Is New Zealand getting enough fibre?

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First we went from dial-up to broadband, and now from copper-based broadband to fibre.  The ever improving foundations of our internet knows no bounds when it comes to faster speeds, more stable connections, and cheaper packages.  Here in New Zealand, things haven’t improved as quick as many of us would like, but there are signs that now, finally, we are heading towards an era where the vast majority of us will be able to get UFB, or Ultra Fast Broadband.  By the end of 2024, the government say that 85% of the country will have access to UFB, but are these plans ambition enough?  Is fibre a waste of time when 5G is just ‘round the corner’?  Why would anyone need fibre anyway?  If you are asking yourself any of these questions, read on..

Do I need fibre?

Firstly, many people ask the simple question, “why would I need fibre?”.  This is a perfectly legitimate question, and one that on the surface seems simple to answer.  In the real world though, every customer has different needs, and as such the answer isn’t binary. There will be many customers who are more than happy with their ADSL or VDSL copper-based solutions that are on the cheaper end of the spectrum when selecting your internet package.  As we move forward into a more connected world however, these less robust solutions will start to show their age in more ways than one.  Firstly, the IOT (or Internet Of Things) sector has started to take off massively.  The release of Amazon’s Alexa, Google Home, and many more, has kicked off a revolution in the smart home that shows now signs of stopping. Doorbells with cameras, baby monitors, remote controlled garage doors, and pet trackers are likely to become the norm in our homes in the next five to ten years, and as such, they put a much bigger strain on our networks.

Take for example, Google’s NestCam. This wonderful piece of kit can be used to monitor your home when you are out, recording video and backing it up to the Google servers, ready for when you may need to prove who broke into your house, or perhaps just prove who ate the last muffin. Either way, this camera will upload video constantly at 360, 720, or 1080p.  The later can really strain a network that doesn’t have decent bandwidth, and while you may not notice the issue when you are web browsing, you may find your Netflix binge session interrupted with buffering, and dips in quality.  The solution?  Well, if you are on an ADSL or VDSL based package, fibre could be your answer.

Fibre has far more bandwidth than ADSL or VDSL, and as such allows for more traffic to flow through your network without disrupting other services that you are also using. While download speeds on some ADSL or VDSL lines can cope with the traffic, it is often the upload speed where the bottleneck occurs.  With upload speeds generally around one fifth of the download speed in many packages, it is easy to see where, even a 20MB/s download speed can run into trouble.  Fibre lines not only have faster download speeds, but some ISP’s allow you to increase, or even match your upload speed with your download speeds.  As we start using more devices that rely on sending information out from the home, rather than just request information coming in, it’s safe to expect seeing upload speeds increased by New Zealand based internet providers.

But, 5G is coming!

Now, the question of 5G is fair one.  With speeds of up to 4GB/s, you can understand why some people are wondering whether this will be the ‘next big thing’ in home broadband.  The answer unfortunately, is that we don’t know.  Tests on 5G have shown these blistering speeds are possible, but only in perfect conditions, and secondly, nobody knows how expensive it will be, or when it will be rolling out.  If the 4G rollout is anything to go by, it will be a good decade before we see 5G coverage large enough and cheap enough to rely on for home connections.  So is it worth holding out for 5G?  Not right now, no.  It may very well be the future of home broadband, but for now, it is nothing more than a pipe dream.

As for whether New Zealand is ambition enough when it comes to fibre rollouts, this is a difficult question.  85% sounds like a decent number of fibre connected homes, but to be honest, that only seems decent if you fall into the category of ‘have’ rather than ‘have not’.  But it is also worth remembering how expensive, and sometimes difficult, rolling out fibre can be. Miles of digging up roads, and laying cables doesn’t come cheap, and there has to be a worthwhile reason for any company to invest this money.  We can’t expect a company to invest in infrastructure that won’t recoup the costs in subsequent subscriptions, but equally we can’t leave those people living in the most rural of areas hanging in the wind.

So for now, Fibre is by far the best option for the future-proofed home.  It is robust enough to handle the upcoming smart home revolution, and it is affordable enough for most people to invest in.  While 5G may be the future, its influence is too far off to consider as a sensible option right now.  New Zealand, now tied third in the Asia Pacific area for broadband speeds, cannot rest on its laurels when it comes to fibre rollouts.  Having a robust net infrastructure is fast becoming as important as a good transport system for many countries, and while we can be proud that our future is looking pretty rosy, we would do well to not forget about the 15% still waiting for a decent internet connection in 2024.