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Behind Spark's slow-burn 4.5G plan

Last week Spark installed new technology on five Queenstown cellular towers. They mean the region now has New Zealand's fastest mobile data network. The Queenstown towers join one-off upgraded Spark towers in Christchurch and Silverdale.

Upgrading Queenstown is Spark's latest move to squeeze the most from its cellular spectrum. It's been doing this since buying the last 700 Mhz slice in 2014.

Spark says Queenstown users saw 400Mbps downloads during testing. An earlier test using specialist kit in Christchurch CBD downloaded data at 1.1Gbps. On paper that performance compares with fibre. But wireless users share spectrum, so the speed a user see will drop as others join the network.

Storm in a G-cup


Spark describes the technology in Queenstown as 4.5G mobile. Some rivals disagree with that name. Others point out there's no agreed 4.5G standard yet.

Quibbling over names misses the point.

Calling the technology 4.5G tells customers it sits on the path from 4G to 5G mobile — that's a useful shorthand.

The correct technical terms for the technology is LTE-Advanced Pro. While communications experts might understand the term, Joe Public doesn't. Everyone can relate to 4.5G.

Either way, real 4.5G will be here soon enough. Spark expects 5G to arrive in New Zealand some time around 2020.

Next generation


Spark's push towards next generation mobile data is more important than the label on the technology. The pilot Queenstown, Christchurch and Silverdale projects deliver state-of-the-art wireless data. Users can't get all the benefit of this yet because the hardware isn't available. But those with modern phones will see big speed improvements.

Spark has laid down a marker for the future. It says it will add another 10 similar turbo-charged sites over the next year. This puts it well in front of Vodafone. There's an sense of aggression behind Spark's mobile data push. The company wants to be seen as leading the mobile charge.

It's big picture stuff. Vodafone appears to be broadening its scope, moving into new areas of activity. Today's deal with Sky illustrates that. Meanwhile Spark is sticking to its telecommunications knitting and doubling down on the $84 million it spent on the last parcel of 700MHz spectrum.

Faster pussycat


Whether you call it 4.5G or LTE-Advanced Pro, Spark's new towers offer about four times the speed and capacity of 4G. The towers can aggregate spectrum giving users more bandwidth to play with.

Users share wireless spectrum. Towers get congested at peak times. More bandwidth may not always mean downloads at those high speeds . But they should see an improvement over today's speeds.

For now, Spark's 4.5G towers serve mobile phone users on the regular cellular network. The company also sells fixed wireless broadband connections. It isn't selling the hardware needed for fixed broadband customers to use the faster towers yet. That will come in time.

Behind Spark's slow-burn 4.5G plan was first posted at billbennett.co.nz.

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