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Tuesday 23 April 2019

Adrian Weckler: Why Rural Ireland is losing the 5G game

Waiting game: Many parts of rural Ireland are still lacking in high-speed broadband
Waiting game: Many parts of rural Ireland are still lacking in high-speed broadband
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Google is skipping rural Ireland. Not completely - just for its newest service. Others will soon follow. 'Stadia' requires a 25Mbs broadband connection to work. A third of Irish premises can't get that speed from their provider. The infrastructure isn't there.

Nor will it be for the next 10 years, if the Government decides to ditch its rural rollout plans.

'Stadia' is about gaming and YouTube, so it will be dismissed by those now arguing that rural broadband is an unaffordable luxury.

But don't be fooled: Stadia is a sign of basic infrastructure requirements to come for much more important services.

Health is probably top of the list.

Security and transportation are close behind.

For example, 5G mobile networks are likely to bring many new health services, especially in the field of patient monitoring. Sensors and the 'internet of things' will become everyday items for assisted living and home security.

Apple's most recent Watch (Series 4) is one early indicator. It is capable of taking an ECG.

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This is designed to literally prevent a heart attack.

To be clear, the Watch Series 4 can do this without 5G. But the next upgrade (or the one after that) might have a 5G-only health application. Apple says that much of its future investment is being targeted on health-related products. Many big rivals say the same.

Telemedicine and remote diagnosis is growing in Ireland. Home-grown firms like Mary O'Brien's VideoDoc are attracting considerable funding due to demand. It's not hard to see why. With the right broadband infrastructure, a well-resourced telemedicine set-up can save huge amounts of time and resources. It may soon be a life-saver.

But companies like Ericsson and Huawei say that really useful future services will be dependent on high speed and low latency. This could be a set of monitoring sensors sending lots of data back to a specialist. It could even be medical drones for emergencies.

But not for rural areas.

In Ireland, it's not just that we're now leaving these homes and businesses without broadband.

We've also introduced 5G licences with no rural coverage requirements.

That's right; there are virtually no licence coverage conditions for 5G. No geographical coverage requirement. No population coverage condition. Even less than 4G or 3G.

This is despite a promise from the Government two years ago that there would be a geographical coverage requirement for operators when 5G came around.

So it almost certainly means that rural areas will not now get similar 5G coverage to cities for many years.

Those autonomous vehicles touted as a potential future solution to saving the rural pub? Without 5G, you can probably forget about it. It's a double whammy: no broadband, no 5G.

Is it possible that Irish politicians assume that rural residents simply won't miss what they haven't been seeing?

Or is it that because early services being foregone aren't considered a matter of life or death, that rural residents won't figure out the scale of how they're about to be bypassed by critical services?

I suspect it's likely to be this latter explanation.

For example, many of the first wave of functions already being skipped are entertainment-related. TV and video feature prominently here. You now can't get some TV services from Netflix, Amazon or Google if you're one of the million stuck in non-broadband areas. I'm talking mainly about standards such as '4K' (ultra high definition), towards which the industry is moving. Netflix (and many others) says you need 25Mbs to get it. And it uses about 7GB per hour.

This effectively means that you need a connection of around 50Mbs into the house, with an unlimited cap. Official estimates put the number of homes in areas without such infrastructure at around 600,000.

Sky and Virgin will soon have similar requirements. Yes, it's only television. And yes, you'll still be able to see the GAA on older, lower-resolution formats. No-one will die because of this.

But again, look at the direction of the infrastructure: faster, lower latency.

First TV and gaming. Then health and security. Then perhaps transportation.

It will be no country for old men or women.

This boils down to one central question: is a subsidised rural broadband buildout worth taxpayers' money?

For the last seven years, successive governments have said it is, arguing that it is essential infrastructure to provide modern facilities. Now, it is rethinking whether the National Broadband Plan is worth urban taxpayers' cash.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says that it might not be. Because of Brexit. And the National Children's Hospital. Fiscally responsible pundits agree wholeheartedly.

These are uncertain times.

Ireland can't afford to spend over a billion euro on something like broadband. As a country, we need to cut our cloth.

Broadband may simply not be essential outside the real economic engines of Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.

For others requiring modern services, let them commute.

Nobody's forcing them to live in rural areas.

They knew what they were getting into when they moved there.

"Why do you need faster broadband than what it takes to send an email?"

We're all in favour of rural life.

But we need to go back to the drawing board.

We need to ask Eir to do it.

Or maybe Irish Water.

Or maybe... Or maybe...

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