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Mobile wars: 5G starts to come together

Paul Brislen, Editor. 02 December 2019, 5:00 am

The latest mobile wars are starting to warm up with both Vodafone and Spark claiming a lead in the market, albeit without any sign of devices capable of using the new network in any great number.

Spark's initial announcements, made before the spy agencies put the kibosh on the use of Chinese equipment maker Huawei, focused on a 5G network around the Wynyard Quarter in time for the America's Cup racing, scheduled for March next year.

However, with Huawei off the table, Vodafone leapt into action in August, announcing it would deploy a network in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.

Both networks have deployed trial regions, oddly set up in the South Island far removed from the crowded areas, and claimed pole position in the race. Spark did have to own up to a certain amount of interference outside its frequency ranges in Alexandria, bringing back memories of the XT launch and court battle to ensure then-Telecom's network didn't swamp Vodafone and 2Degrees. In the end it was a configuration issue which was readily resolved, thankfully.

But this week Spark has claimed a victory of sorts with the launch of a $75/month plan for 60GB of 5G services available in Westport, Clyde, Twizel, Tekapo and Hokitika, although Vodafone was quick to point out the network is quite remote and doesn't include actual mobile services - it's aimed at fixed wireless customers.

The race to 5G is still somewhat thwarted by the lack of a 5G spectrum auction - held up by regulatory matters. As things stand today, Vodafone has the lion's share of spectrum that is available for repurposing as 5G, thanks to its purchase of Telstra Clear.

However, once an auction of spectrum does go ahead the race is expected to even up, although all three mobile network operators are quick to point out to the government that unless they are supported in the deployment against objections from the more extreme elements opposed to network deployment, they're unlikely to race into spending millions as they have in years gone by. In particular, 2Degrees is currently without an owner that would appear willing to spend yet more money on network deployment.

For customers of course the race to be first network provider is somewhat moot as there are few devices capable of making use of the network speeds. While 5G is seen as more of a corporate or business network than a consumer one (there's only so much high speed video or game time a single user can get through on a mobile connection), mass market uptake will be needed to offset the cost of deployment.

While customers will eventually migrate to 5G as part of the natural upgrade cycle of handset attrition, whether there is a rush to be first remains to be seen.


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