Ireland’s mobile broadband explosion

4 Jan 2010

There are now some 354,000 mobile broadband subscribers in Ireland, up 90pc year-on-year.

Mobile broadband accounts for the fastest-growing segment of the Irish broadband landscape, representing 354,000 subscribers out of 1.6 million subscribers across the country. While the benefits to consumers are clear, mobile broadband represents the ideal mechanism for businesses to ensure that workers on the move are equipped to report real-time and interact with business systems.

The devices – little white dongles that attach to the USB slot of netbooks and notebooks – themselves can range in price. Typically, each connection costs between €20 and €30 a month and some operators provide a prepaid as well as billing service.

The coming year will see businesses begin to unlock the value of mobile broadband for versatility among executives.

“The value of mobile broadband is it allows employees to work from any location nationwide as productively as if they’re in the office,” explains Anne O’Leary, head of business at Vodafone.

“This degree of connectivity has not only ensured that customers get the best service possible, it has also created a new level of flexibility for staff who can give more time to simply getting the job done.

“With real-time data at their fingertips, workers can liberate themselves from the office, cut down on paperwork and take up more customer-facing roles leading to more sales and, ultimately, increased customer service. Most importantly, there are clear advantages in having employees out in the real world, engaging with customers, bringing back to the business customer feedback and first-hand experience of market dynamics, especially in these difficult times,” she says.

Eircom is the latest entrant into the mobile broadband space. Niall Feely of Eircom says that many businesses are deploying mobile broadband for agility purposes.

“Mobile broadband allows businesses to be flexible about where they access their email and other business applications. As competition continues to grow, mobile broadband enables businesses and customers increased freedom and flexibility to use broadband when and where they like outside the office or home. Certain industry sectors have very high requirements for this, in particular companies with a field force that spend quite a bit of time away from the office.

“Eircom Mobile Broadband is about giving our customers the freedom to access vital information on the go. We see it as part of our suite of fixed and mobile solutions, providing the ability to communicate, share data, access applications and respond to requests while away from the office,” he says.

Ronan Whelan, head of enterprise and corporate at Telefónica O2 Ireland, agrees: “Mobile broadband gives employers and employees the flexibility they need to adapt to how they need to do business, which is particularly important in a more challenging economic environment – be it by being on the road more to make sales calls, while remaining connected, or reducing certain overheads such as office rent by having a fully mobile workforce.

“Not only can mobile broadband make the workforce more efficient, productive, and agile, but it is also cost effective. Furthermore, mobile broadband allows near real-time teamwork with team members who may be geographically miles away from each other. The competition in the marketplace today is also such that it is crucial for businesses to remain responsive at all times.”

New trends

Vodafone’s Anne O’Leary points out that new notebook trends such as netbooks and ultra slim notebooks will ensure more versatility. “While netbooks have been around for quite some time, they haven’t captured as many business users as consumer users, what with issues of limited power and limited support for larger applications.

“Netbook usage can make perfect sense for certain businesses, ie for salespeople who don’t have demanding software needs, thanks to their small size, low price and built-in connectivity capability. However, market dynamics will remain driven by consumer demand, but improving specifications, larger screens, and integrated 3G will make mini-notebooks more appealing to businesses as well.

“The telco channel is a strong driver of the netbook market and the category represents a natural fit for us. Locally, we do see this as a potential growth area for us and are looking to build our offering in this category. Improved models with better processors and adequate hard drives will be coming on-stream and we will be working with our supply partners to bring improved offers to market as they become available.”

Meteor, which entered the mobile broadband space earlier this year, is in the process of building a national network and plans to have 14.4Mbps services available later this year or early next year. Meteor’s national sales manager, Fraser Heaslip, explains: “Irish companies are looking for every possible way to increase their competitiveness and become even more efficient with limited resources. Mobile broadband is enabling businesses to be even more productive and helping deliver real competitive advantage to Irish companies.

“Staying in much closer communication with colleagues, suppliers and customers is not an option, it’s an absolute necessity for any firm looking to serve their customers and their bottom line more effectively. Meteor Mobile Broadband enables businesses to process customer orders even faster, dispatch invoices earlier, respond to queries in a more timely fashion, spend less time commuting to offices and utilise down time even more effectively.”

Heaslip points to how the traditional office model will be changed forever. “The traditional office-based working model has been transformed since the advent of mobile broadband, not just for the stereotypical ‘road warrior’, but also thanks to incredibly good value pricing, the mobile office is also a reality for those who only require mobility on an infrequent basis.

“Allowing staff to respond to emails, access office and web-based applications, etc, while on the move or in remote locations ensures greater productivity and, ultimately, a more agile business overall. I don’t believe netbooks will replace laptops as the default mobile working tool for business. However, combined with mobile broadband they are certainly playing an increasingly strong role in mobilising more field-based applications due to their compact size and value offering.”

Mobile for the masses

The first 3G mobile broadband operator in the Irish market was 3 and the company has worked to make mobile broadband for business a reality from early on. The company earlier this year emerged as the winner of the National Broadband Scheme to ensure that the last 10pc of Ireland’s population can access the services, and it is vital that businesses in these areas are supported too.

“Mobile working used to be the preserve of ‘corporates’, now it has become pervasive in all classes and size of business,” explains 3’s Ian Blake.

“Corporates still lead the field in terms of mobile working, having adapted their working practices and systems to take advantage of this rapidly improving technology.

“However, smaller companies and in particular small office home office [SOHO] workers are now treating mobile broadband with the same indispensability as they do with their mobile phones. 

“Low-cost notebooks will probably be primarily a consumer device in the short term. By virtue of being low cost, they don’t offer the range of features that a businessperson wants. But watch out – netbooks will be the future of consumer broadband surfing.”

On the question of whether businesses can use 3G broadband as a primary connection rather than a complementary connection, Blake believes mobile broadband is a robust platform.

“We are already seeing a significant uptake of 3G broadband connectivity by businesses, especially amongst SMEs, as they are looking for avenues to improve their business efficiency whilst on the move.

“With the move toward Long Term Evolution technology, or what is known as ‘4G’, which we are deploying in our network, this will provide enhanced capacity and superior speeds.  For many of the larger corporates, fixed line is a strong option, but with smaller businesses 3G broadband is a real solution.”

Vodafone’s Anne O’Leary points out that in tough economic times versatility is also a key reason for adopting mobile broadband. “The key objective of many businesses deploying mobile broadband is to increase agility, as they need to be increasingly flexible and adaptable to current market conditions.

“Providing remote workers, or those who need to be out of the office, with real-time access to email and the office network while on the move is very much business as usual now for many companies and businesses are seeing real and measurable benefits in terms of greater productivity, profitability and improved levels of customer service from their staff. The agility afforded by mobile broadband allows employees to react instantly, for example, to customer queries/issues, business development requests, etc.”

Smarter smart phones

O’Leary believes that while netbooks and notebook PCs are mainly used for broadband services, the smartphone will continue to evolve with consumer features spilling over into the business market.

“Devices will become smaller with more advanced features and applications – we may well see business trade weighty laptops for intuitive smartphone devices. Smartphones such as the BlackBerry continue to be the mobile device of choice for business people in Ireland.

“Email is still the most required mobile application and smartphones allow for easy email access while on the move. BlackBerry continues to be the most popular mobile email device globally, although we are seeing significant take up of Windows Mobile devices, which is a cost-efficient solution as it utilises the existing Windows Office licence.

“As the adoption of mobile working and the need to be connected while out of the office continues to grow businesses are looking for compact lightweight PCs. We will see the introduction of a plethora of new models from manufacturers with this functionality,” O’Leary adds.

The future is mobile

Eircom’s Niall Feely believes that while the speeds of mobile broadband will increase, prices should continue to drop.

“Prices will continue to drive downwards, with more innovative pricing and usage controls such as capped pricing to prevent customers from bill shock. This, coupled with device manufacturers increasingly loading email features on their device ranges, will facilitate easier set-up and therefore wider deployment amongst SMEs.”

3’s Ian Blake adds that mobile broadband is ideal for the onset of web services. “The key buzzword of the moment seems to be cloud computing. This, combined with the growth of netbooks, could ultimately result in the replacement of the traditional company laptop/desktops by netbooks that, using a good online connection, access all of their day-to-day working documents (Word, Powerpoint, Excel etc) via a web-based service, ultimately reducing the costs of setup and maintenance for businesses and enhancing the working life of the mobile worker.”

“The level of integration will continue to increase, with new capabilities being added all the time,” agrees O2’s Ronan Whelan.

“For example, the introduction of mobile payment to replace currency and credit card transactions or the introduction of biometric security features to reduce fraud levels. Likewise, mobile devices will also be used for transportation or ticketing purposes, where the phone essentially becomes an electronic ticket which can be swiped through machines, etc.”

By John Kennedy

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