Hi-tech 4G arrives – but loophole allows operators off the hook on coverage
Comreg says 'there is no requirement' to supply faster service
As Meteor and eMobile announce their 4G launch today, some questions remain. What does it mean for the business user? When will the country get widespread coverage? And which operators' users will really benefit?
One of the biggest questions about 4G is national coverage. Here, some are in for an unpleasant surprise. Because although operators agreed to a 70pc population coverage clause as part of their 4G licences, there is a big regulatory loophole: operators do not have to supply 4G services on their 4G networks.
This may seem like a contradiction in terms, but it is a technical nuance missed by many in media and industry. Earlier this week, a Comreg spokesman confirmed to me that "there is no requirement" for Irish mobile operators to supply fast 4G services under the terms of their new 4G licences.
All they are actually required to do is to cover 70pc of the population with some sort of service – no matter how slow – within the technical 'spectrum' (bandwidth) they paid for.
Regulatory mistake or real world pragmatism? Comreg assumed operators would naturally be competitive in wanting to supply the fastest possible services. It may turn out that way, with Eircom promising full 4G speeds on its new network.
Vodafone, which will be next to launch, has been at pains to emphasise the extended rollout of 3G services rather than 4G services. It argues that 4G handset penetration is still relatively low in Ireland and that it will get a better initial return from extended 3G rollout than 4G.
Meanwhile, 3 Ireland has a non-specific pre-Christmas launch schedule while O2 Ireland will wait until some time in 2014, ostensibly because of its impending takeover by 3 Ireland.
All of which means that 4G speeds may not reach much further than Dublin, other cities and pockets in other large towns dotted across the country.
This will come as a blow to rural Ireland, which might have been expecting 4G to fill in broadband gaps.
Despite all of this, being first to launch is a marketing coup for Eircom. From today, Meteor and eMobile users in parts of Dublin, Carlow and a handful of other spots will gain access to mobile speeds of up to 30Mbs. That opens up a plethora of potential new uses for business users.
It means that some of us will no longer have to rely on searching out wi-fi hotspots, some of which require cumbersome registrations or have exorbitant charges, to use our mobile devices.
It also means more frequent use of activities such as streaming (including Netflix and Spotify) on the bus, at the doctor's or in the cornershop café.
What it doesn't mean is an automatic speed hike from today.
To get the 4G benefit, you will need a new sim card and a 4G-compliant smartphone. The phone shouldn't be a problem, as many people already have 4G devices (see list of phones and tablets, inset).
The sim card may be a different matter: whether Meteor, eMobile or other operators will try to charge more for 4G is, at the time of writing, unclear.