How a lakeside hamlet beat the NZ capital to 4G

Vodafone finally rolled out 4G into Wellington this week — but it seems that New Zealand's capital was not the telco's top priority.
Written by Darren Greenwood, Contributor

As commentator Bill Bennett noted, Wellington was way down the list of places to receive the latest mobile technology.

Despite Wellington also touting its technical prowess as a blossoming centre of IT excellence, we see Vodafone rolling out 4G in other places, like Auckland, Christchurch, Queenstown, Wanaka, and Taupo.

Even the sleepy Lake Brunner near the isolated west coast of the South Island beat New Zealand's capital.

Bennett explained this "almost neglectful" situation as partly down to cell site upgrade schedules, as well as Vodafone not "understanding" the capital, something that sparked debate on his blog. Bennett is certainly half right, as Vodafone explained to me yesterday.

Vodafone had previously selected Lake Brunner for the first rural trial of 4G using the 700MHz frequency.

"On the same cell site, Vodafone has enabled 4G using the 1800MHz spectrum, meaning that any Vodafone customers in the coverage area with a 4G-capable device and qualifying plan will also be able to use the service," Vodafone said.

"Lake Brunner is an ideal test location, as it has a number of different characteristics which mean we can test a number of things at the same time, including topography (meaning we can test the technology over land and water), geography (being surrounded by mountains means the radio frequency is relatively isolated), and cell tower type."

As for the capital, it seems there were other factors that weakened Wellington's 4G progress.

"Without going into huge detail, our core network in Auckland was ready to enable upgrades to happen first, ahead of South Island and Wellington," Vodafone said.

"Post-earthquake, Christchurch had a number of rebuilt cell sites and U900 already deployed on some sites, meaning we were able to upgrade them reasonably quickly, and the 4G rollout there was ready earlier. We actually started both Wellington and Christchurch upgrades within a couple of weeks of each other — but in Christchurch, there were less consents and approvals required to enable the upgrades to be progressed. Wellington has more sites to upgrade than Christchurch, and therefore takes longer to finish," the telco continued.

"Taupo, Queenstown, and Wanaka are holiday destinations, and it made sense to upgrade these areas ahead of the ski season. They also have a relatively small number of sites," the spokeswoman added.

So, there we have it. But what about Telecom, which is lagging behind Vodafone with its rollout of 4G?

"We will be launching 4G in Auckland initially, and then rolling out to Wellington and Christchurch before Christmas this year. From next year, we will then begin rolling it across the rest of NZ, and expect to have close to half the network live with 4G by mid-2014," the telco told me yesterday.

"So the three main centres [Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch] will be first," a spokeswoman added.

Certainly, it all goes to show that with all the varying factors at play, from cell site upgrades to getting consent to do the work, such rollouts are not as straightforward as we might expect.

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