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Friday 20 April 2018

New National Development plan puts mobile coverage boost on silent

In towns such as Kilkenny, Portlaoise, Mullingar and Westport, as little as 25pc of some operators' users are experiencing proper mobile voice coverage.
In towns such as Kilkenny, Portlaoise, Mullingar and Westport, as little as 25pc of some operators' users are experiencing proper mobile voice coverage.
Ministers Denis Naughten and Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran at the launch of the National Development Plan
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Rural broadband roll out is 'as you were', but there was with no mention of the next national mobile network according to the The National Development Plan.

That means no new detail on how much the controversial National Broadband Plan is likely to cost, or exactly when 540,000 homes and businesses will see an actual connection to a State-built network. (It is expected to commence sometime in 2019.)

But while rural broadband is at least being dealt with, the lack of any stated plan for critical mobile networks is puzzling.

Mobile network coverage is considered to be as important an issue for regional telecoms and social infrastructure as broadband.

Ireland's current regime does not require coverage in rural areas, defaulting only to a much smaller geographic area, equivalent to 90pc of the population. This largely means cities and large towns, with a few smaller towns and villages thrown in for good measure.

Last year, Communications Minister Denis Naughten indicated that the next mobile licence - likely to be 5G - might require total geographic coverage rather than the current majority population-based system.

This would be a major step change in how a European country treats mobile coverage, something acknowledged by Minister Naughten at the time.

So it's strange Ireland's masterplan makes no reference whatsoever to either 5G or mobile networks.

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The big operators are already planning such 5G networks. A fortnight ago, Vodafone and Ericsson demonstrated in Dublin a 5G mobile download speed 15 times the speed of the fastest fibre broadband service currently available in Ireland.

The telecoms regulator is contemplating the issue, too.

5G isn't an electoral issue, nor one that will cause rural outrage in the next two years. But neither was high speed broadband a decade ago.

Will Ireland let another major piece of network infrastructure slip by without due analysis?

Sadly, we have form on this topic.

There are some nods toward tech-related investment. A €500m "disruptive technologies innovation fund" is to be distributed by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation "working with other research funding bodies".

While this may be subsumed into other education-related announcements, it is moderately good news. The latest international figures from the Government show Ireland's research and development budget, at around 0.36pc of GNP, is one of the worst in the developed world, coming in just above Hungary. Most comparable countries invest around twice what we do. It has declined significantly in recent years and is currently around 20pc below the level invested in 2008.

Such investment is important because it helps to insulate us from potential shocks if multinational firms - responsible for large chunks of research budgets in Ireland - decide to leave.

With US and Irish tax rules having changed over the last two years, multinational dependency is now considered to be a heightened risk, even if the biggest companies appear to be stable at present.

There are some other small references to technology issues.

There is a reiteration of computer science to be incorporated as a Leaving Cert subject and digital training and aides for teachers as part of a €420m fund.

There is also a suggestion of more money for regional Enterprise Ireland "competitive calls", which often provide small start-ups with micro-funding or advice when they're trying to get off the ground.

But there is little by way of support for electric cars, bar vague aspirations without any substantive action plan as a backup. The State, the plan promises, has a new target of 500,000 electric cars on the road by 2030. Its last target - 200,000 electric cars by 2020 - has so far fallen short by 195,000.

Given that the Government has earmarked a total budget of around €20m per year to achieve its massive new target, despite almost no infrastructure around the country, it seems a little doomed.

Technology planning has never been a strong point for Ireland. There isn't much in the 2040 plan that reverses this pedigree.


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