Rural WISPs fret about being crowded out of 5G spectrum auction
By Jenny Ruth
Aug. 6 (BusinessDesk) - Wireless internet service providers to the rural sector are worried that Vodafone and other mobile phone companies pushing to get 5G services up and running will crowd them out of the market.
“Vodafone and its competitors are putting pressure on government to reallocate radio spectrum so they can run 5G more cost-effectively,” says Wireless Internet Service Providers Association chair Mike Smith.
But Vodafone New Zealand says it will “fully support WISPs’ role in providing broadband to rural New Zealanders alongside mobile operators. Together with WISPs, we are jointly working with MBIE (Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) on how the 3.5 GHz spectrum is allocated from 2022. Vodafone has always supported WISPs being allocated spectrum in this band.”
Vodafone, which is now owned by Infratil and Brookfield Asset Management, said last week it plans to switch on a 5G network in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown in December.
Smith is not comforted by Vodafone’s statement. “Obviously, they’re going to say that. We want to make sure that we’re representing rural New Zealand at the table,” Smith says.
About 30 WISPA members currently use the 3.5 gigahertz spectrum that will be used for 5G services to supply farmers and other rural customers.
“These customers are farms who use the internet for business management, rural kids who use it for study and rural people who depend on it for social inclusion. Most can’t get internet any other way,” Smith says.
“If the government responds to the cellphone companies’ land grab, some of those users could face more expensive internet or even lose their hard-won connectivity altogether,” he says.
“The advantages of 5G are very much in the future. By contrast, WISPs are solving the connectivity issue for rural New Zealanders here and now.”
Smith is arguing for spectrum to be allocated on the basis of what’s best for New Zealand, “not just for the biggest wallets.”
He is demanding assurances from Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Kris Faafoi that such issues will be thoroughly aired in public before spectrum allocation is decided.
“It makes no sense to slow or reverse the progress made in connecting our major export sector just so that some online games will work a nanosecond faster or city people can connect their home air conditioning to their car GPS,” Smith argues.
“The benefits of 5G are marginal and futuristic but basic connectivity for rural families and businesses is here now and economically essential.”
In its announcement last week, Vodafone said 5G isn’t just the successor to 4G but will represent “a transformational shift” and will enable more than 10 times faster speeds on 5G smartphones than typical 4G speeds.
Faafoi says in a statement that “the spectrum allocation process is yet to run and the government is yet to make final decisions about how the 3.5 Ghz spectrum will be allocated to any interested parties.”
He pointed to his Feb. 28 statement announcing that 3.5 Ghz spectrum will be available to regional WISPs.
“In the future, national spectrum rights will open the door to higher connection speeds and greater network capacity while regional providers will be key to helping rural communities access higher quality wireless broadband,” the minister says.
“Organisations like WISPA have made the most of the opportunity to make submissions in the public consultation and WISPA representatives have been involved in the MBIE-led technical working groups planning for the introduction of 5G,” Faafoi says.
Smith acknowledges that WISPA and Vodafone are both members of an MBIE technical working group but “what we’re saying is okay, that’s fine, but that needs to happen all the way through.”
Faafoi says that 17 WISPs have recently been contracted by the government through Crown Infrastructure Partners to provide additional rural coverage.
Infratil and Brookfield bought Vodafone NZ for $3.4 billion and settled the purchase last week.