Vodafone expresses 4G handset concern

New Zealanders could be stuck with a small range of high-priced mobile phones

Vodafone fears that New Zealanders could be stuck with a small range of expensive mobile phones when telecommunications companies upgrade to 4G technology, unless it gets access to radio spectrum currently used to provide radio services to security and trucking firms.

The company has suggested mobile operators could use a hybrid of the radio spectrum allocated to 4G mobile operators in the United States and Europe, so they could offer a range of cheaper handsets made for those markets.

That would require freeing up spectrum in the 800MHz band in addition to spectrum in the 700MHz band that is already earmarked for 4G technology LTE, once analogue television is switched off in 2013. 4G networks will let telcos offer faster and cheaper mobile broadband and innovative voice services.

Vodafone wholesale manager Steve Rieger said the Economic Development Ministry's current plan, under which carriers would be offered the same spectrum bands as in the rest of the Asia-Pacific region, could mean "we won't have access to devices quickly enough".

That would push up the price of handsets and limit the uptake of 4G networks here.

Vodafone spectrum strategy manager Arasaratnam Sathyendran said New Zealand was part of the Asia-Pacific spectrum zone that was freeing up 700MHz spectrum for 4G and was reliant on countries such as China, Japan and Korea for handsets, but there was "a lot of uncertainty" as to when and how those countries would move to LTE.

Vodafone had approached handset manufacturers Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson about making LTE mobiles for New Zealand, but they had been non-committal, Dr Sathyendran said.

Vodafone's preference was to fit in with the Asia-Pacific spectrum, plan, but was conscious handset supply could be an issue.

"It could go either way. What we don't want to find is come 2014 we're committed to do something but we can't get handsets. As a business, we are signing up to delivering something and we want to be sure we can deliver that."

Brian Miller, radio spectrum manager at the Economic Development Ministry, said rethinking the allocation of 4G spectrum was "not a preferred approach".

Europe was freeing up 800MHz spectrum for LTE, while the US had a "unique and technically challenging" plan within the 700MHz band, and fitting in with either spectrum plan would be "very messy technically", he said.

The 800MHz spectrum in New Zealand was used for land mobile radio services, including by listed Wellington telco TeamTalk .

Ad Feedback "It would be quite a significant displacement of existing services. It's not something we're seriously contemplating at this stage."

The ministry would know more about the LTE plans of Asian countries and what would be feasible in terms of handsets in about six months, he said. "Our focus is on getting an outcome with Asia-Pacific and enough countries on board, including big countries, that can drive the economics of lots of handsets at the right price for consumers."

South America had also expressed "tentative interest" in New Zealand's LTE plans.

"If there's enough interest and enough scale, then I think the handset problem is solved."

The ministry is expected to report back to Cabinet late next year on how to dispose of the 700MHz spectrum, which is likely to be sold off in 2012.

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