Ireland sits on a wireless goldmine

22 May 2008

Ireland could play host to a multibillion wireless spectrum industry if the US$3.2bn Sprint/Clearwire WiMax deal is any sign

As it’s an island nation, has low population density and is not a military power, in comparison to its European neighbours, Ireland is sitting on an abundance of wireless spectrum that could be worth a fortune to the economy in the years ahead.

But local take-up of alternative wireless broadband services is still in its infancy. “It’s a typical Irish syndrome,” laments Peter Lawless of wireless broadband firm GigaBeam: “Let someone else do it first.”

He is about to have his patience rewarded and his firm is on the cusp of a breakthrough deal that could alter the provision of broadband in Ireland.

Lawless and his colleagues have been working steadily over the years on a wireless alternative to fibre-optic cabling, and using the 72-82GHz radio band, can provide 1Gbps broadband in each direction over 3-8kms.

“It typically costs up to €500 a metre to dig a fibre cable into the ground. Establishing a wireless fibre alternative would save providers a fortune.”

GigaBeam is just one example of the kind of innovation that’s currently possible thanks to wireless spectrum, a national and natural resource Ireland has in abundance.

If the Republic plays its cards right in the years ahead, the country could position itself as a global Silicon Valley for wireless research, with firms like GigaBeam leading the charge.

“This is something we’re taking very seriously and we have been in talks with a number of state agencies – including IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland – and we have a number of initiatives in the pipeline that could propel inward investment or open new export markets,” says the chairman of the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg), Mike Byrne (pictured).

The island of Ireland is already something of a powerbase in this area. Belfast is a hub for major wireless software development, playing home to firms like Aepona and Apion, while Dublin houses mobile software companies like Newbay and Zamano.

In terms of inward investment, Bell Labs has invested €69m in recent years to establish a Centre for Telecommunications Value Chain-Driven Research (CTVCDR) at Trinity College Dublin and its Blanchardstown operations will create 120 research jobs. Two years ago, Vodafone located an R&D operation at its Leopardstown base, which employs 25 people.

According to ComReg figures, the wireless spectrum industry – including mobile operators, software companies and industrial and university researchers – is currently worth over €3bn or 1.7pc of Ireland’s gross domestic product. A total of 31,000 people are dependent on the existing radio spectrum industry in Ireland.

Byrne says a major opportunity exists for Ireland to capitalise on the world’s need to overcome the physical limitations of fibre and copper cabling and spearhead innovation in a variety of fields including digital terrestrial television (DTT), wireless fibre, future mobile telephony platforms and entertainment services.

He says organisations ranging from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to telecoms regulators from markets like Japan and China have visited Ireland to study ComReg’s trial licensing regime, which until recent years didn’t lend itself to enabling research for new wireless technologies.

A 2005 decision to free up the regime to provide test licences and make renewal of wireless licences more seamless has created the kind of environment that Byrne believes gives Ireland a major opportunity.

An example of the kind of momentum worldwide is the recent deal involving US telecoms giants Sprint and Clearwire, as well as tech firms Intel, Google, Comcast, Time Warner and Bright House Networks.

These key players have agreed to invest US$3.2bn in a new mobile broadband company which will deploy a WiMax network to provide broadband to consumers and businesses across the US.

WiMax allows operators to provide broadband at speeds of more than 10Mbps over a 5-8km distance.

Locally, the focus on alternative technologies like WiMax is gaining pace. Intel is already trialling the technology and Eircom has included it in its rollout plans. In recent weeks, Sean Bolger’s Imagine Communications Group acquired Irish Broadband from NTR and Kilsaran Concrete for €47m.

“Strategically, we have acquired substantial network and spectrum assets on a nationwide basis, which enhances our current service offerings and which facilitates the cost-effective deployment of WiMax technology,” Bolger said when the deal was signed.

WiMax is just one example of a plethora of various wireless technologies that could define the future of communication. For example, six licences bid for in the 26GHz range by Vodafone, O2, 3 Ireland, Irish Broadband, BT and Digiweb could enable high bandwidth over short ranges and eradicate so-called ‘last mile’ problems.

Byrne says if Ireland wants to seize this vital opportunity, ComReg’s adoption of a flexible licensing approach could dovetail neatly into the existing economic incentives, Ireland’s untroubled spectrum assets and an already knowledgeable sector specialising in wireless.

“ComReg issues around 9,000 licences a year. These range from use by taxis and construction firms, right up to high-end research, such as the case where we received a trial licence request in the 70-76GHz band which would allow for fibre-like speeds over a few kilometres.

“The previous regime we inherited in 2005 was quite restrictive. You could only trial for six months and couldn’t recover your costs. Licences were also difficult to renew. That has now changed.

“Companies like Ericsson currently test GSM and wideband CMDA in Ireland, Cisco has an R&D facility in Galway and Vodafone is trialling a new 3G technology in Dublin and Donegal that doesn’t require as many base stations.”

Lawless says the environment has now changed. “It was a chicken and egg situation a few years ago and it was hard to get test and trial licences. Now that has changed.

“The technology we’re working with is ex-US military and can allow operators to provide high-speed services over a long distance. The reason we tried it in Ireland in the first place was the huge amount of untapped spectrum available. Because we have been testing the technology, we could be looking at a situation where we can boost our speeds from 1Gbps to up to 10Gbps by the end of this year.”

ComReg’s Mike Byrne says that while Ireland doesn’t have a homegrown player like Nokia, Ericsson or Samsung, it could nevertheless use its largely untapped spectrum resources to make the country an important base for such companies.

“Wireless spectrum is a unique product that Ireland has to offer and we’re working with various stakeholders, industry bodies, businesses and universities to move on this. Not a week goes by without a manufacturer or supplier requesting new licences for services.

“We see this as an opportunity for Ireland to develop a critical mass in this important area.”

Broadcaster gets wireless broadband at the speed of light
This week Dublin-based telco Airspeed, which provides a wireless radio transmission network carrying data and internet services, revealed it has won contracts worth over €500,000 with Reox Holdings plc and RTÉ NL.

Airspeed will provide services to RTÉ NL, the organisation that distributes and transmits programming from RTÉ radio and television, TV3, TG4 and Today FM, as well as site services to the emergency services plus mobile telephone and broadband operators.

Both contracts, which were won following a tendering process, will last for three years.

RTÉ NL is getting a 10MB radio link that will connect its regional studio in Dingle with the RTÉ studio in Cork.

Reox Holdings, which does Dairygold’s network infrastructure, will be supplied with a high bandwidth local area network (WAN). This will connect the company’s sites around Munster with its main data centre in Cork.

Liam O’Kelly founded Airspeed Telecom in 2003 and was previously involved in a number of broadcast systems companies in Ireland and abroad.

O’Kelly says the company was granted a 10.5GHz license by ComReg and has been using it to offer services that provide between 150Mbps and 800Mbps of capacity.

“This technology would be used typically by broadcasters and manufacturers in remote parts of Ireland. For example, RTÉ will use it to link up its broadcast facilities in the Dingle Peninsula with its studios in Cork, which can use it to send voice, data, video and audio.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: chairman of the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg), Mike Byrne