New regulator goes full spectrum

20 Jan 2005

Any communications entrepreneur worth his or her salt should have been at last week’s Wireless Wednesday event in Dublin where it was revealed that in the midst of a general broadband glut Ireland has large volumes of unassigned radio spectrum that could go nicely towards assuaging the desires of a geographically dispersed population hungering for more bandwidth.

It was also a good opportunity for businesspeople to witness first hand the newly appointed chair to the Commission of Communications Regulation (ComReg), Isolde Goggin, who in recent weeks took over the role from John Doherty.

During her short time in office so far Goggin has introduced a number of measures that indicate this will be no ordinary year. Just before Christmas she introduced a directive compelling Vodafone and O2 — with some 94pc of the marketplace — to open up their networks to host mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). Various operators have since vented their fury and O2 has threatened to take ComReg to the European Court of Justice if forced to host MVNOs.

In person, Goggin appears to be taking such threats in her stride and reminds me that there are still several steps to take before the European Commission gives the nod to MVNOs in the Irish marketplace. “Firstly we had a statutory obligation to review the market. Secondly, we are only doing our duty by acting upon our analysis. It could be a very long road,” she said.

Similarly, on the even more emotive issue of broadband and DSL Goggin appears to want to introduce reason and clarity to the issue. Her ethos seems to be driving towards a period of liberalism and regulation based on economic truths rather than legal pedantry, which could emanate from her previous career with the Competition Authority.

“There is no silver bullet to resolving the broadband problems of this country,” Goggin pointed out. “There are indications, however, that we are moving in the right direction. In the past year we’ve seen a 460pc overall growth rate in broadband. My main issue is to ensure reasonable wholesale rates for DSL. Another issue is local loop unbundling and before Christmas we moved to reduce the cost of licensed telcos accessing Eircom’s exchanges by 50pc. This should translate into increased rollout and lower connection charges for consumers.”

Another point Goggin was anxious to make was that the whole issue of broadband appears to centre on DSL. “There is a danger that DSL is seen as the only way of getting broadband. DSL is not the only solution and we are trying to encourage operators to look at other mechanisms such as wireless and cable,” she said.

It emerged at last week’s Wireless Wednesday that Ireland is leading Europe in the deployment of services on the 5.8GHz spectrum, paving the way for innovative use of new technologies such as WiMax, Ultra Wideband and cognitive radio. At the event Goggin called for greater use of unassigned radio spectrum in the Irish marketplace.

She emphasised that unlike most other EU countries where radio frequencies are congested, Ireland has plenty of spectrum available for operators and entrepreneurs to carve out interesting new business opportunities. Goggin’s colleague, Dave Gunning, director of ComReg’s market framework division, said that each week the regulator is issuing 80 to 100 spectrum licences in applications ranging from public safety and defence to commercial applications.

Goggin indicated that ComReg is currently carrying out a review of the radio spectrum market in Ireland as part of its statutory requirements and said that at present spectrum — defined as including broadcasting, fixed links, air services, mobile and short-range devices — is worth €1.9bn annually in Ireland, approximately 1.4pc of the country’s total economy. The sector employs 24,798 people, according to ComReg figures.

Gunning added that if Ireland succeeds in moving to a more liberalised approach to spectrum “there is no reason why Ireland can’t become a fully wireless country in 10 years’ time.”

Jim Connolly, ComReg’s senior manager in charge of radio spectrum, pointed out that there are currently large amounts of unassigned radio spectrum in the Irish market, particularly in the mobile communications space. “There is a total of 40MHz unassigned in the GSM 1800 (2.5G) space, while there is 25MHz of unassigned spectrum in the 3G space, plus one 3G licence assignment that no one has taken up.”

Connolly added that most of the available 3G space has been set aside for the future enhancement of 3G applications in Ireland such as more video transmission and higher speed data services, but he said that it still leaves considerable chunks of frequency unclaimed. “Future scenarios we have identified could include small regional GSM networks for other service providers in 2KHz blocks made available either by auction or beauty contest.”

Returning to fixed-line issues and wholesale, Goggin felt that it is vital the incumbent operator realises that wholesale should be embraced as a real strategy, as evinced by the performance of BT in the UK whereby the BT wholesale division now outperforms its retail division. “We would argue that there is a good business to be made in wholesale [in the Irish market] and a good return on investment,” she added.

Looking to the remainder of the year, Goggin noted that the advent of voice-over internet protocol (VoIP) could be one of the most exciting developments in the marketplace. “VOIP has the ability to fundamentally change the face of telecoms as we know it. It is our job to pave the way for the marketplace and that’s why we introduced a numbering scheme to give VOIP the same relevance in people’s minds as traditional telephony. We’ve taken a relatively liberal approach to VOIP and, from the consultations we’ve had, VOIP is becoming CD quality in its performance.

“Our key task this year will be implementing the new EU framework for communications and we are ahead of the game — in the first four or five regulators in Europe — in its implementation. The difference between the new framework and the old ways is that everything is being looked at from an economic viewpoint and we are making remarkable progress on that front,” Goggin concluded.

Isolde Goggin, the newly ensconced chairwoman of the Commission for Communications Regulation

By John Kennedy