9 February, 2021...
Big day for the Christchurch CBD as Spark rolls out its latest 5G offering, thanks to some pretty groundbreaking tech from Samsung.
For the first time in New Zealand, Spark has partnered with Samsung, using its "Massive MIMO" radios to integrate 5G capability into existing 4G towers. The Samsung hardware, despite its name, is smaller, lighter and yet offers greater capacity than what's currently available from its competitors. In fact, it's so cutting edge, only seven other countries have rolled it out so far... we're talking tech powerhouses like Japan, the U.S. and obviously, Korea.
Todd Selwyn, Head of Networks at Samsung Electronics tells me, "Ït's pretty cool we're up there with those really big countries."
Agreed, it does sound cool. But what does it actually mean? How is 5G different from what we already have and how is it going to affect us... you know... in our actual lives?
Todd has a couple of ideas about that but first, let's just go over what this 5G phenomenon is exactly.
Many people reading this might not remember when 3G was the next big thing, let alone 4G, which is of course now available most places in the country. The big advance between 3 and 4 was speed and availability of a consistent mobile data connection, in many cases offering superior services to what people were experiencing via their copper-based land-line setups at home.
Now that copper is well and truly on the way out, it's time for upgrades everywhere - and the data connection speeds via 5G are an exponential improvement over 4G and yes, again, perhaps even better than what you might be getting via a fibre connection to your house.
That being the case, and with both Spark and Vodafone aggressively marketing wireless broadband plans (where your modem connects directly to the mobile network instead of a plug in the wall) I asked Todd if fibre is becoming obsolete, before it's even finished rolling out.
"Yeah, basically it is. I mean, there's no way anyone could have predicted that in the beginning. And there'll always be some kind of fibre network required for backhaul." This means those cellphone towers don't work in isolation, obviously they themselves have to connect to something.
Todd explains how his Samsung hardware is much easier to integrate with existing 4G equipment, meaning more streamlined installation and faster rollout. But everything's relative, isn't it? I don't know about you but to me, it seems like 5G has been happening for a very long time and I still can't access it living in one of the fastest growing suburbs in Auckland.
I asked Todd Selwyn why the 5G rollout seems so hard... "Is it just me, or is it taking a long time to cover not much area?"
He went on to explain it's all about the available bandwidth - the frequency ranges where 5G can work. These are auctioned off from time to time by regulatory authorities and at the moment some of that space is taken up by annoying things like marine radio and satellite transmissions. That's about to change quite soon, Todd assures me and then the 5G rollout will really hit its stride.
I was under the impression it was just harder to cover the same area with the new tech but it turns out this isn't necessarily the case - in South Korea for example, 5G already reaches more than 93% of the population.
I steered Todd back to explaining the real benefits of this new tech; as ordinary Joes (and Janes) why do we really need it?
The main issue seems to be one of congestion - the Samsung Massive MIMO radios are much better at dealing with multiple devices simultaneously. Furthermore, voice calling will stay on the 4G network while 5G enabled devices get this new fatter, faster network to share their data on all to themselves.
Not only that, but the more people upgrade to 5G and as access improves, the more space will be left behind for the 4G people to do their thing - everybody wins.
In fact, consumers may already be seeing the benefit. It's not just 5G wireless broadband plans the big telcos are offering; just last week Vodafone announced its Gold Plan - a fixed wireless 4G broadband plan with 60GB of data and a home phone line for just $40 a month.
It's not so long ago a deal like that would have seemed to good to be true.
David Redmore, Acting Commercial Director, Vodafone NZ, says, "If fibre broadband isn’t an option in your home, or you can’t wait for a technician to install cabling, then wireless broadband is awesome. Our Gold Plan modem can be self-installed and set-up in minutes."
This new, wireless world seems to be on our doorsteps already.
Back at Samsung, Todd Selwyn admits not everyone will be willing to give up their UFB connections just yet - for hard-core gamers, serial streamers and definitely most businesses, there's a reliability concern that is again, to do with congestion. If, at peak times, a lot of mobile 5G users are accessing the same tower as a lot of "fixed wireless" customers, there's the possibility of an unanticipated choke-point you wouldn't generally encounter via your fixed-line connection.
But Todd takes a more philosophical approach when I ask him to name one thing he thinks 5G will change for the better... Upskilling. He thinks it's a real opportunity for I.T. experts and radio specialists to collaborate - we'll need plenty of both to learn each other's skillset in the next few years to stay on that cutting edge of the 5G rollout where we are right now - and that's before you get to the greater access to technology 5G promises for all of us, especially as our kids grow up with it.
Personally, I'd just like to be able to get it - even in the Auckland CBD where I work, you can walk a block and be out of range and back to 4G halfway through a video chat. That needs to change fast. Hopefully the telcos can push some more of that obsolete radio gaga off the spectrum and really get this rollout moving soon.