How the telecoms sector will enable economic recovery

21 Sep 2009

The time to start working out the complex investment in next-generation access is now, Telecommunications and Internet Federation (TIF) chairman Gerry Fahy said.

One of the major highlights of this year’s TIF conference – taking place at Dublin Castle on 21 September – will be the unveiling of a strategic study of Ireland’s next-generation network (NGN) and, more specifically, what it will take on the part of the telecoms industry and the Government to build such a network.

The fact that TIF chairman Gerry Fahy chose to go for a scenario that would see 90pc of Ireland covered by a future 50Mbps network, rather than less than 50pc of the country covered, shows his resolve in getting the job done properly.

There will be no half-way houses in the global economy of the next 10 years and Ireland has to determine if it wants to be a leading nation or an economic backwater.

“We decided that if Ireland is to achieve a rollout of a NGN to deliver at least 50Mbps for different platforms, it would be best to start with the national gateway towns and then 90pc of the population. The last 10pc of the population will always be uneconomical to deliver, but there are ways around that.”

One thing Fahy is determined upon is the role fibre has to play. “Whether you are a mobile, cable or fixed telecoms provider, if you are to deliver large amounts of data to the customer and the last piece might be DOCSIS 3.0 or copper Ethernet, the telecoms motorway to your town will be fibre.

“This will require serious investment, but we believe the demand for 50Mbps-plus services will be there.”

Fahy believes that, in dense urban areas, delivery of fibre to the home will make sense, but in smaller towns or villages or the outskirts of large areas, alternative platforms ranging from 4G systems like Long Term Evolution (LTE) to line-of-sight wireless services will still play a role.

“There will be parts of Ireland that will never receive fibre to the home, but that should nonetheless get the benefit of the speeds and quality of services.

“But, even still, we have to assume we will be able to make use of existing State-owned fibre as well as ducting under motorways, so there will need to be considerable investment. Government has identified that it needs to deliver on this, but should not underestimate how it is going to be a complex task.”

He says that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD, must realise that he will have to apply considerable ministerial equity and pressure to ensure schemes such as the one-stop shop happen.

For the industry’s part, Fahy believes one company on its own is not going to make the NGN a reality and that various modes of collaboration involving fixed and wireless players will be essential.

“As a nation, if we can ensure that fibre can be delivered to local exchanges and mobile base stations with line-of-sight and the right spectrum, there is no reason why most of the country cannot enjoy NGNs. Where it makes sense, fibre might be capable of being delivered to the front door, but elsewhere people should still be able to get the benefits of the latest bandwidth speeds.”

In terms of LTE, Fahy says he has seen examples of speeds of up to 100Mbps take place in Vodafone’s labs.

“LTE equipment will start coming available over the next 18 months, the only question is spectrum.”

The future of NGNs, he says, will require decisions around the 900Mhz frequency (the old 2G network frequency) to be made, as well as the onset of Digital Dividend with the switch off of analogue TV.

“Digital Dividend is being harmonised across Europe, the only thing holding it back in Ireland is the launch of digital terrestrial television (DTT). We need to reinvigorate the development of DTT, otherwise we will be faced with a spectrum bottleneck.”

He says that if Ireland fails to switch off analogue in time, it will even cause problems for prominent broadcasters such as the BBC.

“It is vital that we make available the Digital Dividend spectrum to ensure we can provide high-capacity broadband in urban and rural areas. Outside of an urban environment, fibre will never be delivered, but with the right spectrum available we can provide fibre-like experience through platforms like LTE, WiMax and even satellite platforms. Re-farming of wireless spectrum is a big opportunity to get 3G services beyond urban areas and towards LTE.

“We request that if Ireland is to get the benefit of next- generation access, the Government will need to speed up the process of DTT, ensure that spectrum is allocated to allow future wireless platforms to grow and provide ready access to State assets such as utility network-owned fibre and ducting.

“The key is we develop a solution that in the current economic climate is less risky and less expensive and could create the ideal situation for consortiums of telecoms operators to band together and deploy the network Ireland needs.”

On the issue of collaboration, Fahy believes that many operators see the benefit of working together, but says that regulation will need to move with the times to give investors the confidence to invest.

“What we need to do as a country is keep pace with the speed of change and not fall behind. Providing 50Mbps of broadband to just 40pc of the population is not in any sense of the word world leading, just keeping in the game. We need to go further than that. Let’s work towards a 90pc target and exploit the opportunity in a commercial and risk-balanced way,” he says.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Gerry Fahy, TIF chairman and director of strategy at Vodafone Ireland.

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