Wireless communications holds great hope for telecomms-stranded businesses in the country and far-flung suburbs. But as with any new technology, there are wrinkles in the plan. Tom Rodwell reports.
Away from the air-conditioned tower blocks in the centre of our main cities, there is a need for robust high-speed internet and networking. In the dustier corners of smaller business, and the fresher air of the rural sector, even in the suburbs of this country's biggest city, Auckland, high-speed connections are hard to come by.
Mike Collins, a director of networking firm Hard Drive Computers, whose clients include companies large and small across Auckland, says many in distant areas would love top-notch telecommunications and internet access. But? "It just ain't available," he says. "And that can strangle companies, if they can't communicate."
Meeting that demand could be the proving ground for one of the more exciting IT technologies: wireless.
Wireless technology could at once see hitherto-ignored business sectors revitalised and play a significant part in bridging the serious "digital divide" that the government is seeking to redress in the imminent telecommunications bill.
Telecom NZ estimates it has 150,000 hard-to-reach rural customers, including 66,000 farmers and thousands of businesses that would benefit from modern telecommunications.
Even in the suburbs there are places where geography, weather and dodgy cables conspire to keep consumers in the past. These are not just minor pockets, says Collins. "I've heard that businesses are moving out of West Auckland because of the lack of communications," he says.
"Even one client of ours who works out in Penrose — dial-up modem is the best he can get." So Collins advises his clients, from Penrose to Pukekohe, to take up wireless offerings. They'd love to, he says; it's cheaper and often more reliable.
"Wireless would be perfect for them, if the coverage was there."
A critical national issue
Building that coverage is crucial because of an increasingly clamorous market for broadband internet, especially out in the countryside, says chief executive of the Telecommunications Association of New Zealand, Ernie Newman.
"There's no question that it's the rural and provincial areas that are being left behind somewhat, in terms of internet access, and any solution that focuses on their needs has got to be a good thing," he says.
Good for wireless network companies too, who might find a stronger niche in areas where little service exists, as opposed to fighting it out for customers amongst what Newman describes as the "overabundance of choice" for CBD users.
The provision of wireless to non-CBD areas is an issue of national, strategic, economic importance, says Newman, in part because a farmer is a businessman by definition.
"The fact is that farmers, in a country where our farming community have always been early adopters of new technology, can't access the internet because the phone lines are no damn good."
Such frustration will be apparently attended to by the Labour government's telecommunications bill which, although it had seemed doomed to be caught in a legislative log-jam and not be read or enacted until 2002, may now be pushed through under urgency, thanks to parliamentary support offered by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters.
The Minister for Information Technology, Paul Swain, "absolutely" welcomes this push for urgency, and a spokesperson for the leader of the house, Finance Minister Michael Cullen, who will negotiate with Peters, says that if the government can pass the legislation before Christmas, it will "leave no stone unturned" to do so.
Is wireless up to the job?
So if wireless is a bridge — even a Bailey’s bridge — for the digital divide, are the technology and its providers ready?
Wireless has a lot of advantages over it broadband rivals, say its proponents. Wireless tends to fluctuate to lesser degrees than cable broadband services, says Walker Wireless sales and marketing spokesman Alan Leigh, and upgrades to higher levels of symmetrical data transmission can often be made over the telephone — no technicians required.
Plus wireless is suited to organisations with complex networking needs. Instead of the heavy cost of outfitting and maintaining buildings with cable, wireless offers a simpler solution to networking requirements: the creation of genuine wireless local area networks. Rollout is usually minimal: sites usually need only one receiver site. IP wireless networks are also “future-proofed”, its providers argue, allowing voice and video to be carried as technology improves. “Burstable” wireless is analogous to driving at a consistently fast speed, says Leigh, rather than at a changing speed that can be periodically slow.
Added to this — and this is often the biggest factor — is that when wireless offerings are deployed they do seem to be very cost-effective, with common corporate packages starting from less than $200 per month — a big drop from the $800 to $900 monthly fees often charged for frame relay services.
Across town, Clear confirms that this technology's quick rollout is indeed cost-effective for the consumer because it is cost-effective for the provider. "For non-incumbent telecommunications companies — those who don't have an existing network — it is generally far cheaper for them to deploy a radio-based network than it is to lay cable or build copper," says Clear’s business unit manager of internet access and e-marketing services, Lindsay Cowley.
Clear, which is being bought by TelstraSaturn, has to date been “piggybacking” on Walker Wireless's network to reach customers where their own networks have no coverage, as part of the “Tempest” package, says Cowley.
But rather deflating claims of wireless extensivity are the variety of problems it comes with. Objects in the line of sight, even as small as a tree, are problematic for many versions of wireless transmission, and interference problems related to frequencies and weather patterns are not uncommon. Some early city users worried about not being able to provide a foolproof service to customers are looking at alternatives such at Telecom’s phone line-based JetStream service, even given concerns about that technology’s cost, exchange-proximity limitations and problems such as “micro-outages”.
Largely, acknowledge wireless firms, their business is about reaching niches that haven't had access to top-quality telecommunications before.
Walker Wireless’s microwave spread spectrum radio wireless offerings include always-on high-speed internet provision (up to 2Mbit/s in some instances), the Hotspots broadband service, which is being taken up at the Auckland International Airport and Carlton and Heritage Hotels amongst others, as well as a new voice-over-IP network.
Walker now claims 21 “points of presence” — broadcasting points like the Sky Tower that have a reach of 7km each, and on state-owned BCL's towers — and as a result of this, the firm is experiencing strong growth in wireless uptake. "We've had a growth over the last two months of 27%," claims Walker Wireless's business development manager Alex Melville, and Walker Wireless was recently reported to have around 1200 business customers.
Other wireless specialists include Freedom VNet, recent buyers of Safety Net, and Radionet. The former plans on introducing a wireless service aimed at community access groups, and is reportedly in talks with groups as far afield as Waiheke Island and Greymouth.
Sharing and caring
But any meaningful uptake of the technology comes back to coverage. The South Island is, make no bones about it, poorly served, as is the Far North, much of the western North Island and the Bay of Plenty.
To improve coverage, more wireless companies need spots on well-placed transmission towers, something they currently have only patchy access to at best.
Their case has, however, been strengthened by the government's statement in September that the telecommunications bill will include regulations to enforce mandatory co-location on cell-site towers for cellular telcos, effectively requiring them to put up a “this space for rent” sign. Co-location will mean equal access to existing cellular telephone network towers (cell sites) for all telecommunications companies, though this access would still be commercially determined. This move is what is allowing overseas-based cellular service provider Econet to enter the local market inexpensively.
The decision on whether wireless companies can tag along for the ride is to be made imminently, and at the time of writing, the Minister for Information Technology, Paul Swain, said the matter of wireless companies being made part of mandatory cell site co-location regulations was under consideration.
Co-location would potentially extend wireless uptake — after all, both Telecom and Vodafone claim to have nearly all of the population covered by their cellular networks, and the state-owned broadcasting arm of Television New Zealand, BCL, has towers covering even population-sparse regions.
So would Swain's bill make it any more cost-effective? Wireless firms are not necessarily convinced. Yes, co-location on cell site towers is welcomed, but commercial factors will still largely determine who can set up on them. And where a company loses money reaching customers, why bother accessing them in the first place? Cost-effectiveness does not necessarily result from equal access. As Walker Wireless's Melville warns, rents can always go up.
"If a cellsite owner notices increased demand, they might be tempted to increase square-footage pricing," he says. Which might raise the prospect of yet further regulation to keep cellsite tower rents down and access fair, says Melville.
Compulsory co-location might also introduce competitors to existing cellsite tower tenants. "We have a lot of arrangements [regarding towers] that are already in place, so co-location regulations could affect us both ways," admits Alex Melville.
However, Clear's manager of industry and regulatory affairs, Grant Forsyth, believes that a voluntary code of practice for wireless co-location, an ongoing development within the wireless sector, could solve many issues. Though he acknowledges that the code has “probably gone into a bit of a hiatus, awaiting the telecommunications bill”.
A new, old wireless player
Telecom has recently announced it sees its future in a fully-IP network, transforming its business just as digital leapt away from analogue. What this means, according to chief technical officer Murray Milner, is that Telecom will be a new player on the fixed wireless block.
"We'll be looking at fixed wireless as being very much complimentary to our existing capabilities with copper and fibre, and some of that will be [to cover certain] geographic [areas], and some would be wireless extensions to our existing DSL provisions," says Milner.
Although no decisions have been made about the extensiveness of the capability, Milner acknowledges that Telecom does have a lot of options to play with. "We're looking at using our CDMA1 network as a wireless extension to more rural areas, we're looking at fixed IP wireless as an extension and we're also looking at satellite.”
Milner is open-minded about wireless via cellsite co-location legislation, although he notes it may create more problems than it solves — such as interference.
"Remember that a lot of the cellular coverage is designed to provide low-level coverage because you have to reuse the frequency over and over again, and there is a debate as to whether those towers would be ideal sites for fixed IP wireless capabilities," he says. "We certainly don't see our cell sites as ideal sites for the distribution component of an IP wireless solution, although they may fit into the overall solution.”
"And I think if you're trying to provide coverage to rural areas then you're really trying to get to higher sites typically than cellular sites." He accepts we could see new, higher towers being built specifically for fixed wireless purposes.
Just who would pay for more towers remains to be seen. Perhaps wireless operators can take heart from the news that the muscular new dairy giant Fonterra is actively looking at telecommunications solutions, to improve the infrastructure of their countryside co-op, and sources close to Fonterra tell Computerworld that various high-speed internet offerings are being considered, wireless included.
And, maybe significantly, as was reported on the New Zealand Wireless Data Forum website in October, a spokesman for Kiwi Dairies/Fonterra's internet arm, Fencepost, would not rule out the possibility of Fonterra one day owning its own telecommunications infrastructure.
They do say country people are resourceful.
15-year-old Sahil offers wireless in Hamilton
Rodwell is an Auckland journalist.