Can €3bn-a-year sector solve Ireland’s digital divide?

7 Mar 2008

The contribution of the wireless spectrum industry, including mobile service providers and wireless broadband providers, is almost €3bn and equivalent to 1.67pc of Irish gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg).

However, according to ComReg spectrum engineer, Samuel Ritchie, Ireland is awash with spectrum that isn’t being used to resolve the nation’s embarrassing digital deficit and this needs to change.

“The resources are there, we just need to make business people realise there are opportunities. Because of the lack of fixed line broadband, there are opportunities for enterprising people to make a business out of wireless broadband.”

Ritchie said ComReg aims to make international examples of how wireless spectrum is being used overseas to plant ideas in entrepreneurial minds.

Among these ideas are digital terrestrial television and both 3 Ireland and O2 are currently testing broadcasting spectrum.

“We will be launching a competition for spectrum for mobile multimedia broadcasting in the UHF TV band around 700 to 800MHz using the DVB-H (digital video broadcasting for handheld) standard.

“We haven’t decided whether to do it as a beauty competition or an auction or to enforce certain standards or let the industry decide those standards. This is why we are currently looking for feedback from interested parties,” Ritchie explained.

ComReg is interested in seeing operators attempting to make use of the nation’s abundance in spectrum, given the shocking pig’s ear which has been made of broadband DSL in this country.

And, it seems, the nation has an appetite for wireless alternatives. Over 126,000 subscribers are now receiving their broadband wirelessly and a further 135,000 are receiving broadband over mobile phone networks.

But in terms of alternative wireless licensing, ComReg has been bruised before, according to Ritchie. “It’s about striking a delicate balance. In 2003, we offered national fixed wireless licences with the obligation to cover up to 80pc of the population. Without exception, they all failed and handed back their licences.

“In 2004, we said we’re going to make that spectrum available again, but operators can have it on an individual base station basis for less than €3,000 a licence covering a 30km radius.

“What we’ve seen now is that 13 operators are holding more than 120 licences and are providing 14pc of broadband connectivity through the fixed-wireless initiative.”

Ritchie says there are tracts of digital spectrum available. “Ireland has a small population of between four to five million people and we have GSM spectrum at 900MHz vying for someone to take it and do something with it.

“We’ve made test and trial spectrum available for €100 for trials. This has aroused significant international interest and licences have been issued to companies like Intel, HP, Vodafone, O2 and Ericsson for their R&D labs.”

Ritchie says ComReg is hoping to receive comments from interested organisations by 11 April and following that publish a full wireless spectrum strategy document in May.

By John Kennedy