Vodafone switched on 5G operations on 100 cell towers in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown. The company says New Zealand is the 22nd country to get commercial 5G services.

At the launch event, Vodafone chief executive Jason Paris told guests the service will let customers see “potentially 5-10 times the current 4G speeds”.

Journalists testing the network at the launch clocked download speeds of around 500Mbps. For now uploads are still handled by the 4G network, that means speeds that are typically less than 20Mbps. Both numbers fall short of the gigabit speeds promised by 5G hardware vendors.

Higher and more symmetric speeds will have to wait until there is more spectrum. A government spectrum auction is expected later next year. After that happens Spark will be able to begin competitive 5G services in earnest. Today Spark only has a small fixed wireless 5G operation in parts of the South Island.

In the long term, Vodafone plans to have 1500 5G sites offering gigabit download speeds.

At first, Vodafone's 5G service will be available at no extra cost. Vodafone says it will charge 5G an extra $10 a month from July next year. The company has also begun selling two Samsung 5G enabled handsets – the service won’t work with existing handsets. Prices start at $1400. More handsets are on the way, but it will be a year before most new phones are 5G ready.

Last year Vodafone said it wasn't in a hurry to launch 5G. That was before Paris was appointed CEO and the business was sold to NZX-listed Infratil and Canadian investment company Brookfield. Paris said the new owners were willing to bring forward investment.