Ciara O’Brien: 5G the theme for Mobile World Congress

Next generation expected to start rolling out by 2020 or sooner, if Nokia predictions right

It’s unlikely that Irish networks will be rushing to be among the first to adopt 5G. Photograph: Getty Images

It’s unlikely that Irish networks will be rushing to be among the first to adopt 5G. Photograph: Getty Images

 

As Mobile World Congress draws to a close, there’s plenty to reflect on. Plenty for the mobile makers, who have seen what their rivals have to offer, and how their plans will stack up against them.

Plenty for consumers, who now know what’s on the cards for mobile operators and phone makers in the coming months. And plenty for the industry as a whole to mull over and digest, just in time for the next conference to roll around.

One of the strongest themes of the conference was looking ahead to 5G. It may seem rather early for Irish users, who are still getting used to the fact that they have 4G LTE on their phones, but 5G is expected to start rolling out by 2020 – or sooner, if Nokia’s predictions are to be believed.

However 5G is more about connecting things than people; 4G was about the mobile user’s experience of the mobile web. Watching video on the move, sending photos, all done at fast speeds while you are connected to the mobile network. You know what I mean.

Or maybe you don’t. Perhaps you are one of the people who, more often than not, doesn’t have a 4G LTE signal. Some users don’t even have access to a reliable 3G signal, stuck instead with Edge access most of the time. And of course there are those who live in areas with little or no mobile signal at all.

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Mobile networks explain this situation by saying there are some areas of Ireland where it doesn’t make economic or business sense to roll out new equipment. That may be true, but the current level of coverage – and speed – is not where we want or need it to be. If Ireland wants to convince the world we are a thriving tech hub, sorting out vital infrastructure is a part of that, especially outside of urban areas.

A recent Open Signal survey revealed some particularly interesting nuggets of information. The company collects its data from the speed tests conducted by users of its app, and collated it into a report that made for some gloomy reading.

Irish mobile users still don’t have a 4G LTE signal even half the time we’re using our phones.

That situation should improve as the networks continue to roll out and strengthen their 4G networks across the island, but we’re still behind the curve when it comes to the next generation of access.

Open Signal’s report revealed that in South Korea, you could get a signal 97 per cent of the time; compare that with Ireland, where our 44 per cent hit rate put us fifth from the bottom. (SK Telecom, which was demonstrating 5G at Mobile World Congress, incidentally, is one of the networks demonstrating 5G connectivity).

Spare a thought for US mobile users. Although they were ranked seventh in the list for getting a 4G signal, with an 81 per cent rate, the average signal clocks in at only 10Mbps.

Open Signal also offers a picture of how things stand on a city-by-city basis. In the EU, the Hague came out as the city with the fastest 4G LTE internet access, with 31.5 Mbps download speeds. Barcelona, where Mobile World Congress was held, came in at 17th. Dublin slid into 22nd place with speeds of more than 17 Mbps. It’s not stellar but it’s not the worst either.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took to the stage on Monday in a keynote session to discuss Facebook’s mission to connect the unconnected, that portion of the world that still doesn’t have internet access. He urged mobile operators not to rush to make the internet faster for the small proportion of mobile users who already have access to a decent connection at the expense of improving things for those who haven’t been served quite so well.

Zuckerberg was clearly not referring to rural Ireland when he was talking about keeping access to decent mobile networks a priority, regardless of the path of 5G – “faster networks for rich people”, as he called it. He was talking about the four billion people around the world that still have no internet access at all. But his point resonates here; improving access to outlying areas shouldn’t slip off the radar in the race to the next generation.

It’s unlikely that Irish networks will be rushing to be among the first to adopt 5G, despite the case being made that the so-called Internet of Things will depend on reliable, fast internet access. The investment in 4G is still fresh in their minds. And those improvements that are so desperately needed in some areas of the country are coming.

Still, you hope that it won’t be a case of history repeating itself, leaving Ireland once more to play catch up while the rest of the developed world moves on.

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