Tuesday 18 August 2020

Ireland's new 5-year Roadmap to bring 5G connectivity to the nation

Ireland’s telecom market has been boosted by the economic recovery seen during the last few years, emerging from a period in which it had been held back by low broadband uptake, reduced investment among operators and lower spending among consumers. This optimism has been seen in operator investment in extending fibre-based networks providing 1Gb/s services, in the government progressing with the national Broadband Plan (with the NBI starting work on the network build in January 2020) and with plans to auction spectrum in a range of bands suitable for 5G services later in 2020.

However the current outbreak of the Coronavirus is having a significant impact on production and supply chains globally. During the coming year the telecoms sector to various degrees is likely to experience a downturn in mobile device production, while it may also be difficult for network operators to manage workflows when maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructure. Overall progress towards 5G may be postponed or slowed down in some countries.

On the consumer side, spending on telecoms services and devices is under pressure from the financial effect of large-scale job losses and the consequent restriction on disposable incomes. However, the crucial nature of telecom services, both for general communication as well as a tool for home-working, will offset such pressures. In many markets the net effect should be a steady though reduced increased in subscriber growth.

There are three main operators in the Republic of Ireland: Vodafone (Ireland), Hutchison 3 (= Three),
and eir (previously Meteor).

In terms of mobile broadband subscriptions, Vodafone had the largest share with 46.3 per cent. Three’s market share was rose from 37.2 per cent to 40.4 per cent while Eir’s declined to 13.1 per cent from 15.4 per cent in 2019.

4G/LTE is on 800 MHz (B20) and 1800 MHz (B3). Eir was the first to offer 4G/LTE in 2013 to be followed by Vodafone Three started its LTE network in 2014. 5G started in 2019 on eir and Vodafone on n78 (3500 MHz) in very limited areas, but so far not available on prepay plans.

Vodafone has the most subscribers in the country with a good coverage and speeds on 2G, 3G and 4G. Open Signal's most recent report also confirms Vodafone performing well in most of their categories.

Vodafone claims to cover 99% of the population by 4G/LTE in 2020. 5G has started in 2019 on n78, but is not yet available for prepaid.

Vodafone Ireland anticipates they will have 30% population 5G coverage by March 2021 thanks to new technology called dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). The technology, provided by Ericsson’s Spectrum Sharing, will allow the mobile operator to deliver both 4G and 5G speeds on the same spectrum using existing antenna infrastructure.

By the end July 2020, Vodafone said DSS will be deployed in 57 sites across 11 counties – Cork, Cavan, Galway, Dublin, Roscommon, Kerry, Limerick, Meath, Mayo, Offaly and Wicklow. Further expansion will be rolled out in the years ahead.

After the acquisition of O2 by Three, Hutchison merged the two brands in 2015. This has been largely a re-branding exercise and the networks have been fully united in the following years. Customers of both networks have been experiencing some problems during the merger, as it requires Three to built some new base stations and all the associated back-haul capacity while they will also consolidate some of their existing sites.

3G coverage can be very good in very isolated and remote areas due to the (now defunct) NBS government subsidy to help serve these areas, but this coverage is in 3G only on 2100 MHz which gives poor indoor coverage. Three operates 4G/LTE on 1800 MHz (B3) and 800 MHz (B20) in some rural areas. Occasionally, you will be switched to HSDPA even though 4G+ coverage is present. In that case, reconnecting to the network (e.g. by going into flight mode for a few seconds) should get you connected to 4G again. Three claims to cover 97% of the population by 4G in 2020.

Eir, a trading name of Eircom, its mobile brand was Meteor until 2017. Eir has the third-largest market share in the mobile market and its parent company has the advantage of owning a nationwide fibre backbone, enabling it to offer fast data speeds at a good coverage.

In 2013, Eir became the first operator to commercially launch LTE/4G capability in Ireland. In April 2020 Eir claims 98% coverage and 99% of the population by LTE.

Eir’s 5G roll-out was also confirmed to be expanded by a further 20 towns by April of this year, on top of the 20 towns and cities already announced. The company aims to have 100 additional sites operational by the end of 2020.

Eir’s expansion of its existing 4G infrastructure was also confirmed, with the addition of 500 sites. Its aim is to achieve 99% geographical coverage of Ireland, with only three counties so far meeting this target. However, it said that its reach nationally currently stands at 92%. The company’s population coverage currently sits at 98% across Ireland. With regards to the use of Huawei for its 5G radio infrastructure,  Eir are “very happy with them as a supplier”.

In a new discussion document titled, "5G and Future Connectivity - An Emerging Framework for Irish Cities and Towns", mobile operators, telecoms vendors, and city authorities were polled. It says national and local government must be proactive and coordinated, and proposes a National Working Group to collate infrastructure assets and navigate rollout of 5G networks, for usage by the public, as well as by smart cities, enterprises, and Industry 4.0 operatives. The state-owned Electricity Supply Board (ESB) must also be closely engaged, to resolve unmetered power issues for the installation of small cells on unmetered supply.

A neutral host model, where open 5G radio infrastructure is shared by these various groups, should be followed across Ireland, it suggests. It recommends a neutral host model — available in “many flavours”, but geared so a  local authority works with a facilitating entity who manages small cells affixed to city asset — over a shared infrastructure model, where multiple equipment from different operators resides on a single city asset, and an ‘exclusive concession’, where one operator gains exclusive access to city assets.

The document states: “It is an attractive model from a local authority perspective seeing that the neutral host network will rely on single equipment and devices compared to multiple such installations. This is especially true in high footfall areas of cities and towns where there is risk of limited number of assets for installation, and potential ‘visual pollution’ from too many deployments as seen in the following graphics.”

It notes: “The neutral host model also comes with additional costs and technical risks for operators which will require a lot more upskilling across the wider telecoms sector, which are likely to be offset by reduced infrastructure and maintenance costs.”

Dublin City Council has already been trialling a neutral host model in the city’s docklands, as part of a research and industry partnership between CONNECT and Dense Air, a subsidiary of network infrastructure vendor Airspan. The project is designed to hasten network densification in support of in-building connectivity, IoT implementations, wireless backhaul and boosting carrier services.

Dense Air controls its own mid-band spectrum in Ireland, as well as in Belgium, Portugal, New Zealand, and Australia. The company provides neutral host network services “designed to improve coverage and capacity in locations that are technically difficult or commercially uneconomic to support,” according to its website.

But a nationwide neutral host strategy within Irish cities and towns would require local authorities to engage with third-party operators through the development of a public/private partnership (PPP) to help fund, operate and maintain the network for ‘open access’, notes the document. “Collaboration with a third-party operator would enable local authorities to explore opportunities to generate new revenue streams from the neutral host network,” it says.

Indeed, local authorities will play an instrumental role in Ireland’s “path to 5G”, the report says, by virtue of their operational influence and ownership of assets such as poles, ducting, and street furniture in key locations.

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