Spark chief executive Simon Moutter has a big hairy audacious goal, to get the company’s 5G mobile network up and running by July 2020, in time for Emirates Team New Zealand to use the high-speed, low-lag network as part of its preparation to defend the 2021 America’s Cup.

The problem is, there are a couple of important stumbling blocks for Moutter’s plan. These include the fact Spark doesn’t yet own any 5G spectrum, and that one of its key partners, Chinese equipment supplier Huawei, might be banned from taking part in the 5G roll-out.

Moutter announced the July 2020 deadline in a high-profile launch of its Auckland-based 5G test lab, which includes a tie-up with Team New Zealand to use 5G “to push boundaries of technology in an effort to defend the cup.”

But he accepts the government hasn’t even announced a timeline for the allocation of the 5G spectrum Spark will need.

The telco has borrowed a bit of spectrum from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment for the 5G test lab. It is an innovation hub for customers and partners, including Emirates Team NZ, wanting to work with 5G.

But Communications Minister Kris Faafoi, who’s just settling into his new role after Clare Curran resigned in September, has given few clues about when any proper spectrum auction might take place, or even what spectrum will be up for grabs.

‘C-bands and millimetres’

Spark would like to get its hands on two different bits of spectrum. The most vital is the so-called “C-band”, which will form the backbone for the 5G network. But it would also like some “millimetre” wave spectrum, which is useful for high-intensity situations, for example when you have a lot of people in one place at a sports stadium or concert.

Moutter said to meet its July 2020 deadline the company needed to get its spectrum allocation tied up by the end of 2019 at the very latest – preferably in the middle of the year. This is because it takes a few months to iron out interference problems, including getting rid of any “squatters” who might already be using the allocated spectrum.

The government has said only that it expects the process to start early to mid 2019.

Moutter called on the minister to give the industry more certainty, and to move quickly.

“We need spectrum resources available. We are making decisions contingent on securing 5G spectrum. And we are making them in the absence of a clear policy on when or what bands will be available.

“If we don’t start to make policy decisions quickly we will be left behind,” he warned.

Countries like the US and Korea are already running 5G networks and the Australian government announced its 5G spectrum auction will take place later this month.

“Telstra is committing to be up with 5G in 2019,” Moutter said of the Australian telco.

“We are impatient.”

The second problem for Spark is that Faafoi and Andrew Little, the minister responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau, are considering whether to ban Chinese telecommunications equipment company Huawei from being part of a 5G roll-out.

Australian spy chief Mike Burgess called into question the security of his country’s electricity grid and water supplies if Huawei or other Chinese firms were allowed to build the country’s 5G networks. Australia has now shut the company out of 5G.

New Zealand following the same path would cause major headaches for Spark, which has partnered with Huawei for both its 3G and 4G networks.

Spark says using another provider for antennae equipment on its cell sites would add significantly to the cost, and Moutter said at the company’s AGM earlier this month that the government needed to come up with “incontrovertible evidence” of possible security problems before considering excluding Huawei from 5G.

Despite the uncertainties surrounding spectrum allocation and the role of Huawei, Moutter told BusinessDesk he wasn’t unduly worried about setting a 5G launch date less than two years away.

“We are used to betting on things that aren’t certain. Technology is very uncertain,” he said.

“We are talking to government regularly and we are confident we will be allocated 5G spectrum. We don’t doubt our choices.”

Nikki Mandow was Newsroom's business editor and the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Business Journalist of the Year @NikkiMandow.

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