including frequencies that could be used for 5G mmWave. Next steps will be determined once analysis of the submissions received has concluded."
A key barrier to a 5G spectrum auction was a long-standing Treaty claim on airwaves.
A deal announced by current Communications Minister David Clark did not settle the claim. But it did accommodate iwi interests with the creation of a "Māori Spectrum Entity" that will receive an ongoing allocation of 20 per cent of future national commercial spectrum allocations, at no cost, and provision of funds totalling $75m for various spectrum-related iwi initiatives.
But the mmWave submissions process raised other complications.
Is Elon freeloading?
We don't yet know any details of how the Government will calibrate pricing for its initial 5G auction. There are two routes it could go down: keeping a lid on bids to make sure there aren't huge costs to telcos that are in turn passed on to consumers, or treating it as a revenue generator (the direction it took with the 4G auction in 2014 that saw the Crown realise $259m as Spark spent a total $149m, Vodafone $66m and 2degrees $44m for spectrum, which was broken into blocks, auctioned individually).
In its submission on mmWave 5G - which is essentially saying, hey this is good technology, let's get a wriggle on - Apple notes that an April 2021 26GHz band auction across the Tasman realised A$648m ($792m) for Australia's Government. And it's possible our Government - that's now a lot more squeezed for funds than when the 5G auction was first discussed in 2019 - will have an eye on that windfall.
Then there's a new factor: satellite broadband used to be on the margins. But the Elon Musk-owned SpaceX is pushing it toward the mainstream with its new Starlink service that is blanketing the Earth with thousands of satellites and has been signing up Kiwis.
Vodafone NZ sniffs in its submission, "Currently, satellite broadband providers are effectively using radio spectrum for free".
The telco wants "symmetric regulation" - which could be read as: If we're going to be whacked with huge fees for our spectrum, then Elon's company should be too".
Earlier, an MBIE spokesperson told the Herald that Starlink, which has six ground stations scattered across NZ, is paying $150 for each of its 47 licences, most of which are in the mmWave range, and all of which is paid up until June 2023. That's $7050 per year - or chump change next to the millions paid by telcos, a fact not lost on our mobile network players, whom the Herald understands will rattle Clark's cage about it.
In its own submission, SpaceX says Starlink's ground station antenna should be exempt from licensing requirements, and that a big chunk of mmWave-friendly airwaves continue to be reserved for satellite broadband, "To ensure that consumers - especially those in the most rural and remote areas of New Zealand - reap the benefits of this new cutting-edge technology".
Spark countered in its submission that with mmWave 5G, telcos can now use the higher-frequency spectrum that's traditionally been the preserve of satellite broadband. It notes that in some overseas markets, including South Korea, regulators have clipped satellite operators' wings and reserved them less spectrum.
And 2degrees also takes aim at Starlink, saying that for the sake of fair competition "broadband providers should be on a level playing field in terms of spectrum costs".
(2degrees' submission was put together before its merger with Orcon Group - a Starlink ground station partner).
Since submissions were made, Starlink has received regulatory permission in the US to put its dishes onto cars and boats - which is only going to add to the friction with more traditional telcos.
A UFB power-grab?
A Chorus-friendly submission from BAINZ Consulting said mobile network operators (that is Spark, Vodafone NZ and 2degrees) would use mmWave 5G for faster fixed-wireless access (or "wireless broadband") services that compete with fibre.
It said it "fundamentally disagreed" with a paper by MBIE's Radio Spectrum Management unit that said mmWave 5G should be allocated to existing mobile network operators. Instead, "This 24-30 GHz spectrum should be assigned to the UFB operators so they are able to offer consumers the benefits of FWA and would complement their fibre access networks and provide growth in their industry."
Wispa - a coalition of 40 small regional wireless internet service providers - also argues that its members should be allowed in on the mmWave action, which it says would allow them to better address gaps in rural broadband.
That's a lot for MBIE, and Clark, to chew over, and referee - and neither are quick eaters.