At Vodafone HQ on the North Shore, a multinational team is working to build a network which will change New Zealand. Duncan Greive watches the birth of 5G.
The fridge is basically the same as those at workplaces across New Zealand, groaning with beer and little else. It looks like any other modern double door, apart from a large vertically rectangular flatscreen on the right-hand side.
Thaigan Govender pulls out his phone and scrolls to a video he filmed of the fridge a few days ago. The screen is lit up with what looks like a car’s rev meter. It starts from zero, quickly building close to the meter’s limit, by the end reading a hair over 160mbps. “It’s the fastest connected fridge in the world,” says Govender, before shaking his head ruefully. “Engineers,” he says. The kind of people who run a network speed test on an innocent fridge.
For context, that 160mbps is fast enough to stream three different movies at the current state-of-the-art 8K format, and still have plenty of bandwidth to spare. It’s faster than almost all New Zealand’s current fibre connections. Which is to say it’s considerably more than the fridge – part of a coming wave of connected appliances – needs to keep things cool.
What’s driving this stupendous speed is the next generation of mobile network, currently being hacked and tested a few metres away in a bright red Faraday cage about the size of a small bus. Large perspex windows reveal a mostly bare interior, save for large pyramids of dampening foam and a small technical antenna at the far end. It’s the testing ground of what will become New Zealand’s first 5G network, to be launched before the end of the year.
The rest of the room is a purposeful mess: boxes upon boxes of Cienna and Nokia equipment; a row of desks with largely Pākehā engineers, testing their equipment, while a tiny circular table alongside hosts five Koreans, down from Nokia to study the way their handsets interact with the new network. All overseen by Govender, a passionate network engineer who grew up in Apartheid-era South Africa (“a tough, tough upbringing”) who dreamed of creating networks in rural Africa, which he accomplished, before moving to New Zealand a decade ago.
No one looks up at visitors. The multinational team of engineers are cramming for a major exam, happening in two weeks, when senior staff from Samsung arrive to assess the network prior to launch to see whether it’s fit for its devices. South Korea, the home of Samsung, has the world’s highest adoption of 5G, with more than 500,000 subscribers, and regularly ranks near the top of indices of mobile and fixed internet speeds.
It’s impossible to overstate the gravity of this moment, and thus the pressure on Govender and others at Vodafone. A failure to launch would be a corporate embarrassment for Vodafone’s new management and shareholders as they attempt to revitalise a brand which had grown musty over the past decade. Yet if they pull this off, it’s that revitalisation manifest, and 5G becomes a talisman of a new Vodafone, reclaiming its old values with bleeding-edge technology. “It’s a big brand statement for us in the market,” says Vodafone’s newish CEO Jason Paris, “so it’ll attract high value customers who know that speed and low latency are essential for them in their business or personal life.”
As with the fridge, you might ask where all this blazing speed is taking us. For many, the constraints of slow internet are a fading memory, with the combination of the fibre rollout and 4G meaning speeds are good enough for almost all we want to do, almost all the time. Yet those who watch networks for a living see the pinchpoints and potential. Govender says 5G has arrived at the perfect moment: demand for speed and capacity is about to go through another burst. “There’s so many things coming together,” he says. “AI [artificial intelligence], machine learning, all of that stuff – you can package use cases with those kinds of technologies to really leverage 5G as a platform.”
There’s a huge wave of connectivity coming through the Internet of Things (IoT – code for everything from smart fridges to lighting and home security). The abundance of cheap sensors and receivers will create a massive increase in both demand for internet, and our reliance on it. So while 4G feels like enough right now, it’s this explosion which will require the vast expansion of the next generation technology.
Vodafone is in many ways a cobbled-together company. It’s made up of pieces of once-prominent New Zealand telcos including TelstraClear, BellSouth and ihug, each of which has been bolted on to increase the scale of the whole. This is in stark contrast to Spark, which grew out of Telecom, a former state monopoly utility. “There’s a real challenger brand mentality to this business,” says Paris. “It’s a bit like MediaWorks versus TVNZ. Except we’ll hopefully have a better outcome.”
Paris is an intriguing character. A Southlander, born when his mother was just 17, he’s both younger and far more open than the typical corporate CEO. This might be explained in part by his background within the industry. While many CEOs’ path to the top goes through the power centres of engineering or accounting, his background is in marketing.
Yet Vodafone is his first challenger brand. Paris has worked at Spark, TVNZ and McDonald’s, along with Nokia in the 00s, when it was one of the world’s biggest tech companies. In some ways, this is his first time at a business fighting from a less than dominant position.
As a result of its status, of being given nothing as of right, Vodafone has had to look for advantages wherever it could. The area it has historically emphasised is technology. Vodafone committed early to what’s known in the industry as the European GSM standards, a type of network technology which is now dominant, but was not always.
The battle between competing network frameworks is over now – GSM emerged as the accepted global standard. But for years it resembled the video wars of the 80s, when VHS battled Beta for consumer affections. Vodafone might just have been lucky in backing the winning horse, but that advantage means 5G is now the fourth generation of GSM technology it will debut into the New Zealand market.
The first was 2G, which was almost entirely about voice communication, way back in the early 90s. Sharina Nisha was there back then, fresh out of university, helping build out one of the first Vodafone networks in this part of the world. The build was in Fiji, where she grew up. The process was very manual – she literally drove around Viti Levu, noting where the signal rose and fell along the way. “Being a female and driving around the countryside, I remember my mum worried about my health and safety,” she says. “Luckily I had a phone.”
Unsettled by the 2000 coup, Nisha moved to New Zealand, staying with Vodafone, for whom she’s now worked for 25 years. After her arrival, she got to work on the deployment of 3G in 2005, then 4G in 2013, each technology faster and more adaptable than the last.
Her role is head of platforms, meaning she’s responsible for everything from the relaunched Vodafone TV to the 5G rollout. The latter she describes as a “100 milestone process”, replete with complexity which runs the gamut from ensuring there is space for technology within cabinets at network towers, to obtaining resource consents.
She also takes care of more mundane tasks within Vodafone’s North Shore HQ. When Nicky Preston, the senior communications lead, notes that a network login is taking its time, Nisha sheepishly replies “that’s also my department”.
With every previous rollout, the purpose was broadly clear. 2G was about voice, 3G about texting and small data, 4G about true internet connectivity – the ability to view and send video and images. Yet each time the way businesses and consumers used the technology brought bigger surprises. No one knew that short message services (SMS) facilitated by 3G would become such a specifically New Zealand phenomenon. With 4G the potential for video streaming was clear, but not its nature. “I don’t think anyone predicted how much the social networks would grow,” says Nisha. The likes of Snapchat and Instagram stories were only possible due to the data capacity of 4G.
With 5G the reason for being is even more opaque, but the possibilities are a quantum leap on from those of 4G, due to both the speed and latency (the pace of response time), and the way related technology has accelerated over the past decade.
Yet for all the tantalising possibility, there are some known business opportunities which are already clear. For example, the capacity can be sliced into secure silos, which means the likes of Police and Civil Defence are interested, as is the government as it reassesses two-way radio as its default communication technology in the event of national emergencies.
Right now our internet is robust, but retains vulnerabilities. In the aftermath of the Kaikōura earthquake, one of the two cables which pipe the internet to the upper South Island were broken, says Nisha, yet the network’s resilience ensured there was minimal disruption to access. As Vodafone CTO Tony Baird points out, the network slicing of 5G means that even with the huge increase in load that happens in an emergency, a section can be held for critical services. “When there’s an earthquake and a spike in usage, the emergency services would be guaranteed they have their network.”
Outages during the Christchurch earthquakes were more often driven by power failure than connection failure. This means as the internet becomes more critical to every aspect of personal, business and government, it needs stronger failsafes. “With IoT – this infrastructure will be controlling the power,” says Baird. “The switching of the generators. The transmission networks of Transpower – those things will be controlled by 5G. So it’s critical that we have that reliability – there will be a lot of investment in batteries.”
Six months ago, only one New Zealand company was talking about 5G with an established timeline. Vodafone’s arch-rival Spark had announced it would have 5G in market for the 2021 America’s Cup. Yet behind closed doors, Vodafone was plotting.
CEO Paris says he realised early on that Vodafone was possessed of three natural advantages. First: it had new owners prepared to invest to build the network. Second, it had won the race to every previous advance in GSM technology, and should consider that part of its brand.
Most critical was the third – that it had the spectrum upon which to transmit it. Vodafone acquired frequencies in the TelstraClear takeover which are 5G ready. Not only does Spark as of today not have any suitable spectrum, that which it has targeted is potentially subject to a treaty claim. Those three factors in concert convinced Paris to push go on the project which will become one of the defining features of his tenure as CEO.
It’s one year since he took the reins from Russell Stanners, whose era was tied in part to the ill-fated merger with Sky. While Stanners was somewhat reserved, Paris is open and enthusiastic.
He wears black jeans, sneakers and a Vodafone All Blacks polo. We have lunch at Fantail & Turtle, part of Goodside, a modern dining precinct surrounded by various corporate headquarters, including Vodafone’s. Paris is in a good mood: it’s Melbourne Cup day, and his mind is on La Mia Stella, starting in race five, 3pm at Ellerslie. It’s his first horse’s second race, and a ticking deadline dictating the cut-off point of our interview (the horse eventually ran third-to-last; the impact on his mood is unknown).
When asked to tell his life story, Paris emphasises his wife’s career over his own. “She graduated first in her class after a scholarship to Harvard Law, and was a partner at BellGully.” The pair met on New Year’s Eve in 1999. He asked her if she wanted a drink. She asked for a Bollinger. Thinking it was an RTD he hadn’t heard of, the country boy asked for a Speight’s and a Bollinger at the bar. The beer cost $6. The most expensive champagne in the house? $120. They’ve been together ever since.
Paris’ career began in radio sales, before McDonald’s took a punt on him for marketing manager. He concentrated on product, and was responsible for the Chick’n McCheese and the hunger buster. “I viewed myself as the ideal customer – a guy a bit hungover at lunch on a Friday.”
From there he took a job at Nokia in the UK, before returning to a strategy role at TVNZ, where he played a key role in the launch of TVNZ OnDemand, now the centrepiece of the state broadcaster’s future. He points out that it wasn’t perfect out of the box: “we sold live episodes of Shortland Street for $2 apiece,” he recalls. It turns out people were happy to wait. Delayed streams outnumbered single episode sales 17,000 to one.
Eventually, he got the job he always dreamed of, running marketing for Spark, where he spent much of the past decade, before taking the top spot at Vodafone. He found a business adrift, lacking purpose. It’s easy to forget that Vodafone was once one of the most dynamic brands in New Zealand. It had a strong association with music and sport, and felt like the cool, young telco when pitted against the conservative ex-SOE Telecom. Then Telecom became Spark and reinvented itself as a tech company, while Vodafone seemed to languish, becoming known for aggressive price point marketing.
He was frustrated by that. “Underperforming business,” he says, “in an industry where you can transform people’s lives and businesses through technology.” Still, he believed there was a huge opportunity there if the business could grasp it. “Who better to bring the world’s best digital services to New Zealand – and fast? And who better to take great New Zealand companies and help them scale internationally – than Vodafone.”
He built a new team out of existing and imported parts, and in his first year has overseen one of the paciest turnarounds in New Zealand’s recent corporate history. “In 12 months the team has got a really clear strategy,” he says. “Got new owners, who are prepared to support that plan. Got ahead of our commercial numbers for the first time in years. Gained technology leadership in the market, with 5G. Brought in extraordinary new people, and also reminded the organisation of how capable our organisation is.”
There remains one black cloud on his horizon. “Our cross mark is on customer service.” This is largely the product of it running four different systems, inherited from each of its acquisitions. Often he spends time on Twitter, answering individual queries, living the worst of the business with his customers.
He really gets into the weeds, but can occasionally have fun while doing it. Blair was unhappy that he was receiving $0 invoices years after leaving Vodafone. “Sounds like we are really struggling to get over the breakup Blair. Sorry about this. Drop me a quick DM with the details and I’ll get the stalking stopped once and for all,” wrote Paris. More often it’s more mundane, as when Arran had an issue with an upgrade from ADSL to VDSL. “Sounds awful and I’m sorry about this. More than happy to help. Dm or email me and I’ll get onto it right away. Thanks for letting me know.”
One day the complaints will die down, and he will be able to relinquish his role as New Zealand’s most highly-compensated helpdesk. “Think of our IT stack as a massive bowl of spaghetti,” he says. “Instead of taking each piece out strand by strand, we’re just going to order a new dish.”
In an era of remote, often non-existent customer service, Paris’ commitment is admirable, and a manifestation of his commitment to turning a known weakness into a strength. Yet it will mean little if the rest of his strategy is not well-executed. Vodafone has already put clear air between itself and his former employer, choosing not to participate in content wars the way Spark has with Lightbox and Spark Sport, instead favouring the position of aggregator through Vodafone TV. The pace of the move into 5G is the next major play, one which demands they get it right both from a market and technology perspective.
The timeline they are on is steeper than any prior rollout – 3G and 4G were all over the world when Vodafone brought New Zealand along. This time, only South Korea has major penetration. This pace is reflected in device availability – the brand new iPhone 11 isn’t 5G compatible, and right now there are no handsets retailed in New Zealand that are.
It’s not just that the technology is new. For all the excitement at Vodafone, 5G is a paradox. On the one hand, those building the network get genuinely emotional when talking about its possibilities. “5G will do for mobile networks what the iPhone did for mobiles,” says Govender. “It’s high bandwidth and instantaneous, everything a network should be.”
Yet that emotion is not anchored to anything which makes you really understand its wider implications for humans in the near-term. Stories invariably make reference to driverless cars, smart cities and remote surgery. Yet even the CEO of Ford, heavily invested in autonomous vehicles, has suggested that the driverless future could be a long way off. Smart cities will be transformative, and the ability to have large sites massively reduce power usage through sensors is one which will likely roll out in the near future. But mass adoption will take time. Remote surgery is extraordinary, but seems a very narrow-use case upon which to build a whole network. It feels like the oft-cited applications for 5G are either cute or too far off to really get your head around.
According to Govender, our difficulties in imagining what might be done with it is precisely the point. “No one knew what the use case was with the iPhone either,” he says. “We’re building the platform that people can innovate from.”
It’s worth casting your mind back a few years, to the dawn of 4G, and thinking about our media consumption and internet habits at the time. Sky was one of New Zealand’s most valuable companies. The Herald and Fairfax made huge profits selling newspaper advertising. Emails were answered on desktops and laptops, which were also where the vast majority of social media was consumed.
The upending of that world was driven by devices and behaviour, but also by speed and accessibility. The creation of networks is less glamorous than building what goes in them. The jargon – MIMO and GSM and IoT – leaves most of us cold and bewildered. But there can be no doubt that 5G is a technological bomb, a force which will shape society much more profoundly than 4G did.
It arrives before this year is out. Those building it, people like Nisha and Govender, know that it will change the world. They don’t know how – but they’re not meant to. They just know that it’s coming. “It’s about creating a platform that people can innovate on,” says Govender. “That’s why it’s so important.”
This content was created in paid partnership with Vodafone. Learn more about our partnerships here.