Gathan Beaga

XT for the iPhone?

Telecom XT and Vodafone NZIt’s been pretty hard to miss the fact that Telecom NZ have a new mobile network, XT. It’s all 3G, the latest and currently fastest of the mobile “generations”, and represents quite a step up from the old CDMA network that they put in at the beginning of this decade1.

Telecom’s major rival, Vodafone New Zealand, also has a 3G network that uses pretty much similar technology. The difference lies mainly in the frequency bands used to carry the cellular signals. XT is mostly on the 850MHz band with the centre of some large cities on the 2100MHz band. Vodafone however uses 2100MHz in most of the major towns and cities with another band, 900MHz, as fill for the rest of the country.

From what I understand, 2100MHz is less able to penetrate buildings, and the cell coverage areas are smaller. On the other hand, both the 850MHz and 900MHz bands can deliver fast internet connections to sad geeks taking a dump in toilets that happen to be located in the middle of massed steel-reinforced concrete high-rise faraday cages buildings2. The contra to this wonder of technology is that the capacity of the two lower frequency bands is much poorer (which accounts for why Telecom is supplementing its network with 2100MHz sites in some cities).

Which brings me to my phone. It’s a second generation iPhone, as my three regular readers will by now have tired of me talking about, and it’s currently loaded with a Vodafone SIM card. The 2nd gen iPhone can receive both the 2100 and 850MHz bands, the latter of course being unusable on Vodafone. When out of range of the 3G 2100MHz band it will drop back to an older, slower, 2G technology. Unfortunately this can happen quite a lot: on the bus to work; down the other end of my building; over the hill in the Wairarapa etc etc. Cue much whining.

So of course, I had to try a XT SIM card to see if I should switch over. Data speeds were faster. Of course they were: as the reporter from the NBR put it, “the cellular equivalent of being able to zoom up a new motorway before the ribbon’s cut” (or in this case, just after the ribbon-cutting ceremony).

And 3G coverage was better. Of course it was: the iPhone isn’t capable of receiving Vodafone’s 900MHz band that would match the coverage of XT’s 850MHz band.

After some reflection, I decided that that speed and coverage issues, while important, were not the whole story when it came to making a decision to switch cellular providers. There’s price; and there’s the rest of my communications business; and there’s some indefinable other stuff that’s the sum of my attitudes to and experience with both companies.

With price, XT has an advantage. Slightly. About $4 per month if I try and make something that matches what I have now from Vodafone; and to get that level of pricing I have to have my home phone on Telecom. If I want to avoid that, I need to get the next mobile plan up; and this would make the XT plan $14 per month more than my current plan.

This brings me to an interesting marketing device that both telcos employ: a mixture of loyalty bonuses and cross-product marketing. Both Vodafone and Telecom sell home phone, mobile, and broadband internet services; and typically if you get one service, you get a discount on the next one. So I save $10 per month on my broadband by having my toll-calls with Vodafone; and if I add in local calling and line rental I can get even faster, cheaper internet. Horizontally too: calls between mobiles on the same network can be had cheaper; R. pays $6 per month for unlimited calls from her Vodafone mobile to mine; and I don’t have to pay the $6 at all for the reverse as I’ve been given that as a loyalty bonus when I re-signed up last year.

I’d lose all this if I shifted to XT. And to get the most benefit from changing over I’d have to switch over the whole home communications stack, and then buy a new mobile phone for R. too (her SonyEricsson k770i won’t run on 850MHz).

Can’t see it happening.

So we’re left with the last criterion: the indefinable one. And I have to admit, I just like Vodafone more. Telecom aren’t quite the lumbering idiots of yore, but I’m still not really a fan. I’ve had more experience with Vodafone; some good times with their people when I worked for a corporate client of theirs; and smoother runs with their technology roaming overseas. I like that they have a real person on the other end of their corporate Twitter account who actually can fix things (and has for me, on one occasion); and I like that after the kerfuffle about the pricing on the original iPhone plans they sharpened their pencils in response.

So yeah, I’m staying with Vodafone. And who knows, in the next few days at WWDC Apple might announce a third generation iPhone that does 900MHz, rendering all I’ve written above, obsolete3.

1 In what may have been the blunder of the decade by Telecom Mobile, given the lack of handsets available and general dead-endness of the technology.

2 I can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of this cartoon.

3 Of course I won’t be able to turn my phone over until at least the middle of next year – my CFO (R.) probably, and quite rationally, wouldn’t agree. I try telling her I could get a more expensive hobby, like cars, but it just doesn’t work.