ComReg to offer new wireless broadband licences

29 Oct 2004

A number of international mobile operators have shown interest in potentially obtaining licences to offer broadband mobile data services in two new hitherto unlicensed bands of the radio spectrum, the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) said yesterday.

The operators, whose names were not disclosed, are all non-Irish firms currently offering services over the Public Access Mobile Radio (PAMR) – also known as ‘business radio’ – band in other countries and which are now looking to enter the Irish market. None of the three GSM mobile operators in Ireland has so far expressed an interest in taking up a licence, ComReg said.

At a press briefing at ComReg’s HQ in Dublin, ComReg said that it planned to offer a total of four national licences – two in the 420MHz band and a further two in the 900MHz band – as well as possibly offering several regional licences if there is enough spectrum left over. The bands were made available in June this year by the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), the international body governing spectrum management, which designated them for PAMR services.

According to ComReg, there are situations where users require specialised data services delivered via a dedicated data-only mobile network rather than public cellular mobile services. Technological advances in recent years mean that these PAMR services can offer data speeds in the hundreds of kilobits per second, at least as fast as 3G technology, which runs at speeds of up to 384kbps or roughly equivalent to DSL, the most widely deployed broadband technology in Ireland.

Dave Gunning, director of market framework at ComReg, emphasised that unlike cellular networks whose business model required mass-market penetration, PAMR promoted niche applications aimed at vertical markets and the provision of residential internet access. He speculated that market entrants would initially target small towns without DSL access and business parks as possible early profitable revenue opportunities.

Gunning added that ComReg had had discussions with a number of international operators. “We’ve had a level of interest that we think is real,” he said. There are currently PAMR operators in Portugal, Spain and Eastern Europe but Gunning would not confirm that these are the same operators with which ComReg had been in talks.

ComReg is now inviting firm expressions of interest from potential licensees during a consultation period that will last until 11 December. Gunning expected that ComReg would be ready to announce the next stage of the licensing process in early January 2005 and if demand for licences was over-subscribed, ComReg would run a competition for them.

Licences will cost €1,000 per base station for a national licence and €2,000 per base station for a regional licence. Jim Connolly, senior manager for spectrum management at ComReg, guesstimated that a minimum of 150 base stations would be needed to give an operator even skeleton national coverage, which would put the bare minimum investment needed at €150,000.

ComReg also gave a progress report on another recently introduced wireless broadband frequency band, Fixed Wireless Access Local Area (FWALA). Since FLAWA spectrum was made available in September 2003, some 79 licences have been awarded to nine different operators. Four of the licensees are in the Dublin region with the rest being clustered mainly in the Midlands.

According to ComReg, some 3,700 corporate, SME and residential customers have so far been signed up to data services whose speeds average 500kbps for residential customers rising to about 2MB for corporate users. FWA technology, which operates in the 3.5GHz band, offers coverage of between 15km and 30km depending on topography and other factors and is mainly targeted at areas in which there is no DSL coverage.

ComReg said there were a number of benefits associated with wireless broadband from a new operator’s perspective, including rapid speed of deployment, relatively low infrastructure cost (compared with fixed line and fibre-based broadband), instant connection for customers, and scalability or ability to expand the network as new customers come on board.

Gunning said that ComReg was committed to extending the availability of broadband data services to the public to the greatest possible extent. “Our role is to ensure that consumers have choice,” he said. “Yes, you can have 3G but it’s important to have other options and we can enable these.”

By Brian Skelly