5G trials begin in NZ, but obstacles remain

Updated

5G testing has begun on Wellington's streets, but there are a number of obstacles yet to be overcome. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

The first real-world tests of 5G mobile technology in New Zealand have begun on the streets of Wellington. However, there are still a number of hurdles - both technological and bureaucratic - to overcome before consumer access becomes a reality.

Driverless cars, remotely-conducted surgeries, “smelling” concerts virtually: the promo video heralding Spark’s 5G mobile trial did not hold back in painting a picture of the brave new world awaiting Kiwis.

There was even a security robot on hand for the launch, rolling along the Wellington footpaths somewhat gratuitously and baffling pedestrians.

The reality of the trial is a little more prosaic: Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Minister Clare Curran could not try out Lightbox on her phone as she had jokingly hoped for, instead using speed-testing equipment on a ute parked near 5G antennas mounted on the Stout St Exchange Building.

Spark managing director Simon Moutter said the outdoor trial was a chance to test the spectrum and service in a real-world environment, moving on from earlier work in the lab.

“We can see how it works around the streets, how it penetrates buildings, what effect rain has on signal, does traffic and mobile traffic affect the signal - it’s all part of the performance testing before we move into a roll out process.”

“Today we have a vision of a cell site being a massive tower and a building in a fenced-off area and batteries and generators - the 5G infill sites certainly won’t look like that.”

That roll-out is unlikely to happen until 2020, although Moutter said telcos were “a couple of steps forward” from last year when he told the NZ Herald there was not enough information to credibly model 5G technology.

“The standards have been basically signed off...we have more commercial certainty around the service and there are commercial devices starting to materialise…

We’re starting to get some of the answers but we don’t have all of them.”

Specifically, Moutter said providers needed to better understand how much denser its cell-site networks would have to be, with the higher-frequency 5G spectrums less able to travel long distances or penetrate buildings.

“Today we have a vision of a cell site being a massive tower and a building in a fenced-off area and batteries and generators - the 5G infill sites certainly won’t look like that, they might be things that are attached to a lamppost, and eventually they might just be things that look like a wifi antenna.”

While 5G access was some way off fruition, it would eventually be able to move Kiwis from technology which connected “people with people, or people to the internet” to “the internet of everything”.

Curran, who announced the release of a technical discussion document by MBIE, said she intended to take a paper to Cabinet this year about the spectrum allocation process.

“Just like other countries around the world, we’re keeping up and we’re getting on with it," she said.

“The Government has a role in its allocation but it’s going to be up to industry to come up with the way that the technology can be used, where they’re going to run it out and the timing of it.”

Hurdles to rollout

There are still some obstacles which need to be overcome, including how 5G infrastructure is put in place.

Chorus, which built the majority of the Ultra Fast Broadband network, has argued for a regulated approach to avoid unnecessary duplication of infrastructure - a suggestion which holds no water with Moutter.

“We didn’t need any help transitioning from 2G to 3G or 3G to 4G, and we believe it to be a fully commercial proposition for all three excellent mobile providers in New Zealand.

“If you have a market that’s going to take care of it, there’s not going to be any market failure, why would you not want the benefits of infrastructure competition?”

Moutter conceded there were some aspects, such as rural access, where it would make sense for providers to work together as they already did through the Remote Rural Connectivity Group.

“We don’t need a mandated monopoly to be set up to solve that, we can solve that ourselves.”

The MBIE discussion document said New Zealand had “sufficient spectrum available for 5G to support the rollout of at least three national networks”.

“All cellular mobile network operators have indicated their desire to build their own 5G network and compete at the infrastructure level. Given this, there would have to be strong public policy reasons to prevent this occurring.”

“We would only reasonably expect some change, because ending up with every single small cell site potentially coming under the OIO process is just an unintended consequence, I’m sure, of the changes."

Then there is the Government’s Overseas Investment Amendment Bill, better known as the “foreign buyers ban”, which Spark has warned would make it difficult for the company to acquire land for the cell sites needed for its 5G network.

“We would only reasonably expect some change, because ending up with every single small cell site potentially coming under the OIO process is just an unintended consequence, I’m sure, of the changes,” Moutter said.

“It would just become a ludicrous bureaucratic burden that just slows the rollouts down and creates bureaucracy that’s not solving any real problem.”

Curran said Spark had raised “a valid issue” which she had passed on to Associate Finance Minister David Parker as the bill went through the select committee process.