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Providing mobile broadband could cost up to €1.8bn

Comreg finds extending coverage to people rather than geographically would be cheaper

The difference between extending coverage so that it reaches a higher proportion of the State’s area, as against a higher proportion of its population, is huge, reports show. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Extending mobile phone broadband coverage to 95 per cent of the State in geographical terms would cost €858 million, while extending it to 99.5 per cent would cost almost €1 billion more, according to new reports.

While mobile network operators claim to be currently reaching “close to” 90 per cent geographical coverage, that claim may be “overstated”, according to the reports commissioned by Comreg, the communications regulator.

The difference between extending coverage so that it reaches a higher proportion of the State’s area, as against a higher proportion of its population, is huge, the reports show.

Because of this, consultants employed by ComReg have advised that new licences to mobile operators should carefully balance the desire to have extended geographical coverage, with the costs this entails.

Extending mobile phone broadband coverage is a key element of the plan to increase national “connectivity”. But it is separate from, and is not designed to replace, the Government’s national fixed-line broadband plan, known as the rural broadband plan.

Less expensive

Extending mobile broadband coverage to people rather than geographically, would be less expensive, the reports show. To reach 95 per cent of people it would cost €188 million, while extending coverage to 99.5 per cent of the population would cost €511 million. Extending coverage geographically to 99.5 per cent of the population would cost €1.8 billion.

In EU terms, a particularly high proportion of the Republic’s population live in rural areas. And more than 70 per cent of houses in rural Ireland are categorised as one-off. The Republic’s road density is also twice the European average.

One of the reports suggests resources might be better spent on other things, rather than on trying to extend mobile broadband geographically beyond certain levels.

“Extensive mobile interventions could be inefficient, given the higher social values that could be generated from an alternative allocation of the resources that would be necessary to deliver this,” according to Frontier.

“As such, any future obligations or interventions should be designed around Ireland’s distinct characteristics and recognise the cost of achieving certain targets.”

Careful assessment

In a companion report by Oxera Consulting and Real Wireless, the authors said any effort to increase the level of mobile broadband coverage above 90 per cent of the population required careful assessment of the costs and benefits involved.

Comreg said achieving high levels of mobile broadband coverage on a geographic basis would require operators to have two to four times as many cell sites as they have today and could not be done on a market basis.

“The overall cost to stakeholders would likely be substantial.”

Achieving almost total geographic coverage might require almost 6,000 new cell sites, many of them in challenging terrain, Oxera estimated.

“People in Ireland want to use mobile devices for voice and data services, whenever they need to and wherever they are,” said Jeremy Godfrey, ComReg commissioner.

It was Comreg’s aim “to support them to the greatest extent practical”.