500,000 rural mobile users 'to get better signal'
Poor mobile phone coverage in rural areas of Ireland could soon be swept away by state-sanctioned moves to introduce signal-boosting services for homes.
The technology could solve an issue that affects as many as 500,000 Irish mobile users.
The head of Ireland's telecoms regulator confirmed that his watchdog is considering the move in the face of growing complaints from rural TDs and householders over weak mobile phone coverage.
"There are places where people were able to use their phone in their homes five years ago and they can't use them there now," said Jeremy Godfrey, chairman of ComReg, at an Oireachtas committee hearing on communications.
"We acknowledge that individuals sometimes have a worse experience than they previously had. Our evidence is that this is not due to any reduction in the signal strength being provided by operators. But that doesn't mean that there isn't a problem. We are going to consider the licensing of amplifiers to enable individuals through their mobile operators to improve the coverage in their homes."
Amplifiers, also called boosters or repeaters, involve placing an antenna on the roof of a house that captures any available mobile signal in the surrounding area and boosts it into a home or limited local area. At present, such equipment is illegal to use in Ireland without a special licence.
Mr Godfrey said that 500,000 mobile phone users in Ireland were dissatisfied with their service.
The ComReg chief also said that the regulator was likely to introduce a new mobile phone spectrum that would widen the reception of existing operators' signals. However, this process would not be introduced for at least three years, he said.
Some rural TDs say that weak mobile phone coverage is a bigger issue among constituents than lack of broadband.
"There is a real problem with coverage in large areas of the country," said Helen McEntee, a Fine Gael TD for Meath East. "I can't keep a call without it dropping on routes that I travel."
Under Irish telecoms law, mobile operators are only required to cover between 70pc and 80pc of the country's population with no legal requirement to cover rural areas.
This means that once Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford are covered, the operators are only obliged to cover a handful of other large towns to meet their legal obligations.
Mobile operators say that they face planning objections from local communities, despite the growing outcry over coverage blackspots.
One in three applications for masts and other mobile network infrastructure is rejected by rural councils and An Bord Pleanála.
ComReg's chairman rejected claims that mobile phone signals were worse today than they were five years ago.
"We conduct tests four times a year," said Mr Godfrey.
"Coverage is over 90pc of the population. There's no evidence that those signal strengths have gotten worse in recent years."
However, Mr Godfrey admitted that ComReg's testing procedure did not reach some rural areas.