5G wars erupt in Ireland as Three reveals €100m-a-year roll-out plan

15 Feb 2018

Car lights in rural Ireland. Image: Gabriel 12/Shutterstock

Rural 5G speeds will be as good as city speeds, claims Three.

Little more than a week after Vodafone revealed that 15Gbps speeds were possible via pre-standard 5G, rival operator Three has unveiled a €100m-a-year 5G roll-out plan.

Fifth-generation (5G) mobile is the next step in mobile technology evolution after 3G and 4G but, unlike previous generations, it will enable operators to deploy new technology on top of existing 4G base stations. Not only will the technology deliver faster speeds and lower latency, it will enable the connectivity of a variety of devices beyond phones and computers to include internet of things (IoT) devices and even self-driving cars.

The catch? There is no official 5G standard in place as the powerful Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) has yet to officially endorse one.

However, operators, network equipment and device manufacturers are powering ahead with their own pre-standard takes on what 5G will look like. Device makers are expected to reveal their first 5G handsets in the first quarter of next year.

Last week, Vodafone fired the opening salvo in the looming 5G wars by showing us what 5G is capable of in terms of beam-forming to deliver 15Gbps speeds on the move. It said that switching on its NB-IoT network in Ireland last year was the first step in rolling out 5G.

And now, rival network Three is beginning its 5G skirmish by revealing a €100m plan to upgrade its network to go live with the new technology in the next 12 to 24 months.

In a report in The Irish Times this morning (15 February), CEO Robert Finnegan predicted that 5G will help bridge the rural-urban digital divide and potentially enable the same speeds in Donegal as users will enjoy in Dublin.

“You could get up to 100 times what you experience on 4G, potentially,” Finnegan was quoted as saying.

Finnegan said that Three’s approach will be to focus on fixed wireless access, an alternative to broadband over fibre.

In an interview with Three Ireland chief technology officer David Hennessy last year, the operator told Siliconrepublic.com that it is currently spending €400m on its network and IT consolidation and overall digital transformation.

The operator became one of the biggest in Ireland through its acquisition of O2 Ireland in 2014 for an estimated €850m.

Triangulating Three’s spectrum plans for 5G

In May last year, ComReg revealed that five firms – Imagine, Airspan, Vodafone, Three and Eir – had successfully bid for the 3.6GHz spectrum band, which will be crucial for 5G.

The winning bidders agreed to pay in excess of €78m, comprising €60.5m in upfront fees and around €17.7m in spectrum usage fees, which will be paid out over the 15 years – a far cry from the instant €450m demanded for the 4G network spectrum in 2012.

In the 5G spectrum allocations by ComReg, Imagine obtained rights for 60MHz in each of Ireland’s rural provinces, Airspan secured spectrum for 25MHz in rural regions and 60MHz in cities, Vodafone obtained 85MHz in rural regions and 105MHz in cities, Three Ireland secured 100MHz nationally, and Eir obtained 80MHz in rural regions and 85MHz in cities.

“Three wanted to secure 100MHz of 5G spectrum nationally and not to differentiate between rural and urban areas. We are delighted that we are the only bidder that was able to achieve that,” Finnegan said at the time.

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