Spark kicks off 5G standalone rollout

5G technology and computer network with internet of thing icon over Top view of Chicago Cityscape

New Zealand incumbent Spark will spend up to NZ$60 million ($37.5 million) over the next three years upgrading its 5G network to standalone (SA).

Ericsson and Red Hat are the chosen suppliers. The former will provide its dual-mode 5G core network solution, which will run the latter’s OpenShift software. Last year they participated in a three-month 5G SA trial on Spark’s fixed wireless access (FWA) network. It seems to have gone sufficiently well that the telco is ready to commit to a commercial deployment.

It is worth recalling that last summer Spark conducted two 5G SA proof-of-concepts (PoCs) with Amazon Web Services (AWS) and network software provider Mavenir. One of them saw Spark deploy Mavenir’s SA core software on AWS’s rugged edge cloud solution, Snowball. The result was a portable storage and compute solution that can be deployed at the edge of the network, offering high throughput and low latency.

It was interesting because it suggested that Spark might be working on an unorthodox 5G SA deployment, one involving a hyperscaler. It might still be doing that, but for whatever reason – probably something to do with technology maturity or handling high demand – it has opted for safer pairs of hands in Ericsson and Red Hat for this initial leg of its SA journey.

In a statement, Renee Mateparae, Spark’s director of network and operations described SA as the turning point for unlocking 5G’s transformative capabilities.

“5G standalone will unlock capabilities like network slicing, which is one of the most transformative features of the technology,” she said. “A piece of network could be sliced to serve a mission critical service such as driverless cars for example – which require the network to respond quickly and with ultra-reliability in real time, or a gaming slice could be created to provide the ultimate high speed, low-latency experience for gamers.”

Mateparae is also excited by the prospect of multi-access edge computing (MEC), which will support real-time applications by moving the network’s processing functions closer to end users.

The rollout will be the first of its kind in New Zealand – also known as Aotearoa in Māori – as global momentum behind 5G SA slowly but surely builds. According to the Global Mobile Suppliers Association’s (GSA’s) latest update, at least 27 operators in eight countries have commercially launched public 5G SA networks.

It therefore wouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that Spark’s rivals 2degrees and One are preparing SA deployments of their own. All three are competing on 5G network coverage and quality, putting their recently-acquired c-band spectrum to use, and announcing 3G shutdowns in order to free up more frequencies. For its part, Spark aims to extend 5G connectivity to all locations with a population of more than 1,500 people by the end of next June.

In parallel, they have also been doing deals with satellite providers to offer blanket messaging and voice coverage to 100% of New Zealand’s landmass.

Spark said it has committed to spending NZ$40-NZ$60 million on the standalone upgrade, which Mateparae reckons “will create a step change enabling business innovation in Aotearoa.”


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