Slowly, cautiously, 2degrees rolls out 3G

Network expansion beyond current footprint

2degrees engineers are gearing up for the commercial launch of 3G services.

Two weeks ago, parts of the network were quietly “turned up” to 3G and customer activity has been closely monitored by 2degrees CTO Mike Goss and Nick Read, the company's chief engineer for the core network, and their team of 100 engineers.

It’s a cautious approach to unveiling a 3G network, but Goss — who has built mobile networks in Australia, North America, Ireland, Austria, France and Switzerland — doesn’t believe in rushing. This is why, when 2degrees launched in August last year, it was with its 2G network (with EDGE data capability) only. “We wanted to make sure before we turned it (3G) up that we’d spent a lot of time optimising the network and preparing for data traffic,” he says.

Two networks

Both the 2G and 3G networks were built at the same time but 3G requires complex infrastructure such as a Radio Network Controller (RNC) to enable fast data services. Tier one (the first phase of the 2degrees network) covers 48% of the population, it consists of 493 cellsites in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. Its 3G network will be supported by three RNCs — one each in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Each RNC has capacity for up to 400,000 users.

Tier two is currently in the design and town planning phase, and construction is expected to start early next year. 2degrees will increase its national footprint by building in Hamilton and Tauranga first. “We’ve already started planning in those cities, we’re already out there doing site acquisition and town planning,” says Goss. “That’s all underway and going pretty well and we’ll just move on from there down to the remaining cities throughout the country.”

As part of the tier two build, 2degrees will double its RNC capacity.

2degrees has a roaming agreement with Vodafone so that customers are switched to Vodafone’s network when outside the four cities it has located cellsites in. Goss says that around 60% of 2degrees traffic is on their network, and 40% on Vodafone’s.

Resource Management Act

Goss says the hardest thing about building a network in New Zealand is the Resource Management Act, which is interpreted differently by every council. It takes five to eight months to get consent to build a cell site, although in one case it took 12 months.

The RMA also means that the height of cellsites limits the opportunity for co-location with other networks. “Typically the average structure height in the cities is anything from 15-18 metres, so the problem is there’s no capacity in a structure that low to provide for a second or third carrier,” he says.

2degrees has only co-located its equipment on three existing cellsites — two with Woosh, the other with Vodafone. However, he says in Hamilton and Tauranga they plan to colocate with Vodafone on 14 cellsites.

The other difficulty for Goss and his team has been a civil engineering challenge — alluvial soil in Wellington and Christchurch has meant they’ve had to drill metal screws into the ground to support cellsite foundations, which has increased costs.

Technology roadmap

As 3G capability increases from peak speeds of 7.2 Mbit/s (although realistically most users should expect between 800Kbit/s and 1.4Mbit/s) to peaks of 21Mbps, Goss says connecting cellsites with fibre becomes more necessary. About 20 percent of 2degrees’ sites are connected by fibre, and Goss says it will be a multi-year programme replace microwave technology with fibre. He sees great potential in the government’s ultra fast broadband network to deliver fibre to 2degrees’s cellsites.

Telecom already has every cellsite connected to fibre, and Vodafone is upgrading its fibre connectivity, however Nick Read points out that 2degrees’s microwave technology has greater capacity than its rivals’ legacy microwave technology.

LTE

Goss says they are watching what will happen with the digital switchover, when 700 MHz spectrum will become available for use by telcos. The advantage of this spectrum is that it will enable the next evolution in mobile networks — Long Term Evolution (LTE) or 4G which can enable speeds up to 100Mbit/s.

It’s possible to deploy 4G in the 1800MHz spectrum licensed to 2degrees, but the reach is significantly shorter — in the 1800MHz spectrum the signal range in an urban area is 200-500 metres, in 700MHz the signal range in rural areas is 7-10 kilometres.

He says there is potential for two users to take advantage of the 700MHz spectrum, which isn’t expected to become available until 2015. 2degrees is in talks with the government, as is one of its shareholders the Hautaki Trust (it’s possible the spectrum could become part of a Treaty of Waitangi claim) although the talks are occurring separately. “I don’t think we can really talk about that,” he told Computerworld.

The Telecommunications Industry Group (which 2degrees is not a member of) has raised the idea of network sharing to enable LTE in New Zealand. Goss says sharing infrastructure makes sense in the longer term and is already occurring in Europe and Australia. He says 2degrees’ supplier Huawei already provides a multi-user Radio Access Network.

In the meantime Goss is excited about the imminent commercial launch of 3G. The speed test he carried out this morning inside 2degrees HQ (Newmarket, Auckland) showed speeds of 2.32Mbit/s download and 189Kbit/s upload.

2degrees customers, particularly in Auckland, might like to check out what speeds they can get. But they better be quick – next week 3G capability will be shut off to customers, and Goss and his team will be waiting for the 2degrees marketing department to tell them when they can switch it back on.

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Tags mike goss3gnick readNetworking & Telecomms ID2degrees

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