Ireland Falling Behind in 5G Rollout, Telecom Operators Criticized for Delays
The introduction of 5G technology is expected to revolutionize data usage, significantly enhancing communication and business operations. However, Ireland is lagging behind in the implementation of 5G, with telecom operators facing criticism for their slow progress in certain technical aspects of the 5G license rollout. In response to this, the Irish telecoms regulator, ComReg, has halted the time allowed for operators to raise queries regarding the allocation of 20-year licenses for the rollout of 5G, following a period of consultation.
The potential impact of 5G across various industries is enormous, making it crucial to expedite the rollout process. While the rollout is scheduled to take up to three years in many regions, with the final regions expected to be covered within seven years, ComReg is concerned about further delays that may hinder the execution of the 5G license allocation, which was first announced in mid-2022.
To emphasize the urgency of the situation, ComReg recently presented reports from experts in the High Court, revealing that delays could cost approximately €250 million per quarter, amounting to €2 billion over two years. These figures highlight the missed opportunities in terms of supporting increased mobile data traffic, industry productivity losses, and energy efficiency losses.
When the last major assignment of licenses was awarded in 2012, the Irish government was emerging from the bailout cloud and was grateful for the €850 million in upfront and annual fees paid by mobile operators for 15-year licenses. However, the auction of the latest 5G licenses came with tougher conditions and was expected to generate around €448 million. The previous licenses had low coverage targets and a soft rollout timeframe, which partly explains the ongoing criticism of poor rural coverage experienced by mobile operators.
In the upcoming 5G spectrum assignments, ComReg has recognized the need to achieve 95% coverage of the population, with early geographical coverage extending to IDA business parks, hospitals, transport hubs, and cities. These new 5G licenses will make it easier for telecom operators to provide services in rural areas, where low population density has traditionally posed challenges in terms of return on investment.
The CEOs of Imagine, Eir, Three Ireland, and Vodafone Ireland, who have secured the main 5G licenses, undoubtedly see the opportunity to offer a new range of products and services. However, they will need to make significant investments in upgrading the infrastructure of both wireline and wireless networks to meet the technical conditions set by ComReg. As expected, there have been substantial challenges to these technical conditions from various telecom operators, both successful and unsuccessful in the license auction.
There has been pressure on Irish telecom operators to offer comprehensive support services. During the COVID-19 pandemic, ComReg expedited the release of a limited and temporary range of 5G licenses to cater to the needs of people working from home, which could not be adequately addressed by fixed-line broadband. While growth in the past three years has been rapid, there have also been complaints from subscribers still using old 4G devices.
The new licenses, which encompass the full radio frequency spectrum, are expected to resolve these issues and meet the increasing demands of augmented reality apps, video calling, and smart home technology for controlling heating, lighting, refrigeration, and security. Early adopters such as Glanbia, which installed an indoor 5G network to enhance the manufacturing efficiency of its cheese plant in Ballyragget, have already experienced the benefits of 5G technology.
The Irish government sees 5G as a means to realize its digital transformation ambitions and solidify Ireland’s position as a prime destination for international businesses. With the European Union pushing its Digital Decade objectives, Ireland has been urged to complete its full 5G spectrum rollout. It is now imperative for telecom operators to set aside their technical disagreements and work towards the successful implementation of 5G in Ireland.