16 Dec 2019

Telcos gearing up for 5G spectrum auction in 2020

9:59 am on 16 December 2019

Ultra-fast mobile telecommunications networks are coming sooner than expected after the government's decision to make unused radio spectrum available for a short term.

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Kris Faafoi Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

Broadcasting, Communications and Digital Media Minister Kris Faafoi said spare capacity in the 3.5GHz band would be offered to mobile network operators and Māori by the middle of next year.

The two main telcos, Vodafone and Spark, have started limited 5G services in selected towns and cities but had been waiting for an expected auction of the spectrum.

"Progressing with 5G will ensure New Zealand keeps pace with global developments, give us world-class connectivity, and provide a platform for exciting new applications which can improve future livelihoods and ways of life," Faafoi said.

He said the decision would allow the telecommunications industry to more quickly develop and deploy 5G services, which give much faster data speeds and capacity for both conventional mobile and fixed wireless broadband.

Telcos will now be able to bid for the available spectrum from the middle of next year, with the rights running until November 2022, when the rights to all of the spectrum would expire.

He said details of an auction for longer-term allocation would be worked out over the next couple of years.

"We imagine the likes of Vodafone, Spark, 2degrees and others be keen to get their hands on it. They've been telling us 'You need about 80 to 100 GHZ to really have a 5G system up and running'.

"But because it's still early days I think they're very keen to obviously get started and depending on how much they want and where the spectrum option goes, that will depend on the commercial nature of that [and] how much they can get their hands on," he said.

"As you can imagine, telecommunications companies are pretty keen to get their hands on the spectrum because marketing around 5G and the ability of 5G is gaining some momentum."

Māori allocation

For the first time, an allocation has been made to Māori, in line with a Waitangi Tribunal ruling that Māori had rights to spectrum. Previous governments had not recognised Māori claims to an allocation of spectrum.

"I guess the exciting thing about the early access to the spectrum is about us getting 5G underway for the general public. It was an opportunity for the government to work with Treaty claimant groups and hopefully, by allowing them to play a big part in the short-term allocation, that will give them a stepping stone towards the longer term allocation of spectrum," Faafoi said.

He said the allocation would help advance digital jobs, healthcare, the rural economy and connectivity, education, broadcasting, and the revitalisation of te reo.

Māori suicides a national disgrace - Matthew Tukaki

Matthew Tukaki Photo: RNZ / YouTube

Māori Council executive director Matthew Tukaki helped negotiate the allocation.

"This is extremely significant for our people," he said.

"If we can find ways and means of using technology that everybody is embarking on using for the future - to lift out people out of poverty, to encourage them into higher-skilled, higher-wage jobs and industries - then this is a massive win.

"It just means that we are getting closer towards definitions around ownership."

The government is likely to spend millions over the next two years supporting Māori to research how they can make the most of 5G.

But group member Antony Royal said it would have wider benefits - it was Māori who pulled in investors and set up mobile company 2degrees back in 2000.

"We have seen, over the years, the cost of telecommunications plummet here in New Zealand. And that has been a direct result of Māori's work over many years to actually attract competition to New Zealand.

"So, we've demonstrated our ability as Māori to participate and bring value to all of New Zealand in telecommunications. We want to be able to continue to do that."

Tech commentator Paul Brislen told Morning Report it was "very good step forward".

"This is a very good resolution. It's a way of working with Māori to hopefully build more capability right throughout New Zealand," he said.

"We've got Vodafone, Spark and 2degrees that are all very keen on building 5G networks, these are the next generation of cellular technology - they offer faster speeds, more capability and they open up a whole world of possibilities for mobile connectivity that we have really not seen before."

He said the spectrum was a key element to that and radio frequencies were needed in order to transfer and receive information.

"This has been batting around for longer than anybody has been happy with. Finally, the government is coming to the party and has said 'Okay we acknowledge that Māori do have a role to play in this - a very vital role'."

Huawei's 5G services

Meanwhile, Faafoi side-stepped comment on whether the Chinese mobile equipment maker, Huawei, would face the same objections to being involved in 5G services.

"Their potential involvement depends on the telcos and there's a regulatory process there and that has been made pretty clear since it came into force," he said.

The Chinese firm is an acknowledged leader in the technology but was effectively banned from being a supplier to Spark's mooted network on security grounds. Spark has since gone with other firms to provide its technology.

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