Spark NZ pushes forward with 4G data service rollout

Spark New Zealand has rolled out its 4G data service in more than 70 cities, towns, and other locations, with the telco claiming that it now covers roughly two thirds of the country's population.

Spark New Zealand has said that its 4G mobile data services now cover roughly two thirds of the country, with the company announcing on Friday that coverage is now available in more than 70 cities, towns, and other locations around the nation.

The New Zealand Exchange-listed company, formerly known as Telecom New Zealand until August this year, said in a statement that it "believes it is overtaking its rivals" in respect to 4G mobile data services after building out its network over the past few months.

Earlier this year, Spark entered into a round of one-upmanship with Vodafone, as both companies moved to launch commercial 700MHz 4G services. Vodafone claimed in July to have "flipped the switch" on a regionally limited offering, and Spark launched a service in Hamilton in August.

Now, with the company rolling out its 4G services using the 1800MHz spectrum band, along with the newly acquired 700MHz spectrum band, as well as the introduction of carrier aggregation into Auckland, Spark Connect chief operating officer David Havecroft said that the company is closing the gap between itself and its competitors.

"Since we launched 4G just over a year ago, we've frankly been playing catch-up with our main competitor, who had a head start on us with their 4G build," said Havercroft. "We've now closed that gap. Based on our projected build over the next few months, we're confident that if we're not already in a leadership position in terms of coverage, we will be any time soon."

Earlier this year, Spark spent NZ$158 million to acquire the maximum amount of 700MHz radio spectrum that the government's auction process would allow it. The company has also made it clear that the 700MHz rollout will be a key focus of its mobile network improvements throughout next year.

Meanwhile, Spark provides 3G mobile services to approximately 97 percent of populated areas across the country.

Spark's latest 4G rollout update comes as the Commerce Commission publishes its emerging view on backdating the final prices that Chorus charges for its local copper lines and broadband service.

Earlier this month, Spark hiked up its charges for phone and broadband plans in response to the Commerce Commission's revised draft wholesale pricing for copper network access.

At the time, Spark said home phone-only plans, and 40GB and 80GB broadband plans, both ADSL and VDSL, would go up by between NZ$2.50 and NZ$4.25 a month. Similar increases were expected to be made to charges for business copper broadband plans.

The Commerce Commission's draft decision signalled a NZ$5.40 increase in the wholesale charges for home phone lines and a NZ$4.54 increase in broadband line charges that took effect on December 1.

Now, New Zealand's competition enforcement and regulatory agency has said its current view is that once the final prices for the unbundled copper local loop and unbundled bitstream access service are determined, they should be backdated to December 1, 2014, but no earlier.

"Backdating is an important issue to us and the industry. We are publishing our emerging view on backdating now to provide as much certainty to the market as possible," said Telecommunications Commissioner Dr Stephen Gale in a statement.

The Commerce Commission's latest thoughts on Chorus' copper pricing come just a day after New Zealand's opposition ICT spokesperson Clare Curran called on the country's broadband community to help expedite the migration from copper to fibre.

"In 2015, the broadband community should start the critical discussion on how and when New Zealand can migrate from the copper broadband network to fibre, because the current government won't," said Curran, the Labour MP for Dunedin South. "If they don't, then New Zealand will be bogged down in ongoing debates about the price of copper broadband thwarting economic development opportunities from fibre.

"This week, the Australian government struck a deal with Telstra and Optus to gradually take control of their copper and pay TV wires to speed up the rollout of the National Broadband Network (NBN).

"Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the ongoing exhausting battle between the telcos and Chorus fighting over revenue margins and shareholder returns is getting us nowhere while the Commerce Commission increasingly futilely attempts to find middle ground while not provoking government intervention which props up monopoly shareholders," she said.

The commission is now consulting on the backdating issue, and is calling on submissions from interested parties.