Where is Ireland at in terms of 4G spectrum? ComReg answers our questions

12 Oct 2012

ComReg yesterday came in for heavy criticism by broadband lobby group Ireland Offline for the lack of progress in terms of 4G spectrum auctions, which were meant to have begun in March. The regulator answered our questions about where Ireland is at in terms of 4G.

Some of the latest technology devices, like the new iPad and iPhone 5 from Apple, are optimised to work on fourth-generation (4G) networks. 4G heralds a new era, when speeds of around 50Mbps and potentially higher will be available to smart devices over cellular networks.

But in Ireland and the UK, users of these devices aren’t currently able to enjoy them to their full potential because crucial wireless spectrum auctions have yet to happen in these countries.

In the UK, Everything Everywhere (EE) will launch the first 4G services in 10 cities on 30 October. The UK’s telecoms regulator Ofcom has confirmed that the 4G auction process is on track to begin at the end of the year to enable competitive 4G services across the UK by the first half of 2013.  

Ofcom plans to start the auction process at the end of the year, with bidding starting in early 2013.

However, there is no clear indication yet as to when the corresponding auction process will begin in the Republic of Ireland.

The auctions were originally meant to have begun in March this year. Then they were delayed until the summer by consultation after consultation.

When Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, unveiled his National Broadband Strategy in August, which aims to achieve a minimum of 30Mbps broadband in every home and business in Ireland by 2015, it was believed the auctions would begin in September.

When asked by Siliconrepublic.com where the auction process was at – aka, when they would begin – ComReg today replied “no comment” but provided detailed answers about other aspects of the process.

Earlier today, lobby group IrelandOffline hit out at ComReg, railing that an auction process that should have taken four weeks is now 10 weeks in train with no end in sight.

In a statement, IrelandOffline chairman Eamon Wallace said: “ComReg has run a veritable cornucopia of consultations, even by its tortuous standards, on how to conduct the largest spectrum auction (the 4G auction) in Irish history during 2012. In between strange micro-eruptions of ‘Fantasy Cricket’ leagues in ComReg and consultations that were strangely detached from the answers they received in immediately preceding consultations, they eventually finalised the process in June and launched their spectrum auction in July.

“But by the time ComReg started the auction, a fatal flaw was evident. It was not auctioning spectrum in a competitive environment, it was auctioning to a cartel. O2 and Eircom formed an Active RAN Sharing entity named Mosaic in 2011 and Three and Vodafone formed an unnamed ‘Sharing’ entity in July 2012. IrelandOffline supports such initiatives and does not feel that they are, in essence, anti-competitive. In fact, such a twinpack arrangement works very well in rural Sweden for 3G networks and with the blessing of the regulator there in 1999,” Wallace said.

ComReg answers our questions on 4G spectrum

When Siliconrepublic.com contacted ComReg yesterday, it was recommended we email our questions. This afternoon we received the following reply:

1.    Just where are we at in terms of the spectrum auctions? The proceedings have been put back again and again and were expected to happen earlier this year, then it was during the summer and then it was after the unveiling of the National Broadband Plan. So will we see spectrum auctions this side of Christmas?  

ComReg announced on 25 May 2012 the commencement of the multi-band spectrum award process (see document 12/53).  In the detailed Information Memorandum (12/52), published the same day, ComReg set out the process to be adopted for the release of radio spectrum in the three bands affected (800 MHz, 900 MHz and 1800 MHz), including the different stages in the award process. While that process continues to be ongoing ComReg is not making any comment.

2.  When do you envisage 4G services will be made available in the Republic of Ireland? In the UK, EE is going live on 30 October and Ofcom announced last week that 4G will be available nationwide by June.

This auction is offering spectrum rights of use across these three critical bands – 800 MHz, 900 MHz and 1800 MHz for the period 2013 to 2030. The spectrum rights of use being auctioned, in particular the rights of use in the 800 MHz and 900 MHz bands, are highly suitable for advanced mobile services, due to their excellent propagation properties which allow for high quality services and wide area coverage plus improved in-building reception. 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. Hence this award process is a vital step in allowing for the next generation of advanced mobile services to be made available for Irish consumers and businesses from next year. See full link to doc 12/53.

3.  I have been hearing in the industry that some of the operators are getting together to engage in active RAN sharing. Is this contrary to ComReg spectrum policy?

ComReg notes the recent trend towards increased collaboration between operators in the provision of wireless/mobile services. There are various drivers for this, including operators’ desire to reduce costs and/or provide a higher quality of service to consumers by using their combined resources. There are many forms of collaboration and the benefits and drawbacks of each type will vary depending on the specifics of the collaboration.

ComReg is of the view that spectrum sharing and pooling can, in principle, bring benefits such as reduced costs and improved quality of service.

At the same time, ComReg is aware of the potential policy concerns, particularly in relation to competition. In addition, it is not possible for ComReg to give blanket assurances that spectrum sharing and pooling agreements will be permitted because the benefits and disadvantages arising from any particular agreement will depend on the specifics of the arrangement and the application of relevant telecommunications and competition law to those specifics.  

That said, interested parties will be aware that ComReg’s examination of a collaboration proposal will, of course, occur within the context of its statutory functions, objectives and duties and, given this, interested parties should be in a position to identify for themselves the types of potential issues and concerns that could be raised by collaboration.

For example, potential issues and concerns, such as in relation to:

  • competition issues arising from proposed collaboration between actual and potential competitors;
  • the impact of collaboration proposals on efficient spectrum use and effective spectrum management; and/or
  • whether any potential restriction on competition (and other potential drawbacks) would be more than compensated for by the cost savings and other benefits that would be passed on to final consumers.

Given that the nature and extent of such issues will clearly depend on the specifics of the proposed collaboration, ComReg cannot be said to have a firm view on the issue of spectrum rights sharing (or pooling) other than that it would look more favourably on agreements that do not overly restrict competition and deliver demonstrable benefits that are shared with final consumers.

Finally, ComReg expects that licences it will issue will permit an undertaking contemplate any form of collaboration that it may wish to consider. Clearly, however, ComReg will need to satisfy itself that collaboration proposals are not objectionable  having regard to its statutory functions, objectives and duties and that the said proposals are compatible with competition law. Please also note that there are strict controls on contacts between interested parties in the spectrum process, as laid out in Section 3.3.5 on Page 65 of the Information Memorandum (12/52)}.

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