Ireland’s wireless spectrum bands will be put up for auction next year. As new 4G technologies like LTE arrive, will the country finally get decent broadband?
Across Europe, countries are getting ready to put vital wireless spectrum bands up for auction and usher in a vibrant new telecoms future. Early next year, Ireland’s telecoms watchdog, ComReg, will auction 28 blocks of spectrum to the highest bidders for between 2013 and 2030.
Some estimates suggest it is reckoned the Irish State could raise up to €260m from these auctions. Why are these licences important? Well, consisting of old 2G (second-generation mobile) and freed-up spectrum once the country turns off its analogue TV system in October 2012, the wireless bands could be used by telecoms companies to deliver next-generation broadband to consumers and businesses.
Working in tandem with fibre to replace old DSL lines, the next generation of mobile (4G) known as long term evolution (LTE) could see wireless speeds of between 50Mbps and 100Mbps, even in underserved parts of the country.
This will be critical in a world where more and more of the population will own bandwidth-hungry smartphones and existing broadband speeds will not be considered suitable for the applications and businesses of tomorrow.
Until the auctions take place, many of the telecoms firms in Ireland claim they won’t be able to guarantee investment commitments from their parent companies. Crucially, many of these companies will have to work together to co-invest in these new next-generation networks.
The news earlier this week that Ireland is planning to tap into the €9bn portion of the €40bn Connecting Europe infrastructure budget to invest in ultra-fast broadband could, along with the auctions, give these firms the certainty they need to invest.
For the past decade, Ireland has trailed behind in deploying broadband infrastructure, held back by various regulatory, competitive and, of course, geographic hurdles. The onset of LTE or 4G services could put the country back in the race.
However, we are lagging behind already. Germany, Spain, Italy, France and Sweden have already completed their spectrum auctions.
In the UK, the 4G mobile spectrum auction has been postponed and is likely to occur towards the end of 2012. This is due to pressure from various telecoms operators jockeying for position, with the result that the UK will most certainly be the last of the large European economies to sell 4G spectrum.
But it is still a race against time. Already, the first LTE trials are taking place in the UK at Newquay, Cornwall, as part of trials conducted by BT, Orange and T-Mobile.
Earlier this year, Three signed a €38m contract with BT to connect its base station network with BT’s fibre network to give access to 100Mbps broadband speeds.
LTE – ‘a true global standard’
According to Beppe Domagemma, head of West and South Europe at Nokia Siemens Networks, the 4G LTE opportunity will be even bigger than 3G because, globally, telecoms companies in Europe, the Americas and Asia will all be aligned around the LTE standard.
"We didn’t see that with 3G, there were so many other standards. In Europe it was all around GSM, whereas in America and Asia it was CDMA and other technologies.
"Now we have the US, China and India progressing with this technology. It’s going to be a true global standard. In addition, all the chipset vendors are gearing up to make hardware for devices that will be standard in about two years’ time."
Domagemma has a point. 3G took years to take hold – arguably only in the last three to four years – and expensive 3G auctions around 2001/2002 in Europe contributed to the collapse of the telecoms industry during that time. At one stage, Europe’s telecoms companies petitioned the EU to get the €160bn they spent on 3G auctions returned, to no avail.
"On the bandwidth side, you will see a lot of re-farming of the 800MHz, 900MHz and 180MHz spectrum bands to cope with smartphone traffic and the demand for applications such as video and the need to avoid network congestion.
"It is also an opportunity for operators to add new things. For example, the networks can be intelligent and utilised in such a way that phones won’t even have to eat up as much battery time," Domagemma says.
Chief technology officer at Vodafone Ireland Fergal Kelly says US operators like Verizon and AT&T are deploying LTE in a major way.
"They realised that there was no upgrade path for CDMA and it made sense to deploy the 4G LTE technology. They are doing it in a big way because with smartphones today the stakes are so high that they need better bandwidth for competitive advantage.
"Outside of the US, the only other market deploying LTE at the same pace is Germany.
"The dominant factor for Ireland will be the availability of spectrum. The industry is hoping that the auction process will take place before Easter 2012.
"The likelihood is that that by 2013 network operators will begin offering services based on LTE technology. It is likely then that it will be either 2014 or 2015 before LTE is substantially available across Ireland."
In recent weeks Vodafone launched a 42Mbps wireless broadband service called Performance Pro, which was achieved by combining two 3G HSPA+ modems together.
"It’s called long term evolution, rather than revolution, for a reason," Kelly explains. "Instead of one giant leap to 4G there will be several baby steps along the way. Remember, with 3G we went from 384Kbps to 42Mbps in less than five years. In the next few years you can expect speeds to jump to 84Mbps and beyond over wireless networks."
Frank Bai, managing director of Huawei Ireland, says the Chinese network giant, which serves one-third of the world’s population
with fixed and wireless technologies, is betting heavily on LTE technology taking root globally. The company plans to create 150 new jobs in Ireland as the LTE opportunity grows.
Bai sees a combination of fibre investments and LTE investments putting Ireland on an even keel with other nations it has lagged behind. Co-investment by network operators is the best option for most countries, he asserts, adding that process can only begin following the spectrum auctions.
"The UK has delayed its spectrum auction plans and because it has a bigger geography it will take longer for it to cover the country. Ireland, in terms of wireless, is not too far behind the UK and could get their earlier.
"Operators, however, need the spectrum before they can move on and roll out 4G infrastructure. The auctions will be crucial. They need that certainty," Bai adds.