Towards 4G: what 70pc population coverage of Ireland might look like (map)

18 Jun 2012

A policy decision that could result in just 70pc of Ireland’s population being covered by the next generation of 4G LTE networks could cause people in rural areas to lose basic coverage over time, a lobby group has warned.

IrelandOffline has produced a map (below) that shows the areas that will be served with the next generation of spectrum. It warns that areas outside of these locations could eventually see older 2G and 3G equipment become obsolete and as a result basic coverage will be impacted.

According to Eamon Wallace of IrelandOffline, the policy decision by ComReg equates to just 12pc and 6pc of geographic coverage depending on the metric chosen.

“Thousand of mobile phone users in rural Ireland could be left without coverage due to this policy decision.”

He said that had a different process been chosen called shared Radio Access Network (RAN), operators would have shared infrastructure and be in a position to deliver reasonable mobile broadband services in rural locations.

“Sweden did the process right, they set up shared RAN for the more rural parts of the country, all the operators pooled and shared the infrastructure which delivered reasonable mobile broadband in remote areas.

Ireland map

“Other countries, such as the UK, have either reserved a spectrum block specifically for increases in rural coverage in their auction or as in the case of Germany in 2010 the regulator went further and refused to allow 4G services to go active in lucrative urban areas until rural areas with patchy coverage had been covered first. This rural extension took two years once operators were forced to accelerate rural coverage to get at the high-value customers,” Wallace said.

The forthcoming 4G auctions

ComReg said in March that provided there are no further objections, a current consultation should be the final step before a date for the auctions is set.

The spectrum auctions are critical because as well as paving the way for 4G technologies like LTE that are featured in the new iPad with speeds up to 73Mbps possible, former 2G bands can be used to provide 3G coverage to greater swathes of the population.

In total, 280 MHz of sub-2 GHz spectrum (ie, 140 MHz of paired spectrum) will be made available, more than doubling the currently licensed assignments in these particular bands.

ComReg said it will be a combinatorial clock auction, meaning it allows bidders to make packaged bids over multiple rounds of bidding within a prescribed timeframe.

But what can we do with the spectrum?

Wallace said the spectrum to be auctioned this summer includes the most valuable rural spectrum at around 800mhz, formerly in use for analogue television.

“It is valuable in rural areas because it reaches a longer distance and penetrates well into buildings where people may be found, a key weakness of the 2100mhz/2600Mhz spectrum in use for 3G devices.

A simple rule of thumb to measure the throughput of radio systems is the bits per Hertz measure.

“Currently (and for the foreseeable future) the value is between 3.5 to 5 bits per Hertz. This is part of the Shannon Limit and is a physical limit, even the mobile marketing departments can’t break this limit, no matter how they like to spin mobile broadband successes.

“Investment decisions will be made in Madrid (O2) and Berkshire (Vodafone), the question will be asked ‘what are our coverage requirements?’ The answer will be 70pc population only so the investment will only go to meeting that requirement. As the 2G and 3G gear becomes ever more obsolete will it ever be replaced if the coverage requirements are not there?

“The whole process was designed to maximise revenues rather than to provide coverage to consumers,” Wallace said.

Warnings of another broadband bottleneck

Wallace’s views appear to be backed up by Ericsson’s submission to the ComReg consultation on the spectrum auctions.

ComReg is proposing a 70pc population coverage obligation. Ericsson strongly believes such a target is wholly inappropriate for the following reasons: It fails to maximise the potential economic impact that the delivery of broadband in this spectrum could achieve.

“These bands are the only bands where high levels of coverage are economically viable. It makes no logical sense for coverage conditions to be lower in these bands relative to the higher bands, eg, 3G services that have been licensed in the 2100 MHz band. In fact, if anything, it should be the other way around, with more stringent coverage obligations applying in the lower bands and more relaxed coverage obligations in the higher bands.

“There is a real danger that in the longer term operators may be forced to reduce their coverage from the current 99pc+ level we currently enjoy, down to a level at or close to 70pc of the population. This is because mobile operators in Ireland could well experience difficulty in securing access to scarce capex resources given that the financial returns to be made from such investment are significantly better in higher-growth markets overseas.

“Such an outcome could lead to market failure and the resulting necessity to expand the National Broadband Scheme from its current 10pc demographic to one as high as 30pc with consequent costs to the state.

“With regard to a minimum broadband throughput, given the right licensing conditions, these bands are capable of supporting average end-user speeds of between 20Mbps and 95Mbps today. In Ericsson’s opinion, it makes no sense to have a minimum average user throughput less than that required by the NBS,” Ericsson’s submission read.

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