Bogs and blackspots: Mapping the data future of Ireland

17 Dec 2018888 Views

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How achievable is universal mobile data coverage in Ireland? John Kennedy investigates.

If we have learned anything about Ireland’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) saga in recent months, it is that it is a constantly moving target thanks to technology.

The future will happen regardless, but it is the kind of future we need to prepare for. Avoiding the mistakes of the past is critical if we all want to share in this rising tide delivered via data.

‘There is a groundswell of energy, enthusiasm and work ethic – but what I don’t see is joined-up thinking between these groups and the sharing of best practices’
– BRIAN DONNELLAN

From Eir recently investing €1bn to expand its fibre and mobile network, to operators such as Vodafone and Three envisaging a fast 5G future, to the NBP planning to deliver connectivity to more than 540,000 premises, the technologies are changing faster than we can imagine, even before anyone turns a sod.

Eir is planning to put 5G as well as fixed wireless access in a number of locations next year while Vodafone last week announced a rural home broadband network trial. We recently reported how Cignal is investing €25m in 300 locations over the next two years to address coverage blackspots in rural Ireland.

But how achievable is universal mobile data coverage in Ireland?

Connecting the dots: The 4G to 5G evolution

Last year, we revealed that the Westmeath village of Ballynacargy was officially Ireland’s rural blackspot when it came to connectivity. With 50pc of dwellings without broadband, this was, at the time of writing, the highest rate in the country.

The problem is that despite all the technological and economical changes, Ireland is a deeply unequal society in lots of ways. When it comes to spatial distribution, thanks to ribbon developments and bungalow blight, we are uniquely challenged geographically.

At a recent meeting of the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce in Ballinasloe in October, I witnessed plenty of passion in the room from assembled broadband officers keen to see the NBP rolled out as well as improvements in mobile coverage, but frustration in equal measure with telecoms companies and the planning regime in Ireland. It seemed to me that the problems are in equal part down to a lack of accurate information from the telecoms providers on coverage and stifling bureaucracy from the planning apparatus to get work done.

Prof Brian Donnellan, NUI Maynooth vice-president and dean of international affairs, summed it up: “There is a groundswell of energy, enthusiasm and work ethic – but what I don’t see is joined-up thinking between these groups and the sharing of best practices.”

ComReg recently revealed that the demand for data connectivity in Ireland is increasing. It said that the demand for fixed data is growing at 37pc a year while the demand for mobile data is growing at 60pc per annum.

It revealed that Ireland faces a unique set of challenges in that 76pc of the country is covered by either farmland or forestry; that Ireland’s road density is twice the EU average, with more than 20km for every 1,000 inhabitants; and that there are other hurdles for communication such as long distances from cell sites, environmental barriers such as hills and trees, and a high proportion of one-off housing. Not only that but modern insulation in houses also prevents radio waves from penetrating buildings.

Around 3pc of the population of Ireland lives in 28pc of its geographic area. The urban population accounts for 63pc but is located in just 2pc of the total area of Ireland.

The regulator commissioned three reports to find out how likely it is to achieve at least 30Mbps across the entire country. The reports included: Coverage Obligations and Spectrum Awards from DotEcon, Future Mobile Connectivity in Ireland from Oxera Consulting and Real Wireless, and Meeting Consumers’ Connectivity Needs from Frontier Economics. They are hefty tomes but well worth a read if you are passionate about the subject.

The reports surmise that providing mobile broadband coverage to people by population rather than geographically would be the more financially prudent approach. To reach 95pc of the population would cost €188m, while achieving 99.5pc of the population could cost €511m, according to Frontier Economics. To achieve 99.5pc geographic coverage with data would cost close to €1.9bn, and therefore does not sound like an attractive proposition for operators.

Extending mobile coverage to reach 90pc population coverage for 30Mbps would come with significant improvements in coverage for motorways and primary roads. Focusing on mobile coverage along motorways and roads could be prudent when you consider the telematics of the future and how self-driving cars will need to communicate with each other using 5G signals. Dare I say 6G and 7G at this point?

Measures including the roll-out of new spectrum bands such as 700MHz are likely to improve the connectivity experience in rural areas. However, this will be most effective in areas where there is a population; extending it universally could lead to a lot of unused mobile infrastructure.

While the reports all agree that the NBP offers the best chance to leverage and boost connectivity by linking fixed-line broadband with base stations, intervention needs to be carefully managed.

“Onerous interventions that impose large costs on network operators may distort spectrum award processes,” warned DotEcon. Meanwhile, Oxera cautioned: “The network roll-out required to achieve 99.5pc geographic coverage with 30Mbps would cost over €1.8bn and would require a likely unachievable network roll-out speed of 19.96pc CAGR [compound annual growth rate] after mid-2020 in order to achieve 99.5pc coverage within 10 years.”

It is very clear that joined-up thinking on planning to eradicate coverage blackspots should be a priority for the years ahead.

The NBP is likely to go ahead in its existing form under the National Broadband Ireland bid. But what broadband officers need in order to serve their communities and manage their expectations is clear, transparent and accurate information from not only the NBP’s final bidder, but equally from the mobile operators of Ireland. Forget marketing bluster, get on with the mission and cooperate. From the planning system and local councils, people need clarity, not lengthy deliberation.

There are too many communications blackspots in Ireland. Ordinary people do not get the feeling they are being listened to. But, with a shared vision for a better, more connected Ireland, nothing is impossible.

There is light at the end of the tunnel. So long as everyone communicates. Ironic, isn’t it?

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John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist who served as editor of Siliconrepublic.com for 17 years.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com