Spark Paging network shutdown – the event nobody cares about? Not quite.

By Steve Biddle, in , posted: 31-Jul-2015 09:00

Spark yesterday announced it was planning to shut down it’s nationwide paging network at the end of March 2017. Unlike usual telco announcements this doesn’t seem to have attracted a single mainstream media story, any significant social media discussion, or even the creation of a thread here on Geekzone. A few people of whom I mentioned it to responded with “we didn’t even realise it was still going!”.

The paging network was launched by Telecom New Zealand in 1988 using POCSAG technology on a single 157Mhz VHF frequency. A second channel was launched not long after this to cope with demand for the service, and in the late ‘90s the service was also upgraded to support FLEX technology which delivered significantly faster throughput. I remember in the mid ‘90s that a Minicall prepay pager was the hip gadget to have – you had an 026 number that people paid to call (99c from memory) and the messaging centre transcribed this and sent this to your pager. The entire market for such a service died pretty quickly however once mobile phone popularity increased and SMS became mainstream.

While many see pagers as a relic from the ‘90s that is now obsolete, the real world reality is that they still play a very important role for many industries, with emergency services in particular still relying heavily on the technology. Despite advances in mobile technology and SMS, the reality is that there is not, and it’s unlikely there will ever be a replacement for paging that offers all of the benefits that paging does today.

The biggest user of paging right now is the New Zealand Fire Service. Paging is the primary method of turnout for every fire appliance in the country, with over 8000 volunteer fire fighters and 1700 permanent staff across the country relying on a combination of both Spark paging, and in areas that are so remote that coverage doesn’t exist, local in-fill transmitters (typically on a fire station or a local hill) relaying pager messages via satellite to a local paging transmitter that rebroadcasts the messages. Paging is also used as the a means of turnout for every ambulance in the country.

There are other users of the paging network such as hospitals who could easily deploy their own internal paging systems to replace the Spark network, but the NZFS finds itself in the unique situation of needing to have a nationwide solution.

Over the last few years the NZFS have looked at alternatives, and SMS based solutions have formed the basis of this. It was only a few years ago that Gen-i (who handle the NZFS technology solutions) proposed giving every volunteer in the country a new mobile phone to carry around to replace their pager. Such a backwards solution shows the problem of trying to replace old with new. It really was the world’s dumbest idea expecting every person to carry around another phone just to replace their pager. Such a solution also relies on SMS, which is a significant downfall.

Unlike a mobile phone a pager has a battery life of upwards of a month. Coverage is also a lot better indoors due to the much lower frequency in the 155MHz band (vs 700,800,900,1800,2100 or 2600 used by your mobile phone), and more importantly the pager network is rock solid - outages are so rare they basically don’t happen. Lastly, but most importantly, the paging network doesn’t get flooded with messages that can cause delays, or suffer issues with cross network connectivity. When was the last time you saw delays with SMS messages? Despite the best efforts of carriers, issues with the SMS service (and mobile networks in general) are something that has happened on a fairly frequent basis. As the service is best effort, no guarantees can be placed in delivery times, and as a result at times of busy network loading delays can occur. If phones were to replace pagers, a delay of a minute could well be the difference between life and death. We also know what happens to mobile network during a natural disaster such as the recent Christchurch or Wellington earthquakes – the networks grind to a halt due to overloading. Technology to give certain phones priority in such instances can work well in the TDMA world, but struggles in the world of WCDMA and LTE networks where the noise floor becomes critical and air interfaces can easily be overloaded. In the UK a system known as Mobile Telecommunication Privileged Access Scheme (MTPAS) exists – but is designed primarily for voice calls.

There have also been attempts over the years to build app based solutions that would actually offer benefits – a notification of a call that would allow the end user to reply saying whether they are responding or not responding and would allow a brigade to know exactly how many crew were responding to a call. Solutions such as this rely on the mobile network which is the weak point. Many benefits exist with SMS, and SMS has replaced pagers for a huge number of users, but for time critical messaging the reality is we don’t have a modern solution that can replace the paging network. When time is critical, nothing beats the distinctive tone of the pager to let you know that an immediate response to the station is necessary.

The only downside of paging is a complete lack of security – messages can easily be intercepted by anybody with a radio scanner and software running on a PC.

All of this poses the question of what solution the NZFS will adopt, and what this will mean for the 8000+ volunteers who rely on the current paging network. Whatever solution is adopted, it’s safe to say it will not have the reliability and performance the current paging network offers. It’s very much a case of something new not being able to replace 30yr old technology.

In the meantime does anybody want to put in an offer for my pager collection that has been used for parts and reprogramming over the years? :-)


Update: I’ve been told that the NZFS are looking to deploy an expansion of their current infill paging and expand this nationwide. RSM shows a lot of licences in the 160MHz band that have been recently been allocated to them.

Other related posts:
UFB voice, power cuts, copper invincibility and mainstream media FUD.
New Zealand’s growing BUBA problem (AKA I feel sorry for you if you’re on a Conklin)
Vodafone NZ – increasing prices because profits are low.

Comment by wellygary, on 31-Jul-2015 09:27

Do the NZFS actually send paging messages, or is it simply a "everybody come to the station" type alert,

If its the latter they could replicate it with a simple automated voice call from a predetermed number that is loaded on the phone as "Fire Alert" or whatever,

This gets round the issues of non-delivery....

Author's note by sbiddle, on 31-Jul-2015 09:38

Fire Service paging messages contain call details.

Re ringing numbers - this is how things worked for 40 odd years before paging became commonplace in the '80s. Surely that's the biggest step backwards ever?

Comment by HamishMacEwan, on 31-Jul-2015 10:27

Thanks for the review Steve, but isn't this a chance for another operator to step in, or first responders to take over the service.  Use value might suffice where sales value has apparently been insufficient.  Or is this announcement also a signal that those options have been tried and failed?  

While ringing numbers might sound old fashioned, I don't think they would do it by hand.  They still sound sirens don't they.

Comment by Sounddude, on 31-Jul-2015 10:27

Coastguard still use pagers too, same problem as NZFS but a lot smaller budget so less options.

Comment by fishandchips, on 31-Jul-2015 14:00

Good write Steve. I am curious how our local DHB is going to handle this. I work with in the organisation and paging use is wide spread, not just with in the DHB buildings but through out the district. Any change is going to be difficult, as it will be hard pushed to match the reliability that paging offers.

Comment by L Nah, on 31-Jul-2015 22:19

Spark's press release mentions 65% decline in usage in the past 2 years and the decision came after an 18mth review. According to stuff's article  Spark spokeswoman Michelle Baguley said about 1000 organisations still used pagers and acknowledged there would still be some emergency service personnel and government workers in remote areas who relied on them.

So far we have NZ Fire Service, St John's Ambulance, Coast Guards, medical staff in hospitals still using pages. So is this Spark asking the government to fund the paging network? 

Comment by Craig Meldrum, on 1-Aug-2015 10:26

I find the announcement by Spark that they will be shutting down the nationwide paging network in 2017 to be disappointing and very short sighted.  It is clearly driven by accountants and technofiles who believe (mistakenly) that cellular networks are able to provide the functionality and reliability of paging.  Either that or it is a cynical move to try and move current paging users to their cellular networks with vastly higher income and profitability being the aim at the expense, ultimately, of the taxpayer. It is true that paging as a communications technology has decreased in user numbers significantly in the last 10 years however for those who rely on it, primarily the emergency services and healthcare industries, it is an essential facility and it has been proven time and time again in much larger markets than the NZ market that the alternative, cellular, is totally unsuitable for critical communications.  In numerous instances from weather related events to merely high public interest events the cellular networks have proven totally unable to cope with the super high demand that occurs when people need or want to be able to communicate all at the same time.  Instances such as Hurricane Katrina and even more locally intensive events such as the collapse of the I35W bridge in Minneapolis and the shooting on the Virginia tech campus in the USA, the cellular networks collapsed under the strain of huge public demand. Closer to home there were major problems with the cellular networks in Christchurch after the earthquakes. In all of these instances the paging networks allowed critical messages to be delivered to the emergency services that were required to respond in a timely manner.   It is significant that fire departments in particular, around the world, are actually increasing their investment in paging technology as their primary means of despatch.  In Australia every state rural and metro fire department has invested heavily in paging technology in the past few years and similar investments are being made in North America and Europe.  The advantage in these countries is that these departments do not rely on profit making private companies to provide them with the network infrastructure but have invested in the infrastructure themselves.  In the USA, the home of private enterprise, there isn't a critical service in the country that would even consider off ooading this critical requirement to a profit driven organisation. Paging is no longer a technology familiar to the average person in the street but behind the scenes it continues to power the critical services that the person in the street relies on to be able to respond without delay in every circumstance.

Comment by P Mundy, on 1-Aug-2015 12:19

I reckon Lin hit the nail on the head. The paging network technology is not going to disappear. Spark are merely starting the first step in their process of moving to a funding model more lucrative to them.

Comment by froob, on 4-Aug-2015 18:03

Good article, Steve. I do remember seeing this reported on earlier in the week, so it has had at least a little media attention. 

Comment by Sid, on 5-Aug-2015 15:54

as a rural fire volunteer we rely on the pager system. currently we are also running cell phone notifications which are time delayed or not appearing at all. Pagers as mentioned are more robust and reliable in remote areas. Sirens are being decomissioned as they wear out. Time for Spark to step up on this one and rethink their plan. To many volunteers in emergency response for this issue to go away

Comment by wes, on 5-Aug-2015 20:03

Most interesting article you have written!!!
Its sad to see old technology be removed.

had no idea that emergency services used this technology still.
Thanks for the great article.

Comment by evan, on 8-Aug-2015 18:01

hi this is so sad to lose this service as i was a ses volunteer  bribie island queensland  in the floods and cyclones and the power was lost to the cell towers and repeaters and we lost comms so i think this service needs tobe kept 

Comment by James Grant, on 13-Aug-2015 12:18

There is a global satellite pager network running through the iridium are in the process of trialling it in NZ.Looking at a US website it cost around USD$150/month

Comment by Criggie, on 13-Sep-2015 22:00

Three days ago I was issued my first pager in 20 years.The times, they are a-changin'.....  

Comment by quickymart, on 16-Oct-2015 21:10

Alphanumeric pager messages were (from memory) 20c to call through to the Message Centre, and the numbers were 026 1XXXXX. The dialler number for pagers was 026 25XXXX. Minicalls cost 99c to call, and the number range was 0868 XXXXX; all you could do with those was enter in a number using your phone's keypad. Just a minor correction there :)

Comment by Chris, on 25-Feb-2016 15:36

It's well worth looking at what ThinXtra are doing, there's a real possibility of a replacement system.

Comment by lnah, on 28-Feb-2016 08:48

Fire service pagers could be scrapped in favour of text messages. Sunday Star Times. 28 Feb 2016.
"Rural firefighters with poor cellphone coverage are worried they will be late getting to major bush fires if their pager alerts are scrapped in favour of text messages.
The New Zealand Fire Service has put the pager network up for tender after Spark announced the network would close in 2017." It goes on to discuss the problem of cellphone reception in some rural areas and that "Pagers always work"
"Tender proposals close on March 18."

Comment by Karene, on 18-Mar-2016 21:36

I am a rural midwife and rely on my pager for women to be able to contact me urgently when they can't get me on my home landline - living rurally makes relying on a cell phone unreliable and therefore unacceptable to me.  I use a buzz me pager and it cost the people that page me $1 per page.  It work in place you can't get cell phone coverage.  I am desperately hoping that some other provider is going to pick up this service but with out charging an arm & a leg for it, I for one won't be able to afford $150/month for the service that James Grant mentioned above.

Comment by Paul Plester, on 24-May-2016 16:10

Hi Great discussion on Long Range Paging.I was told today that Spark/Gen-i/Telecom NZ has delayed the shut down of the Nationwide Paging Network until 2020.I was suggested to me that the announcement to shut down in March 2017 was a move to test the user reaction to a possible shutdown and was perhaps never a hard deadline.It remains to be seen if pricing will go up in March 2017 as one of your readers suggests but it would not be a surprise.I cannot find any Spark confirmation of the delay shutdown and if anybody else can please add it to the stream.Thanks

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Steve Biddle
New Zealand

I'm an engineer who loves building solutions to solve problems.

I also love sharing my views and analysis of the tech world on this blog, along with the odd story about aviation and the travel industry.

My interests and skillset include:

*VoIP (Voice over IP). I work with various brands of hardware and PBX's on a daily basis
  -Asterisk (incl PiaF, FreePBX, Elastix)

  -xDSL deployments

*Structured cabling
  -Home/office cabling
  -Phone & Data

*Computer networking
  -Mikrotik hardware
  -WAN/LAN solutions

*Wireless solutions
  -Motel/Hotel hotspot deployments
  -Outdoor wireless deployments, both small and large scale
  -Temporary wireless deployments
*CCTV solutions
  -Analogue and IP

I'm an #avgeek who loves to travel the world (preferably in seat 1A) and stay in nice hotels.

+My views do no represent my employer. I'm sure they'll be happy to give their own if you ask them.

You can contact me here or by email at