Vodafone is being tipped to make a 5G launch announcement at an event scheduled for tomorrow.
Fifth-generation mobile networks will offer many times the speed of today's "4G".
But it's not clear at this point if it will be a test site, some kind of wider deployment, or a marketing spin on improvements to Vodafone's 4G network..
John Reader - a longtime systems engineer for the telco, who got laid off in 2017 but maintains good links inside the company - took to Twitter late yesterday to post, "5G launch this coming Thursday from a certain mobile Telco :)."
A Vodafone insider tells the Herald that the company's "secret 5G rollout" involves a 14MHz or larger slice of spectrum on the 3.5GHz band - that is, the same that Spark is using for a test site at Auckland's Wynyard Quarter that went live last year (and for now it will remain a pilot site; Spark does not have a licence to use the spectrum commercially).
Nokia Networks kit is being used for the Vodafone 5G rollout, the insider says.
If a 5G announcement is being made tomorrow, it will run counter to Vodafone NZ chief executive Jason Paris earlier stance.
In November last year as he took the reins, Paris told the Herald, "We're going to embrace 5G like it's our best friend. We're not shy or scared of it," he says, noting a local trial, and a 90 million euro Vodafone 5G pilot in Europe.
"[But] 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."
There has been one major change since Paris made that statement: Vodafone NZ has been bought for $3.4 billion by Infratil and Canada's Brookfield Asset Management, with Infratil CEO (and one-time Theresa Gattung lieutenant at Telecom) Marko Bogoievski poised to become Vodafone NZ chairman.
The new owners will officially take control tomorrow - hence Thursday's event, where Paris is set to outline future plans.
But Bogoievski has already said he's keen on infrastructure-sharing with Spark and 2degrees to cut costs - implying a collaborative effort on 5G, which would take some time to organise.
Asked about the 5G launch rumour yesterday, a Vodafone NZ spokeswoman Nicky Preston said, "Like virtually every mobile company in the world, we are preparing for 5G and have been investing in getting our network ready.
"We have been looking closely at Vodafone 5G launches in other countries to understand the genuine customer use-cases for 5G.
"Ultimately, an investment decision will rest with our new owners."
Meanwhile, there have been rumours that Spark is preparing a "4.9G" upgrade to its 5G network (the telco had no immediate comment on that point). That would deliver a significant bandwidth boost while Spark waits for the government to auction 5G-friendly radio spectrum
A round of spectrum auctions will be needed before any mobile network operator can instigate a significant 5G rollout. Communications Minister Kris Faafoi says things are still on track for 2020, but there is no specific timetable from MBIE. One stumbling block is a Treaty claim on spectrum, which also weighed on earlier 3G and 4G auctions. Faafoi says he wants to reach a lasting solution with iwi.
Speaking to the Herald on Tuesday, new 2degrees boss Mark Aue said while he was a big believer in 5G, his company was not in a rush. It was likely that incremental upgrades to today's 4G networks could handle home and business users' requirements for years to come, he said.
Like Spark, 2degrees has Huawei as its key 4G mobile network technology partner, and wants to use the Chinese giant for its 5G upgrade, too.
Aue said he thought the GCSB's issue with Huawei, that saw the security agency block it from Spark's proposed 5G upgrade, would ultimately be resolved.
In his exit interview with the Herald, Moutter said Spark now had a "multi-vendor" strategy for its 5G upgrade.
While Huawei was its preference, ongoing political complications meant it was pointless to re-submit a Huawei-based 5G network upgrade proposal to the GCSB, but Spark would have to make a decision on a vendor soon to meet its self-imposed deadline to launch its first 5G service by July 1 next year.
Moutter said NZ risks falling behind on 5G. The first 5G-compatible devices are already on the market, including Samsung's Galaxy S10 series, and 5G mobile network upgrades are already underway in several countries, including Australia, the US and the UK.
Critics say the early wave of 5G upgrades are very limited in scope however, and that it will take years for nationwide rollouts.
And with no set definition of "5G" some telcos have been accused of using 5G branding for what many would call improvements to their 4G networks.
A quick history of mobile networks
• 1G (1970s): First-generation mobile networks supported voice calls only
• 2G (1990s): Added support for text messaging
• 3G (2000s): Web browsing and email capability added
• 4G (2010s): Boosted bandwidth to support apps, high-def streaming video
• 5G: Promises fibre-like speed, little almost none of the lag associated with earlier mobile networks' two-way data connections, much enhanced support for the "Internet of Things" or machines talking to each other over the internet - can connect up to 1 million devices per square km; potentially has enough bandwidth to make unlimited mobile data plans the norm