Given our history when it comes to telecommunications infrastructure, people could be forgiven for expecting Ireland to be near the bottom of the league when it comes to the rollout of the shiny new superfast 5G mobile technology. But that is far from the reality, according to figures from Three Ireland and Eir, two of the country’s leading 5G providers.
Eir’s network now reaches more than 70 per cent of the population while Three will have 75 per cent coverage by the end of the year. To put those figures in context, Germany, long seen as the leader in this area, will see its dominant player Deutsche Telekom reach 90 per cent coverage by year end.
That contrasts sharply with our nearest neighbour, where specialist journal ComputerWeekly.com reported in September on a study which found distinctly patchy coverage across the UK. The study, carried out by network testing company Ookla, found that at the end of June EE had the best 5G availability at 17.9 per cent while O2 lagged the field with 5.4 per cent. The best rating for “outdoor population coverage” was 30 per cent.
“We are very pleased with the rollout and are adding 20 sites a week,” says Fergal McCann, director of mobile networks with Eir. “That’s been the case for the past year and a half. We announced the upgrade to our network in early 2019 and got going that summer. We now have more than 1,100 sites covering all 26 counties with 70 per cent population coverage, and that’s growing on a weekly basis.
“We are not just upgrading existing sites; we have also built about 400 new sites. We are densifying our network to offer very strong voice and data connectivity to our customers around the country..”
He says the focus has been on enhancing connectivity and service for customers. “With Covid the timing couldn’t have been better,” he notes. “We have seen very significant growth in data traffic since the beginning of the pandemic. We saw growth of 80 per cent in 2020 and that has been sustained into 2021 where we have seen 50 per cent growth to September.”
The remaining 30 per cent coverage can be the hardest, of course.
“Based on the technology we have and the radio spectrum available to us we expect to get to 80 per cent fairly quickly, by the end of this year at any rate,” McCann adds. “There is due to be a new spectrum auction next year and we hope that the new spectrum that will become available to us after that will enable us to get to 99 per cent coverage.”
He explains that the different frequencies to be made available in the auction will allow signals to reach further into rural, less populated areas. “The new spectrum will help us get to harder-to-reach areas as well,” he adds.
That auction was originally intended to have taken place this month but has been held up by a legal challenge to the rules under which it is being held. It is now hoped that it will take place in the first half of next year.
Three’s rollout is also going well. “We should hit 99 per cent coverage in the next two and a half years,” says Three Radio Access Network director Declan Gaffney.
“We won’t have any problem reaching that. By the end of the year, we will have 875 sites with 75 per cent population coverage. That’s pretty extensive. We are doing an average of about 10 to 12 sites a week throughout the country. We are putting them everywhere, and not just focusing on the cities where the revenue is the way these things were done years ago.”
He points out that the greatest demand needn’t necessarily come from areas with the highest population densities. “Demand can be driven by a lack of alternatives,” Gaffney explains. “For example, in counties like Donegal where fixed broadband connectivity is very poor there is a lot of demand for 5G service.”
While coverage might be high, adoption has been relatively slow to date. “It is still a bit of a slow burner to get into people’s consciousness,” Gaffney notes. “People are almost bombarded with technology, and they can be forgiven for asking what the difference is between 3G, 4G and 5G and if it really matters to them.
“In fairness, it doesn’t make as big a difference for a handset as, if you have 4G, you are able to do pretty much everything. The real differentiator is broadband service.”
Indeed, 5G offers the same speeds as fixed fibre broadband at up to 1 gigabit per second. “It allows you do everything in the home like watching Netflix and so on,” he continues. “That’s why we need to roll it out everywhere. There is no point in having an autonomous vehicle if you can only drive it on half the roads in the country.”
But uptake is increasing. “Word of mouth is huge,” he adds. “We have seen from a few sites where usage has taken off in the area because one neighbour talks about what it is has done for them. We are upgrading our 4G network in parallel and every site will have 5G. If it’s everywhere it will spread around the country and take off.
“National Broadband Ireland has only passed about 2,000 homes so far. But a lot of people on the wrong side of the digital divide are having the problem solved by 5G service. Like everything else, people have to see it and use it. It is not mobile broadband as we knew it before.”
McCann is also confident about reaching the 99 per cent target. “We will be able to achieve 99 per cent coverage once the spectrum becomes available. We are ready for it, and we could get there by 2023.
“But 80 per cent puts Ireland up at the very, very top of the international league table. Lots of European countries are well behind. When you look at the more advanced countries, Ireland is certainly at the top tier.”