Broadband wars – speed of the essence on wireless landscape

20 May 2010

This autumn, broadband providers are set to compete aggressively for the hearts and pockets of Irish businesses and consumers, offering speeds that would have been undreamt of even three years ago.

Last week, mobile operator 3 Ireland gave a glimpse into the near future, showing that much of the broadband future in Ireland will be wireless, with speeds of up to 14.4Mbps being common, even in rural areas. It says it plans to trial 21Mbps and 42Mbps speeds on its network this year.

The same day O2 revealed it had successfully trialled 21Mbps broadband and will be rolling these speeds out in key urban centres such as Dublin, Limerick, Galway and Waterford later this year.

Innovations on wireless front

On both the fixed and wireless front, the innovations coming our way will hopefully make the broadband woes of the past appear quaint. In recent weeks, cable broadband provider UPC revealed it will be offering 100Mbps speeds to at least 500,000 of its customer base by the end of the summer.

This followed on Eircom’s €100m Next Generation Broadband (NGB) investment, which will bring 8Mbps speeds and higher to 60pc of its network where many urban exchanges can now get speeds of 24Mbps.

DSL and fibre provider Magnet currently caters for speeds of up to 24Mbps and CEO Mark Kellett says his company will be trialling 200Mbps in Dublin and Portlaoise on its fibre network.

Back on the wireless front, Vodafone, the largest mobile operator in Ireland, is also upgrading its speeds. New head of networks Santiago Tenorio says the onset of its brand of 3.5G, HSPA+ will have speeds of between 14Mbps and 16Mbps available nationwide this June.

Most of the mobile operators are upgrading their respective networks in readiness for Long Term Evolution (LTE), or 4G, where mobile broadband speeds of up to 100Mbps and even beyond will be possible.

Then there’s WiMax

The rival to the mobile world’s version of 4G is WiMax – currently capable of speeds of between 7Mbps and 14Mbps – and Sean Bolger’s Imagine Broadband has begun the first phase of its rollout, covering 250,000 homes in Dublin, Wexford and Sligo.

The €100m investment – backed by Intel and Motorola – will be bolstered by the fact that new PCs and mobile devices coming on the market next year will feature Intel’s WiMax chipsets. At a briefing last week, 3 Ireland CEO Robert Finnegan said the company is planning to trial 21Mbps and 42Mbps broadband speeds this year, and by Q4 will have 14.4Mbps services commercially available on its Irish network, which covers 97pc of the Irish market.

3 Ireland chief technology officer David Hennessy says the deployment in Ireland with Nokia Siemens is a world-first and demonstrates how Ireland can be a leader in the smart economy globally.

“Ever since we first unveiled the HSPA service three years ago, there has been constant growth in demand for broadband services year-on-year, driven by market shifts such as cloud computing. We’re seeing a huge shift towards smart devices. i-HSPA technology is a data technology with a flat architecture that is built for data but also supports voice networks.”

Machine-to-machine space

Damien Gallagher, head of the National Broadband Scheme at 3 Ireland, says it envisages major opportunities in the machine-to-machine (M2M) space by putting mobile broadband capabilities inside many devices, from smart meters in the home to electric vehicles.

“Right now in Ireland there are 5,000 smart meters gathering data and we see a host of M2M application opportunities for embedded devices that are measuring the quality of water, interacting with security alarms, and in vending machines; we also see other machine-to-enterprise opportunities where we can work with companies like Esso, Spar, SuperValu, Bank of Ireland and AIB.”

With between 35pc and 40pc of 3’s broadband network in Ireland connected to BT’s Etherflow technology, Finnegan says we will see more of the network upgrade to Etherflow this year. He also confirms that 3 plans to be selling Apple’s iPad computer. “Yes, we expect to be selling the iPad later this year.”

One of the key hurdles in the way of LTE is spectrum and Finnegan said that there are a number of forms of spectrum the mobile industry needs to gain access to.

“These include the 2.1Ghz band, the 2.6Ghz band which is currently earmarked by UPC for MMDS, and the old 900Mhz 2G mobile spectrum that we are awaiting regulatory decisions on.

“Adequate spectrum will be key to full LTE delivery,” Finnegan said in conclusion, adding that the onset of LTE in the Irish market could be 18 months to two years away yet.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Fixed and mobile broadband operators are upgrading their speeds for what could be a competitive fourth quarter. Pictured (inset) is 3 Ireland CEO Robert Finnegan

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