Will 5G be a fix for our broadband woes?

4 Mar 2019

People check out Samsung S10 5G phones at Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona. Image: Luke Maxwell/Silicon Republic

If 5G is everything it’s cracked up to be, do we need the National Broadband Plan in its present form? After attending Mobile World Congress, John Kennedy investigates.

Walking around the Fira Gran Via in Barcelona last week at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019, just one soul in a sea of suits and sneakers, you would be forgiven for thinking that 5G, the fifth generation of mobile, is already here.

Everywhere you looked, signs proclaimed: ‘5G is on!’ ‘5G is now!’ ‘5G is here!’ Manufacturers from Samsung to Huawei, LG and Xiaomi presented their new 5G phones, some of them actually foldable.

Well, 5G is not here just yet. But it is coming. And it made me wonder, will Ireland’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) in its present form be fit for purpose? The NBP is already under attack and is being likened to the disastrous National Children’s Hospital overspend before it has even started. Perhaps a more nimble plan that takes into account newer technologies and clears planning bottlenecks would be more advisable?

5G promises a 100-fold increase in network capacity compared to the current 4G networks. You are talking about a world where speeds above 1Gbps per second on mobile devices may be commonplace.

The linchpin of 5G will be spectrum and, while much of the hoopla is around sexy new phones, it is envisaged that early deployment of 5G, using what are known as high-frequency mmWave sensors, will be driven by household fixed wireless access (FWA), with mobile to follow.

5G is in the near future

At MWC 2019, the excitement was palpable. But I had a sinking feeling that, just like 3G and 4G before it, 5G will take time to be realised in a significant, game-changing way.

According to the GSM Association (GSMA), organiser of the MWC, 5G is set to account for 15pc of mobile connections in the world by 2025. Mobile operators are planning to invest around $160bn per year in expanding and upgrading networks.

But before that happens, there are a lot of regulatory and competitive obstacles to overcome.

“The arrival of 5G forms a major part of the world’s move towards an era of intelligent connectivity, which, alongside developments in the internet of things (IoT), big data and artificial intelligence, is poised to be a key driver of economic growth over the coming years,” said Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA.

Granryd is correct in many respects. 5G will be the glue that will enable connected cars, especially driverless cars, to do their thing without killing anybody. So, universal coverage will be crucial. According to the GSMA, 5G is expected to contribute $2.2trn to the global economy over the next 15 years. The sectors that stand to benefit include manufacturing, utilities, financial services and healthcare.

Is Ireland ready to be switched on to 5G?

Crowds of people at Mobile World Congress walking past a 5G sign at the Xiaomi stand.

5G signs were everywhere at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Image: John Kennedy

In May 2017, five firms – Imagine, Airspan, Vodafone, Three and Meteor (now Eir) – successfully bid for the 3.6GHz spectrum band. Winning bidders agreed to pay in excess of €78m, comprising €60.5m in upfront fees and around €17.7m in spectrum usage fees, which will be paid out over the 15-year duration of their licences.

Eir last year revealed a €150m plan to build out its 4G network to 99pc geographic coverage and CEO Carolan Lennon said the company will begin deploying the first 5G networks in Irish cities later this year. She envisaged the first 5G handsets and devices will go on sale in Eir stores in Q4. The 4G and 5G networks will be built using Huawei equipment for the radio access network and Ericsson kit in the network’s core.

Lennon was speaking at a press conference in February when she announced Eir was to invest €500m to deliver fibre-to-the-home broadband to 1.4m premises – taking in all towns of more than 1,000 people, with a network future-proofed to 10Gbps. As a consequence of the investment, an extra 80,000 out of the more than 540,000 premises around Ireland that had been earmarked for intervention under the NBP could suddenly be swept up in new fibre broadband capabilities.

Last November Vodafone went live with its first 5G trial site in Dublin’s docklands, almost a year after achieving a breakthrough speed of 15Gbps using beam-forming technologies.

Vodafone Ireland CEO Anne O’Leary said that 5G will be the priority investment for the company in 2019 and interim CTO Max Gasparroni explained that when live, 5G will be characterised by ultra-low latency and highly reliable infrastructure.

Mobile operator Three Ireland has been keeping its powder dry in terms of its 5G plans, but last year CEO Robert Finnegan said that the company is planning to invest €100m a year on its 5G roll-out plan.

Will 5G eclipse the plodding NBP?

Despite all the ups and mostly downs with the NBP, with one final bidder still in the race, we are still waiting for the Irish Government to decide when, or if, to start the NBP. But with the speed of events around 5G, will the NBP in its current shape need to be redrawn?

The same week that Eir revealed its €500m fibre investment, telecoms entrepreneur Sean Bolger revealed that his company Imagine plans to cover 1m Irish homes and businesses in underserved areas with 150Mbps connectivity using 5G fixed infrastructure. Bolger’s plan will see 325 fixed wireless sites built to cover 1.1m premises within 18 months while the NBP continues to gather dust.

In October last year I wrote about how a local Kerry wireless internet service provider (WISP) called Ivertec brought high-speed broadband to Kerry’s Black Valley using a wireless transmitter. “The problem is, there is too much of a focus on FTTH,” Ivertec’s Gerard O’Sullivan lamented.

Around the same time I wrote about how Viatel used wireless technology to connect the Inis Meáin Knitting Co in the Aran Islands with 100Mbps broadband to the digital economy using a wireless transmitter on Ireland’s mainland.

With 5G roll-outs about to ramp up, with Eir deploying fibre, with Imagine targeting 1m homes, with Siro reaching 30 out of 50 targeted towns so far, and with Virgin Media’s Project Lightning due to surpass 1m premises, as well as abundant examples of how fixed wireless access has evolved, serious questions need to be asked about the present shape of the NBP. Is it fit for purpose? Does it need to be more flexible to accommodate newer technologies?

If I was a policymaker in the Department of Communications right now, I would be looking at making the NBP more adaptable and flexible to accommodate a future where near-universal wireless coverage will be essential, especially along roads and motorways. I would be using the money wisely to get the planning restrictions and hurdles out of the way.

Instead of throwing fibre at every home down every boreen, why not bring that fibre to more base stations and towers instead to eliminate coverage blackspots and achieve a vision of universal wireless coverage?

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years