The first five of 154 new rural cellular towers funded by the Ministry of Economic Development’s Rural Broadband Initiative (RBI) and built by Vodafone NZ were officially activated yesterday, as detailed in Computerworld, NBR, and other media.
Is this service speedy enough to meet the needs of the average New Zealand consumer?
The new towers are required by contract to provide peak download speeds of up to 5mbps, and committed speeds (CIR) of at least 0.045mbps at all times. Vodafone has chosen to use their existing 950MHz 3G technology, and with three sectors employed, each tower has a peak download rate of 84mbps. An even distribution of customers near to and far from the tower with varying degrees of line of sight means that efficiency will be no greater than 60%, leading to real world traffic rates of about 50mbps per tower. While only 1.5 times the speed of a basic 30mbps home user UFB connection, it’s enough to meet contractual obligations.
A new RBI tower can support 1,120 simultaneous users at the 45kbps CIR.
The Commerce Commission published a paper in December 2011 on technical issues relating to demand for ultra-fast broadband. While the RBI service is by no means an “ultra-fast” service, the study presented a good overview of the current needs of New Zealand consumers, and cited some key facts and figures drawn from Statistics New Zealand. The amount of traffic used by the average New Zealand consumer from 2010-2011 was 9 gigabytes per month. As discussed below, times have moved on, and that figure has increased.
The average New Zealand consumer uses 12 gigabytes of traffic a month.
Unless they plan on downloading Blu-ray videos, the average Kiwi isn’t going to be using 12 gigabytes in a day. At 5mbps, they could eat their data cap in an evening, but realistically users are going to be downloading at a rate of 400mb/day, with their highest use between the hours of 8-10PM. Google’s Transparency Report allows one to see the surfing habits of users by country, and this week in New Zealand, surfing habits look like the image below.
With the above data it can be shown that on average Kiwis consume 18% of their monthly traffic between 8-10PM – at an average rate of 75kbps. This means that in order to provide average service to New Zealanders, during peak hours the RBI towers will need to deliver greater than the 45kbps CIR.
In 2012 a new RBI tower will support 671 simultaneous users between 8-10PM.
Nine gigabytes a month is cited by the Commerce Commission for 2010-2011, but today we’re using more. Accepting updated figures as detailed by Dr. Robert Pepper of Cisco during the Commerce Commission’s The Future with High Speed Broadband conference, the average New Zealander today should be just over 12 gigabytes a month. That utilization will increase over the next five years at a 34% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).
The chart above illustrates projected traffic growth in gigabytes per month.
In 2016 the average Kiwi will use 39 gigs/month – exactly what users in the US are doing right now.
With a 34% CAGR, the average bit rate per user required during peak hours will increase steadily, and the number of average users supported will decrease as a result. With the equipment being deployed today – both tower based and end user – in four years’ time each tower will only support 208 average Kiwi users.
In 2016 a new RBI tower will support 208 simultaneous users between 8-10PM.
LTE in 700MHz is touted by many as being the solution to adding capacity to these new Rural Towers. Unfortunately it requires new equipment at both the towers and the end user locations. Considering the 154 new towers, and 103,334 users they could support today, just to maintain average speeds to users each tower will need to be upgraded and two thirds of the end users will need new antennas and CPE. At $100k/tower and $300/user for CPE and antenna upgrades, the additional cost to maintain average service to rural users users will be in the order of thirty million dollars in the next few years.
A huge cash investment will be required just to maintain average levels of service.
While Vodafone is easily able to meet their contractual obligations with the RBI Fixed Wireless Service, the reality is that if any significant number of users take up the service, the quality they will experience will quickly fall below that of the average New Zealand user unless the RBI program receives a significant capital top-up.