Today on Radio New Zealand National I talk about the mobile wars – the new Telecom XT Network, the new “Two Degrees” mobile company, and the existing Vodafone network. What are we to make of all the hype, the court cases and the bluster?
A: Yes. I want to talk today, not about the phones themselves but about the networks they use. This is a piece of raw human drama disguised as a technical problem.
Q: How so?
A: Well, it’s all about competition again. Until now, New Zealand has had two mobile phone networks that wouldn’t run each other’s telephones. You buy a phone to run on Vodafone; it’s totally different to the phone you need for Telecom. The two mobile phone networks in this country use fundamentally different technology. That’s not how things are in most of the world where all mobile phone networks are basically the same. So, you buy a phone to run on one network in Europe and, unless the phone is locked to one network, you can run it on any other network. This has the effect of increasing competition among the networks and keeping the network providers honest.
All the European networks and most of the networks in the rest of the world use a technology called GSM. That’s the one Vodafone uses. And as the GSM mobile networks have moved to 3G they’ve all moved to another technology called WCDMA, which is not the same as the original GSM technology but most people just think of it as 3G GSM.
Q: What is 3G again?
A: Stands for third generation. The first generation was the original analogue telephone the size and shape of a brick, and only the yuppies had them. Call quality was terrible, and they didn’t do text messages. The next generation was digital telephone with far clearer calling as well as text messaging, and the size and price rapidly came down to where they are today. 3G was launched a few years ago – it effectively gives your phone a much higher data rate which means you can do cool Internet-based things like Google Maps or surfing the web, and you can do Star Trek stuff like video calling. Effectively 3G is a digital mobile network that does more than just phone calls and text.
Now, both Vodafone and Telecom have 3G networks already. Under ideal conditions they can both do you a fairly decent data rate so you can surf the Internet from your mobile, or from your laptop if you have one of their mobile data modems. But Telecom’s network uses a technology which no-one else does in the world. The rest of the world has gone to GSM and its successor, WCDMA. There are two problems with that – one is that most Telecom phones won’t roam to other countries. The other is that Telecom has a much more restricted set of actual telephone models to sell to its customers. It’s no accident that the iPhone, for instance, works on Vodafone not Telecom. Same with the Google phone that Vodafone has announced its selling as well.
Those two problems – roaming and access to handsets – have forced Telecom to build a new mobile network that uses the same technology as the rest of the world. That’s the context for the announcements we’ve been seeing on TV with Richard Hammond.
Q: So what are we to make of the court challenge by Vodafone?
A: Well, Vodafone claimed that Telecom’s new network was interfering with Vodafone’s established network, leading to dropped calls and the like. They use different but neighbouring frequency bands. Mobile phone networks bid for frequency bands, then they have to stay within the band they get allocated. If Vodafone is right and Telecom were interfering with their band, then that’s entirely wrong of Telecom and they should indeed solve the problem.
Q: Wasn’t that the outcome?
A: Well, yes. Neither side is admitting they were wrong, of course, and Paul Reynolds of Telecom came out pretty robustly in the paper saying that Telecom had done nothing wrong. But it was the kind of nothing wrong that caused them to install filters on more of their cellsites and delay their much-ballyhooed launch by two weeks. Telecom’s putting a brave face on that, thanking Vodafone for the free publicity, but I incline more to Bernard Hickey’s view that it’s a PR disaster for Telecom that they couldn’t get their engineering right first time and had to publicly slip an announced launch date. According to an article the NBR, Telecom knew about the interference right back in November, but pressed ahead with launch plans before they had fixed it.
Q: And there’s a new mobile network.
A: There certainly is. NZ Communications has had a long history of being about to launch a new network, and heaven knows New Zealand needs the competition. NZ Comms, formerly Econet Wireless, has been doing a dance of the seven veils about its new network, and this week another veil came off. We know what its going to be called – Two Degrees. That’s a 2 with a little degree sign after it. Someone has already pointed out that it’s remarkably similar to the O2 logo – O2 is a mobile network in the UK and its logo adorns the chests of the English rugby team.
Q: Why Two Degrees?
A: Apparently its based on the notion that everyone is separated socially from everyone else by at most six degrees of separation – you know, I know someone who has met Michelle Obama who knows the US president rather well, that kind of thing. But New Zealand’s society is so small and interconnected that they think two degrees is more appropriate here.
Q: What will the phone numbers be on the new network?
A: 022, although they are encouraging you to change from your existing provider and bring your existing 021 or 027 number with you. Vodafone phones should work just fine on the new network, so you won’t need to buy a new phone. All three of the mobile networks have said that they won’t be locking mobile phone to their networks, which means they will have to compete on price and service. That’s a good thing. That’s why Vodafone are doing some good deals at the moment offering quite decent phones for nothing if you’ll commit for two years.
And both Vodafone and Telecom have announced a Twitter connection for the mobiles on their network. People with smartphones like iPhones and Blackberries have been using Twitter from them for a while, but both the existing networks have done a deal to provide Twitter access from ordinary mobile phones.
Q: How does that work?
A: You send your tweets as text messages to a specific address and Vodafone or Telecom passes them to Twitter for you. And you can set up a list of people on Twitter whose tweets you want to receive as text messages on your mobile.
Q: Are you signing up?
A: I can’t think of anything worse! To me, Twitter is a river of information I dip in and out of. I don’t worry if I miss things, and I certainly don’t want to be texted every time someone tweets.
New Telecom network launch put off after Vodafone court action. Is this free publicity or a PR disaster? One man’s take on the winners and the losers. And, according to NBR, Telecom knew about the interference in November last year.
New Zealand’s third mobile network is closer to launch.