New Zealand's mad mobile May

May fever has hit New Zealand's mobile carriers. Telecom New Zealand and Vodafone both have big initiatives under way ... and is that three? NZ Communications (formerly Econet) kicks off a third competitive network to give the big guns nightmares.

May will see plenty of mobile action in New Zealand, if all goes well. Telecom will launch its new XT WCDMA 850 network on 13 May, ahead of schedule and to eventually replace the perfectly capable but stranded CDMA 2000 1xRTT EV-DO Rev A (phew — mobile acronyms are hideous) one.

No speed figures have been mentioned yet, but Telecom needs to hit 14.4Mbps minimum for marketing reasons

Telecom's kept the network roll-out under wraps, giving out precious little details, but promises full 3G coverage nationwide (well, 97 per cent then) and fast performance. Thanks to the Alcatel-built XT network running in the comparatively low 850MHz frequency range, it should provide good coverage and reach, something that's been a problem for Vodafone's 3G network that runs in the 2.1GHz spectrum.

Performance-wise, word is that Telecom has beefed up the backhaul to the cell-sites, with multiple gigabit Ethernet bearers for each access point. Maybe so, and that would explain some of the half a billion plus capital expenditure on the new network. Either way, Telecom can't afford to miss any targets on XT, so it'll have a nervous time ahead next month. No speed figures have been mentioned yet, but Telecom needs to hit 14.4Mbps minimum for marketing reasons, even if there are precious few (if any?) devices that support it.

Telecom has already made some design decisions with the new network that I find a bit dubious. First, no GSM and GPRS support; not building a 2G network in 2009 when the world is 3G and looking at 4G seems fair enough, but it would make it easier to poach customers from Vodafone and support overseas roamers coming to New Zealand.

Likewise, ditching or postponing 2100MHz support and only going with 850MHz means only a few devices (like the Sony Ericsson W995 phone) can be used with both Vodafone and Telecom, through a simple SIM swap.

Then there's the market for GPRS telemetry devices that will now land in Vodafone's lap by default. Telecom has CDMA telemetry, and that network will keep running until 2012 at least, but obviously, for projects expected to last longer than that, GPRS is the only option.

Vodafone isn't resting on its laurels while Telecom is rolling out XT, however. The UK mobile giant has been pushed into building a new network too with the help of Nokia-Siemens, running in the 900MHz spectrum.

It'll be 3G, and from what I hear, 7.2Mbps HSDPA with 2Mbps HSUPA and should help Vodafone's less than stellar network coverage outside the main cities. Since Europe is moving towards 900MHz 3G, you can expect Vodafone to enjoy a huge selection of handsets to go with it.

In 2007, there was speculation that Virgin Mobile would enter the NZ market, but that is yet to happen. Will it happen in May?

The one with the highest profile of them all, the iPhone, does 3G in the 850MHz band as well as 2100MHz; but with no 900MHz support, so it can't take advantage of Voda's new network.

Finally, it looks like there'll be a third network starting up in May. NZ Communications, formerly known as Econet, has a network up and running after eight years and much arguing with the regulator and incumbents. I can see it on my mobile phone, but haven't been invited to try it out.

Information about the telco's network is sparse apart from being "compatible" with Vodafone's (SIM swap is possible between the two) and built by Huawei and offering GSM and WCDMA. Maybe the handsets will come from Huawei too? Helen Twose in the NZ Herald spotted a job ad for call centre staff that NZ Comms wants to start on 11 May, so it looks like they will launch sometime after Telecom.

The brand NZ Comms will launch under isn't known either. In 2007, there was speculation that Virgin Mobile would enter the NZ market, but that is yet to happen. Will it happen in May?

NZ Comms will have an uphill struggle though, as it won't have the enormous marketing budgets of Telecom and Vodafone and has a somewhat controversial history of not delivering behind it. A third mobile network is very welcome in New Zealand though, to break up Telecom and Vodafone's cosy duopoly, so here's hoping NZ Comms succeeds.


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