Eir to invest €150m to boost mobile network to 99pc geographic coverage

12 Nov 2018

Eir CEO Carolan Lennon. Image: Fennells

Eir investment will bring 4G across the country and will see the roll-out of 5G services in Ireland in 2019.

Eir is making a €150m investment in its mobile network that will see it deliver 4G voice over LTE (VoLTE) and data across more than 99pc of the geography of Ireland.

It is understood that Eir also plans to roll out 5G services, starting first in Irish cities, in 2019.

‘The programme will also see an expansion of our FTTH roll-out to deliver broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps to a further 1.4m homes and businesses across the country’

The two-year project will transform the entire Eir cellular network and will expand the network by hundreds of additional sites.

The next chapter in Ireland’s mobile journey

Crucially, the expansion will see the number of base stations deployed by Eir around Ireland grow from 2,000 today to 2,500, growing network coverage from 85pc of Ireland’s geography today to 99pc within two years.

This will open up a considerable challenge to existing rivals Three and Vodafone, and will change the lexicon used by operators from ‘population coverage’ to ‘geographic coverage’.

“Eir is by far the largest investor in telecoms in Ireland, and this investment in our mobile network is part of an overall €1bn capital investment programme over the next five years to deliver the very best network experience for our customers,” Lennon said.

“The programme will also see an expansion of our high-speed fibre-to-the home (FTTH) roll-out to deliver broadband speeds of up to 1,000Mbps (1Gbps) to a further 1.4m homes and businesses across the country.”

Eir had already been working towards a target of 1.8m fibre-connected premises by the end of this year as well as 330,000 rural premises by June 2019. In recent weeks, Eir also revealed plans to bring customer service back in-house with the creation of 750 jobs in Sligo, Cork and Limerick.

The 4G equipment that will be deployed nationwide is upgradable to 5G, a spokesperson told Siliconrepublic.com.

It is understood that Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei will provide the radio access network equipment while Swedish telecoms equipment player Ericsson will deploy the core network linked by fibre.

According to sources, the impetus behind the network expansion is influenced strongly by Eir’s new owners, Xavier Niel’s Iliad and NJJ, which, after reviewing Eir’s position as an incumbent player in fixed- line services, have decided it should be the leading player in mobile in Ireland, too.

Doing it ‘Eir’ way

Man in suit with woman in green dress holding a sign saying 99 per cent 4G coverage.

Fergal McCann, director of mobile networks at Eir, with Carolan Lennon, CEO of Eir. Image: Fennells

Last December, Niel’s NJJ Telecom Europe consortium was confirmed as the new majority owner of Irish telecoms incumbent Eir after agreeing to acquire a stake estimated to be worth €3.5bn. NJJ now owns a 32.9pc stake in Eir while Iliad, which Niel founded and which is listed on the Paris Stock Exchange, owns 31.6pc. Effectively, the two entities largely controlled by Niel own 64.5pc of Eir. The transaction was completed in early April.

French billionaire Niel – also co-owner of the newspaper Le Monde, Monaco Telecom and the rights to the song My Way made famous by Frank Sinatra – is the founder of Free, a telecoms operator in France that has about 13.4m mobile and 6.5m broadband subscribers. Iliad, which owns Free, has a market capitalisation of nearly €12bn as of December 2017.

Iliad is emerging as a key player in the European mobile marketplace and recently moved aggressively into the Italian mobile market with a mobile package of €5.99 per month, with a view to win a substantial share of the Italian market from incumbents Telecom Italia and Vodafone. Iliad also recently paid €1.2bn for a share of Italy’s 5G wireless spectrum.

No doubt such tactics will be, or ought to be, studied closely by rivals Three and Vodafone in Ireland as the spectre of a 4G mobile price war emerges on the mobile battlefront.

Earlier this year, Eir emerged as one of five players that successfully bid for 5G spectrum in Ireland, obtaining 80MHz in rural regions and 85MHz in cities.

Road of ambition from 4G to 5G

The €150m network expansion has already started, according to a spokesperson. By the time it is completed, it will see Ireland reach 99pc geographic coverage, surpassing the UK, which has 97pc geographic coverage.

It is understood that Eir’s new owners believe the incumbent telecoms operator’s marketshare in fixed-line services should be matched if not exceeded in the mobile market where Eir currently trails behind Three and Vodafone.

Sources also reveal that Niel’s Iliad and NJJ also have bold ambitions for FTTH and are planning an aggressive push by Eir in that space, too.

“They have big ambitions,” the spokesperson said.

Updated, 8.28am, 12 November 2018: This article was updated to clarify that Eir aims to pass 330,000 rural premises with fibre by June 2019, not March.

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