Ireland lays its claim to be the Silicon Valley of an emerging wireless world

17 Sep 2009

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An abundance of wireless spectrum – plus the arrival of WiMax – will change the game here.

If Ireland plays its cards right, it could one day become a mecca for wireless broadband development. In the same way as green energy holds a window of opportunity, Ireland could be the natural home for the research and development (R&D) of new wireless technologies that could create thousands of jobs and bring in millions in inward investment.

Anyone who uses internet devices such as Wi-Fi in their home, smart phones or 3G laptop cards will already have a glimpse of the wireless future, where everything from the environment and health care to commerce and entertainment will be enhanced by thousands of sensors and computers running off various wireless networks.

The fact this country is not a member of NATO and therefore doesn’t use up any defence spectrum, our low population density and the existence of just one land border gives Ireland an advantage few European countries can match.

ComReg commissioner Mike Byrne says the ambition is to make Ireland the test bed for the future of mobile, TV and internet communications, with a number of large technology manufacturing giants eyeing up ComReg’s test and trial licences.

So far, more than 100 of these licences have been granted to companies like IBM, Ericsson, Intel, BT, Vodafone, Solaris Mobile, RTÉ, 3 and Telefónica O2 to try out new technologies such as 3G over 900Mhz spectrum, digital terrestrial television, digital audio broadcasting and WiMax.

“We have also been dealing with research organisations at National University of Ireland, Maynooth, the Centre for Telecommunications Value-Chain Research at Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin,” Byrne explains.

“We have been working with mobile operators on alternative broadband using spectrum, traditional broadcasters like RTÉ and manufacturers like Ericsson. We have been talking with new companies that may come to invest in Ireland based on the ability to trial spectrum that will drive new technologies,” he adds.

ComReg first launched a wireless test and trial function in 2005 and, in recent months, reinvigorated efforts with a new website (www.testandtrial.ie) to encourage overseas manufacturers to consider Ireland.

The size of the investment prize could be immense if you consider how Intel has backed future broadband technology standard WiMax and how Google is planning to launch a global version of its Google Voice service.

Kevin Kennedy, spectrum development manager at ComReg, agrees. “We are making a commitment that whatever organisations are looking at wireless R&D, they can come to us and we will turn a licence around as quickly as possible. We are also interested in talking to universities and to companies that have spun out of universities and have environmental or communications technologies they need to trial.”

In terms of the global opportunity, Byrne points to the first Japan-Ireland Forum on Ubiquitous Innovation, which took place in Tokyo in May. He says discussions with Japanese technology companies interested in trialling wireless in Ireland are ongoing.

“There are a plethora of developments coming our way that will need wireless spectrum as a bedrock. For example, services like wireless chip & PIN e-commerce or near-field communication (NFC) – where you can turn your phone into a credit card – are on the way, but need to be trialled for security reasons. We have had interest from one US firm interested in bringing NFC to Europe.”

Ireland’s relationship with broadband has been far from smooth, particularly in relation to copper-based DSL. All that might be about to change and the country may become home to the deployment of one of the technology industry’s best-kept secrets.

Sean Bolger’s telecoms firm, Imagine Group, which bought Irish Broadband last year for €47m, is in conjunction with Intel about to launch Ireland’s first WiMax service that relies on the 3.5GHz spectrum.

Each WiMax base station would give Wi-Fi-like coverage of 8Mbps up to 40Mbps and higher over distances of 1.5km in urban areas and 9km in rural areas.

Brian O’Donohoe, managing director of Imagine, explains that ComReg has granted the company over 90MHz worth of 3.5MHz spectrum licences, which will allow it to cover much of the country. Imagine plans to use its WiMax service alongside NTR’s nationwide fibre network.

“We aim to provide high-quality broadband to people who are fed up getting bad DSL or who are tired of using 3G dongles for home broadband. We are also looking at opening the service up as a wholesale offering to other telecoms firms that want to sell broadband,” he adds.

Last year, US telecoms giants Sprint and Clearwire, as well as tech firms Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House Networks, all agreed to invest $3.2bn in a new mobile broadband company, which will deploy a nationwide WiMax network to provide broadband to consumers and businesses.

With embedded WiMax chipsets in laptops, phones, PDAs, mobile internet devices and consumer electronic equipment, mobile WiMax technology is expected to allow users to wirelessly access a range of multimedia applications such as live video conferencing, large data files and more – anywhere in the network coverage area.

In Japan, Intel is investing $43m in Japanese WiMax provider UQ Communications, which plans to cover 90pc of the country by 2012.

“WiMax will be a viable alternative because of the lack of proper broadband infrastructure, and it will deliver affordable broadband to users who until now couldn’t get it or were paying through the nose for it,” says Colin MacHale, sales and marketing country manager at Intel Ireland.

From next year, MacHale says Intel will be putting chipsets in laptops that will enable the devices to access WiMax in a similar way they can access Wi-Fi using Centrino chips.

“Ireland has the highest line-rental cost for telephony in the world. WiMax will get rid of the need for line rental,” he adds.

Leo Lundy, chief technology officer at Imagine, explains that WiMax could also prove to be an ideal platform for voice services and demonstrates an application using the Google Voice platform. “Next year, smartphones will start entering the market with WiMax capabilities as well as GSM and Wi-Fi and it is possible to get toll-quality voice calls on it.”

Lundy can demonstrate an 8Mbps internet signal from a computer that is 2km away from the nearest WiMax base station. “If you are a heavy internet user, you will be able to get 6Mbps guaranteed. We believe technologies like Long Term Evolution will only be sticking plasters. With WiMax, we will have a clear path.”

www.digital21.ie

By John Kennedy

Photo: Ireland could become one of the leading countries in the world for wireless broadband development. Pictured are, from top, Intel Ireland sales and marketing country manager Colin MacHale, and Mike Byrne, commissioner with ComReg.

Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com