the digital inquisition

NZ's hopeless wireless market

By  , in , posted: 27-May-2007 13:48

New Zealand is the only OECD member with only two nation-wide mobile networks available and the only chance for a third entrant to the mobile market faded with Telstra's recent drawback from their plan to build up a UMTS-network. Even former communist countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have 3-4 mobile operators in their countries.

So what's the problem in New Zealand?

First of all the NZ regulator failed to issue a third license on time. Telecom and Vodafone have widely spread networks and years of advantage, which makes it nearly impossible for a new entrant to catch up in terms of coverage.
The second substantial error is, that the complete GSM900-spectrum (890-960 MHz) was given to Vodafone, which is an absolutely unbelievable waste of capacity.
German network operators T-Mobile and Vodafone until recently successfully served20 million customers  each with only half of that spectrum allthough there are much more hotspots with high population density, where capacity becomes problematic, in Germany than in NZ.
So why does an operator with 4 million potentional customers need such a giant spectrum? There is no technical explanation for that, but an economical: Owning the whole GSM900 spectrum prevents Vodafone from competition.
But that's not enough - besides the whole GSM900 spectrum, Vodafone NZ also owns the majority of the GSM1800 spectrum from 1710-1815 MHz. That really beats me!
It seems like some people have planned for the future at time and so have ensured a duopoly for the wireless market.

The remaining frequencies in the GSM1800 spectrum up to 1880 MHz are also already allocated to Telecom and some energy suppliers and all other GSM-bands (GSM450, GSM480, GSM850, GSM1900) are occupied, too.
The only left frequencies, which are suitable for an existing radio technology, can be found in the UMTS2100 band between 1900 and 2170 MHz, which Telstra intended to use.
But allthough UMTS is great in terms of bandwidth there is major problem with UMTS: Due to the high frequency and other technical reasons, the range of a UMTS2100 cell tower is much shorter than a GSM900 cell. Whereas a GSM900 cell can cover a radius of more than 30 km, UMTS2100 usually reaches not farther than 10km and suffers from an effect called "cell-breathing" - that means the range of a cell will decrease the higher the load is. All in all you will need about 10 times more cell towers to cover the same area with UMTS2100 instead of GSM900.

It's evident that with UMTS2100 you can't economically build up nationwide coverage in a territorial state like NZ.

Telstra's approach was using UMTS to cover urban areas and providing rural service through a roaming agreement with Vodafone, which failed in the last moment due to dissensions. Now without national roaming rolling out a network serving few cities doesn't make sense, as it would be incompetitive.

In this situation, where new entrants are dependant on Vodafone's GSM900-coverage, competition is impossible as long as Vodafone can dictate conditions of roaming agreements. Of course Vodafone will defend their GSM/UMTS-monopoly.
Roaming with Telecomis technically impossible, as there are no dualmode devices available, that support UMTS2100 and CDMA.

New Zealanders must hope for regulative actions by the MED or wait years for the availiabilty of new technologies like WiMAX, but apparently WiMAX frequencies are also subject of debates, as reported already last year.
In that context it's ridiculous the Ministry for Economic Development considers taking back "underused" frequency blocks from Woosh in the 2.3 GHz band, when at the same time there's an operator like Vodafone posessing way more valuable spectrum, that could serve at least ten times the population of NZ.
The MED should rather consider regulating national roaming agreements between Telstra and Vodafone or better retract a big part of Vodafone's actually underused - or at least not economically used - GSM900 spectrum and assign it to a new entrant, who could not only use it for GSM900, but for UMTS900, a new UMTS-version working at 900 MHz and so reaching farther than UMTS 2100.
UMTS900 could also help improving NZ's broadband availabilty, which suffers from insufficient capacities for failure of investments in the infrastructure.
The German solution for a fair frequency distribtuion by forcing the 4 national operators to swap GSM900 frequencies for GSM1800 ones was good, but Telstra has to few 2100 MHz spectrum to trade something in.


NZ radio frequency database

Other related posts:
How to chose the right WiFi channel

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