Adrian Weckler: 'Why 5G isn't broadband answer for rural Ireland'

A programme to update rural telecoms is a major headache for the State
A programme to update rural telecoms is a major headache for the State
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'What I don't understand is the need for all this expensive fibre," my mother said to me at dinner last week. "In Beara, we got fed up of having no broadband. So a local guy set a service up. It works fine from a box on the roof and costs us €30 per month. I can work from home. Why can't we just have more of those around the country?"

This is one of the biggest questions that underpins the entire National Broadband Plan debate, from its likely cost, to its rollout schedule to who should build it. Why is the Government so fixed on high-end, expensive fibre broadband? Wouldn't a series of wireless services do?

And what about new mobile 5G technology that's soon to be introduced? Are we gullibly wasting money in backing a soon-to-be-passed-out technology?

I've been asking these questions for several years. Last week, I travelled to a remote island off the coast of Donegal to find out more about how a wireless alternative to fibre broadband works.

Arranmore has a brand new 100Mbs microwave wireless service that's beamed over from a base station on the mainland shore, about three miles away. The locals (there are 450 living there) are delighted: they've built a new co-working space with 13 high-end computers and videoconferencing facilities to take advantage of it. Some companies are already expressing interest in using these new facilities.

There was no State subsidy for this new facility: the mobile operator Three is mostly responsible for setting it up.

So should the rest of rural Ireland look to what is happening on Arranmore as a way forward?

Sorry, no.

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For starters, Three built it as a technical demonstration of what they can do not as the start of a new wave of rural infrastructure.

The company was pretty clear about this last week: it is not opening its doors as a venture partner to other remote communities who might ask it to provide similar facilities to their own rural localities. It won't, of itself, make the operator money.

Even if this was a profitable exercise for Three, the Arranmore broadband solution is targeted largely at one building, not dozens of houses (let alone the whole island).

It remains the case that any resident of Arranmore who wants broadband in their home (or pub or doctor's office) still has to rely on a crawling phone line internet service or a mobile phone signal.

To be fair, the 4G mobile signal there is reasonably good. So it's worth asking: is mobile broadband a decent alternative to cable or fibre? Only in the short term and only for limited, non-critical usage.

Mobile services have critical drawbacks.

For example, a cellular signal ebbs and flows: it depends not only on how many people are using it at the same time but on basic things like the weather. And whether local trees have leaves on them or not. On Arranmore, for example, I got between 9Mbs and 35Mbs in download speeds when I tested my smartphone's connection. But residents I spoke to said that the signal falls off a lot at certain times of the day when people log on at the same time. This is called 'contention' and is a fundamental weakness in a service's long term viability.

It's one of the main reasons why hardly any country is willing to base national broadband infrastructure on this technology. (Ireland's first subsidised internet rollout, the 2009 'National Broadband Scheme', was based on a mobile platform rolled out by Three. It provided a basic service for many but soon transpired to be too slow and too hampered by contention issues to be considered a blueprint for any future State-sponsored rollout in Ireland.)

What about 5G, though? This technology, whether through 'fixed wireless' installations (an antenna on your roof) or through a cellular signal from a mobile operator, is capable of speeds well in excess of 100Mbs. Right now, that's a level that broadband-starved areas would happily settle for.

But while 5G should move communications forward, it currently looks like a very doubtful answer to base national infrastructure on.

For starters, we would need to build thousands and thousands of new masts and base stations in every corner of the country.

Be honest, now: what are the chances that rural communities will accept that? If you think 'maybe', you may want to look at the level of local resistance faced by operators trying to erect single masts, even in areas that have dire reception. (I have, on multiple occasions, debated with TDs who are protesting about a new mast while simultaneously giving out about poor mobile phone signals in their area.)

And that's not to talk about the cost. Over a 20-year period, a subsidised mobile broadband network that guarantees the kind of future-proof speeds and service required to give consistency and reliability would likely cost as much as a fibre network. Ask any of the mobile operators how much it costs to maintain a high level national network. It's not cheap. Almost every industry executive I have spoken to says maintenance costs on thousands and thousands of masts would be more expensive than fibre.

Indeed, the operators that stand to gain most from 4G and 5G rollouts agree with this. Vodafone Ireland's chief executive has said that mobile broadband should only be considered a "complementary" service to a long-term fibre rollout.

Much of this has been teased out at length by Department of Communication officials in a series of appearances, both with press, opposition politicians, analysts and Oireachtas committees.

For anyone paying attention, it's fairly clear that a fixed fibre broadband network is (at present) the only kind of broadband platform that would do what the Government says it wants for some 500,000 rural premises.

Whether Irish politicians are willing to proceed with this is a different question entirely.

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