Vodafone NZ has released more details of its promised push into fixed-wireless access - or using its mobile network to deliver broadband into a home, replacing a landline.
Fixed-wireless access (or FWA in telco-speak) holds appeal because it's nearly as fast as UFB fibre, but can be installed in moments, rather than hours or days and is cheaper, in many instances.
• Spark boosts fixed-wireless broadband
• Spark springs 5G surprise with rural wireless
• Chorus seeks to fend off 5G with 'Hyperfibre'
• Vodafone NZ gives staff Friday afternoons off until end of February
And it's attractive to Vodafone and Spark bean-counters because it cuts fixed-line network operator Chorus, and its big clip of the ticket as the dominant wholesaler, out of the loop.
As Vodafone's new owners took control last year, Infratil chief executive (and now also Vodafone NZ chairman) Marko Bogoievski said boosting fixed-wireless access market share, particularly in urban areas, was his company's top priorities.
And in follow-up comments Vodafone NZ technology director Tony Baird said the new goal was to move up to 25 per cent of his company's landline broadband customers onto fixed-wireless within two to three years - that is, from around 40,000 FWA customers today to around 100,000.
Spark has already made hay from fixed-wireless, with big gains over the past three years that have transferred tens of millions from Chorus's pockets to its own. Last year, it added 36,000 FWA customers for 166,000 total - or around 20 per cent of its broadband base.
Now, unshackled under its new ownership, Vodafone NZ is fighting back.
The telco has launched two plans today that drastically increase data caps for new or existing "Home Wireless" customers to 300 gigabytes for $73 a month or 600GB for $83 a month.
The latter plan slightly undercuts the top plan offered by rival Spark, which recently supersized its own fixed-wireless plans, which now cost from $65/month for 60-120GB to $85/month for 120-600GB. And Spark's budget sub-brand, Skinny, recently upped the cap on its $59/month fixed-wireless plan to 300GB.
Stingy data-caps were historically one of the drawbacks of fixed-wireless, so it's a boon for consumers that Vodafone and Spark are now offering gobs of gigs (2degrees has yet to launch fixed-wireless).
But I'll still not convinced that 600GB will be enough for some households.
In mine, where two parents stream all their TV, one teen mainlines PlayStation Online and another sets TikTok records, we usually chew threw 800GB per month.
Here, Vodafone is coming to the party with a terabyte (1000GB) plan that will be trialled from today.
Consumer director Carolyn Luey wouldn't give exact numbers, but said it would be substantial. Trialists numbers will run into the thousands. If you're salivating, sorry, you can't volunteer. It's an invite only don't call us, we'll call you setup.
And where fixed-wireless has up to now been closely associated with the rural broadband push, Luey says the new 300GB and 600GB plans and the 1TB trial will be widely available in urban areas including Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and in most parts of Hamilton, Tauranga, Dunedin, Queenstown, Palmerston North, Napier, New Plymouth, Rotorua, among other centres (see vodafone.co.nz/coverage).
Luey says Vodafone will be watching the one terabyte trialists, as a whole, to see how they use their fixed-wireless - which, like the 300GB and 600GB plans will be over 4G. Performance depends on the quality of the mobile reception where you are, but it's generally more than you need for smooth high def video as you binge-watch Netflix.
For some intensive two-way connections, however, like intensive multiplayer gaming or videoconferencing, then there's no doubt that 5G fixed-wireless, with its minimal latency (or lag) would be the best solution.
4G fixed-wireless can be a good solution for a household in an area with no UFB fibre, or where a quicker, easier, cheaper broadband solution is preferred, but 5G fixed-wireless can go toe-to-toe with fibre in all respects.
What's next in fixed-wireless
Luey says Vodafone will offer 5G fixed-wireless later this year.
The hold-up is lining up the right 5G fixed-wireless modem. As it launched its mobile 5G service in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown in December, Vodafone also demoed 5G fixed wireless using a cylindrical Nokia modem the size of a top hat.
It all worked fine, but Luey says the unit would be over-engineered and too expensive for a home.
"We expect manufacturers will be offering new devices soon, which will in turn mean we can progress on 5G fixed-wireless much more quickly," Luey said.
When it arrives, the launch will be widespread, the Vodafone exec said.
November saw Spark launch 5G fixed-wireless in a series of small towns in the South Island: Westport, Clyde, Twizel, Tekapo, Hokitika and Alexandra. This week, a spokeswoman said the company could not comment on update at this point or give a timeline for expansion, but she said 5G FWA would be extended to other centres (Spark's mobile 5G launch is slated for July).
Chorus fights back
Chorus already offers UFB fibre lines that run to 1 gigabit per second, or roughly twice the speed of the best connections in the first wave of 5G.
Late last year it began to test a new wholesale product called "Hyperfibre", which will initially offer 2 gigabit per second and 4 gigabit per second in a staged launch from February through to September, with plans for a stonking 10 gigabits per second down the track.
Chorus spokesman Ian Bonnar said fibre would always maintain its performance lead, aided by the fact there's no lead for spectrum auctions where land-lubbing UFB is concerned. He also emphasised the role that fibre has connecting cell towers to main networks.
Vodafone's Luey didn't slam Hyperfibre. After all, her company, along with Spark and Vocus, will likely be a reseller. But she did say that it was simply more bandwidth than almost any home required, and best-suited to niche businesses - such as designers with a need to transfer huge files, at present. It will also be priced well above fixed-wireless, at least at launch (Orcon said today its first Hyperfibre plan would cost $199 per month).
And her colleague technology director Tony Baird, has already looked forward to more spectrum being released in a few years time that will allow 5G to hit the same 10 gigabits per second as fibre.
Baird sees 5G fixed-wireless being expanded beyond the home market and into business, where it could replace not just a landline but a company's Wi-Fi network too as a faster, more secure alternative.
And while fixed-wireless is used to deliver broadband to a fixed area - a home or business premise - Baird has also raised the prospect that Vodafone NZ could offer a fixed-wireless plan that you could use in more that one place. Say, your home and your bach.
Under the telco's new local ownership, there's more freedom to experiment, and at an accelerated pace, he said.
Telecommunications Users Association head Craig Young saw consumers as the winners as fibre and 5G duke it out. "Competition in infrastructure is good," he said. Ever-expanding appetite for broadband would see room for both fixed-wireless and fibre.
POSTSCRIPT: The mobile data boom
While fixed-wireless is about addressing the booming demand for broadband at home, Vodafone NZ Consumer director Carolyn Luey points out the trend is mirrored in mobile
This New Year's Eve, data used across Vodafone NZ mobile networks increasing by 34.9% compared to last year.
Nationally, Kiwis consumed more than 121.96 terabytes of mobile data on New Year's Eve, compared to 90.41TB across the country during the same period on New Year's 2018/19.
In terms of volume that's equivalent to streaming 81,307 hours of HD quality video in just six hours.