Vodafone: 100% population coverage in NZ with current terrestrial technology ‘unlikely’

Tony Baird, head of networks at Vodafone NZ, paints a bold picture of how the provider's network and services will integrate and improve in the future, and how the company is working to develop local telecommunications skill levels in NZ

Tony Baird, head of networks at Vodafone NZ talks to Computerworld NZ, painting a bold picture of how the provider's network and services will integrate and improve in the future, and how the company is working to develop local telecommunications skill levels in NZ.

Q: What are your plans for national 4G coverage?

Tony Baird: Over the last three years we have gone from 2G through 3G dual carrier to 4G. Globally people are seeing that 4G is really going to be the primary technology. Whilst we have done the dual carrier 3G, the true performance of the network will be on 4G with lower milliseconds of latency, faster download speed and faster upload speeds, due to its more efficient use of the spectrum.

Over the next few years our focus will be really on making sure that the 4G footprint is national. We will be at about 65 per cent population coverage really soon. We are over 60 per cent today. To get the first 50 per cent is quite simple, to get the last 50 per cent it is very hard. That is what the rural broadband initiative (RBI) and other initiatives are about.

Last June we tested 4G on 700MHz at Lake Brunner. So we have been testing on 700MHz now for over a year. We have got live cell sites in south Auckland that is for device testing, handovers between technologies and just integrating and getting used to the spectrum that went live last Monday. We have already got commercial traffic on it, so it is not just a test, it is a commercial release of the product.

The 700MHz spectrum will be a bit like U900. It will be ubiquitous layer across the country. It is very good for rural because of its long reach. We are getting about 22 kilometres range with L700 off Lake Brunner, but it is also very good for in-building because it goes through concrete and everything else. It is also very good for additional capacity because when you do carrier aggregation. You add it to the L1800, you start to get 300Mbps download speeds, which is great for a single user’s performance, but it is also additional capacity when you have multiple users all trying to do the same thing at the same time.

We are putting 700MHz in RBI sites. That is what we tested at Lake Brunner last year. With the government’s spectrum auction there is a commitment that we have made to build five new cell sites every year, plus a certain number of upgrades over five years. So we have got the contractual commitments that we need to meet.

But we also believe that the 700 will be good for a lot of those existing rural broadband sites and we will be adding those in over the next five years.

1800MHz will be our capacity layer and in predominantly urban areas. And the 700MHz spectrum will be a nation-wide coverage layer. We also have 2600MHz and that will be predominantly used for small cells and urban hotspots. So between now and the next 18 months, expect to see carrier aggregation dual band and tri-band. Tri-band aggregation will bring together 2600, 1800 and 700 and that’s when you start talking about 500MBps to the device or more capacity for multiple users.

We are starting to see a re-farming of other spectrums across the world. Vodafone has other spectrum holdings. We have 5 blocks of 2100Mhz. Some of that could and would be freed up for 4G, and likewise, you have seen in other parts of the world 900MHz, 2100MHz and TDD 2300. So there are lots and lots and lots of blocks of spectrum that we own that we can ultimately group for 4G.

You will be seeing the vast majority of our spectrum holdings being used for 4G.

Q: When are we likely to reach 100 per cent national coverage with 4G? What are the challenges you encounter in ensuring that?

TB: The probability of us getting 100 per cent population coverage with existing terrestrial-based, cellular-based technology is unlikely. The probability of us getting to 99 per cent population coverage is achievable. The last 1-2 per cent is going to be very difficult in NZ because of population density.

But there are other technologies. For instance we have been testing and have available small cell sites with satellite. We could put in a satellite uplink and have a small cell off that. We will be doing that for spot coverage and also for emergencies, when they need coverage at short notice. We can get to 100 per cent coverage by using other backhaul technologies like satellite.

The limitations to having a 100 per cent would be the geography of NZ, power supplies, wind power, solar power. We have done a site in Great Barrier Island which is all green power. But that cost half a million dollars for the infrastructure alone leave alone the tower and – this was just electricity, batteries, wind, solar all of that cost a significant amount of money. You need to see that green energy costs for power coming down for these far remote sites.

For the furthest reaches of the network we use satellite, then we start using microwave. But with microwave you don’t necessarily get the same bandwidth over long distances in a rural environment as you would in a city.

I would say the biggest limitations are the geography of NZ, power and what you can do for backhaul.

Q: How far is Wi-Fi coverage a part of your strategy?

TB: Wi-Fi is interesting. In my opinion it has been a stopgap because I guess it’s the way plans have been constructed. It doesn’t work as well as 4G; 4G works a lot better than Wi-Fi. Working on the ISM (industrial, scientific and medical) band, Wi-Fi can get congested, because that is free for anybody to use. You get a lot of interference. Our Wi-Fi supplier has a very good product and what we see in the long term is seamless integration of WiFi with 4G and 3G technologies, and that is what we have been working on. Ultimately, you won’t notice one day, whether you are on Wi-Fi or 4G.

We will have seamless integration from a technology perspective later this year. Some of the Wi-Fi products that are coming now you can retune the radio frequencies to be the same as the frequency you have purchased, and which is not the ISM band. You need to be able to do some smart things with that. You can have an in-building business solution when you are around the building and then when you are in the macro environment it can be another solution. I see a lot of convergence around there.

Much of the launch of converged solutions is going to be commercially driven, and is based on how Vodafone wants to compete in the marketplace. That is a bit outside my department to comment upon.

Tony Baird, head of networks, Vodafone NZ
Tony Baird, head of networks, Vodafone NZ

Q: What do you think the government should be doing to ensure ubiquitous coverage in the country?

TB: My view is that NZ has done a very good job with connectivity. We have got 4.5 million people. We have a landmass that is approximately the same as GB and that has 70 million people. And we are doing things like RBI. We have satellite communications, got 4G, we have got the fastest mobile network in the world, got UFB (ultra-fast broadband) initiative. We have got a pretty good kitbag of parts to do a very good solution.

Read more: Vodafone doubles data for business customers

The real question is how do we stitch it all together to make it a seamless experience. That is something that needs to be worked on and I am sure it will be worked on. But as far as technologies go, we have a pretty good range.

If you look at Vodafone alone, we have got satellite, we have got hybrid fibre coaxial cable, we have got VDSL, ADSL and other products. We have got fibre to the business and home – in fact we are doing an active Ethernet trial in Pegasus town. We have iPTV, right through to 4G and Wifi.

Given the size of the country, we have got the technology.

The biggest issue in NZ, which has driven and structured tariffs and data caps and other things, historically has been international capacity. We have been limited by Southern Cross. Vodafone is working on the trans-Tasman gateway project to look at a new cable to Australia with other partners. International capacity is something that has affected the way we have structured networks and plans. That could be another area of improvement.

Read more: Six-monthly report shows strong hiring trends in Canterbury region

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing Vodafone as a service provider in the coming years?

TB: As we roll out more and more small cells, there is going to be a need to have greater support in the design and planning rules. When a building is built there needs to be pre-allocated design rules around access technologies like cellular. Ease of getting planning permission, ease of getting access for small cells and power poles, might be one area. We have got about 1,500 cell sites today. With small cells this can go up to 5,000 to 10,000 very quickly. I can see a proliferation of small cells and lots of them being rolled out.

When you have a new building going in part of the consent process should include provision for cellular access, just like it does for water, power and sewage. That is an important thing.

We have put in a submission for the Auckland Unitary Plan that we would like to see that, especially when new sub-divisions are put in. When a subdivision is allocated the developer they have to specify where a new cell tower will be going up. It is part of the sub division and it is included so people know that it is going there. It is more of an issue to put it in retrospectively.

Q: You stated that you would be hiring, especially in the South Island for your planned Christchurch office. Are you finding the skill levels that you need in NZ easily?

TB: We are looking for IP expertise. That is TCP IP, the actual messaging protocol used in networks across everything from radio layer to the core and international. Everything is IP based now. IP qualified resources have always been hard for us to get. We have recently successfully recruited two engineers from Egypt, who have certain certifications that made them attractive. They wanted to immigrate to NZ. We have to go offshore for a lot of these skills.

I would say every time we hire we look locally and externally. I would say at least 50 per cent would be non NZ citizens. They might already be in the country, and we hire them. Or they want to immigrate to NZ and we hire them.

We hire from other Vodafone offices. There is an international mobility capability within Vodafone, so you can move. NZ is considered a good place to move to.

We have actually started and are putting together an apprentice programme where we hire school leavers and university leavers and train them up. My ultimate goal would be if we could see an apprentice that has come through from school go to one of the technology institutes.

We are working with one in Auckland to put together an IP course. Our apprentices will come out with a diploma in tech communications and one of them gets a scholarship to go to one of the universities for a further engineering course. So we would take somebody from school and see them go right through to being university qualified.

That is what we are working on actively.

We have reviewed the course and everything. There will be a diploma of telecommunications. They will get Cisco certified or Juniper certified. They will get highly paid skills at the end of it. They will be integrated into our workforce into a rotational apprenticeship and I would personally like to offer a scholarship to the university to the best one of those.

We already run an apprenticeship scheme and a graduate scheme within technology today. But this would be about taking them from school all the way through to graduation. This will help develop our organic skill sets in the country, which I enjoy doing. We hope to have that course up and running as soon as possible. The course will potentially be offered in Auckland. It is supposed to be national ultimately.

I think it is a going to be a combination of internal and organic growth, and also bringing people from overseas.

We have 30 going through the apprenticeship programme right now. Don’t think we can absorb more than that. It is hard to absorb more than that because you need to mentor them with somebody, have to have a rotation programme, where they do three months in one department and then they move to another department. It is quite a bit of overhead on the existing staff to train and support these people.

The full apprentice programme, to get the qualification, takes around three years. We started the programme around 18 months back and we haven’t finished a cycle yet. I would hope to keep all of them at the end of it. A lot of my experienced people go back to the older technologies, but newer people are completely native on developing apps and having new ideas.

Q: What are your network plans in the coming months?

TB: We will be doing some trials with self-optimising networks and heterogeneous networks (hetnet) in this fiscal year, which is 31st March for us. We are in the process of getting kit in. It will go on from a trial to a full rollout. That’s the way they usually head.

We are also doing a VoLTE (Voice over LTE) trial this calendar year. That’s our first step to IMS (IP multimedia subsystem). With the Telstra Clear acquisition we have got a whole pile of legacy switching equipment. We have got legacy switching on the Vodafone mobile side. We are seeing all those switching equipment coming together with IMS over the next couple of years.

So there is a huge infrastructure investment coming through. Ultimately you will be able to have landlines, mobiles, all using the same technology.

Every year we invest hundreds of millions of dollars in standard network equipment and then we get additional funding for things like spectrum purchases. So it spikes for those things. IMS and VoLTE – I will be absorbing it in the existing envelope.

We do have the best network and download speeds on Vodafone here from across the world, so a lot our suppliers see our network in NZ as a potential for a trial of new technologies. So we get some quite good commercial deals for these trials.

Q: Do you have flexibility in adding to your suppliers from local firms? Or is it often only a global process?

TB: When it comes to commercial rollouts we have the Vodafone procurement company, which is a Vodafone department that does global contracts with various buyers. That means we get standard terms and conditions on warranties and other elements. When it comes to trials of new technologies we talk to our suppliers directly. For example we have done the 400GBps wavelength trial in February – that was a world first - for our fibre optic network.

We have done the 700MHz trial, we are doing hetnet and VoLTE and so on. A lot of that is us talking to our suppliers and saying hey we are aheda of the pack and do you want to be a part of that? And they very often say yes.

Some suppliers we introduce to Vodafone Group, if they are doing something innovative. So if we find an NZ supplier, maybe through our innovation lab that will soon be a part of our Christchurch office, and they are somebody with world class M2M capability, we will introduce them to the group. We have done that before.

But the group tends to have a global panel of suppliers. Then we go through the panel and choose the ones that make the most sense for us locally, either because of technology, or competitive pricing or in-country support. There are a whole range of reasons we might choose one above the other for NZ.

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