Why universal mobile service law may be needed soon
The story of communications and media in Ireland is increasingly the story of mobile phones. A third of all web access here now comes from our handsets, according to industry trackers such as Statcounter. And we now have the highest penetration of phone internet users in Europe, North America and South America.
Data has now overtaken voice calls as the main use for mobile phones in Ireland, according to supporting statistics from Ireland's telecoms regulator.
"The Irish watch more mobile video content than any other nation," said the online video technology company Ooyala recently. "Irish viewers have wholeheartedly embraced portables as a primary device, with over 60pc of all video plays happening on mobile phones alone."
So uploading and downloading things on our handsets, or just browsing on them, is now more important to us than talking on them. This means news, social media and messaging.
In this context, issues of adequate mobile coverage around Ireland have become more heated in the last 18 months.
In the most recent Dail sitting devoted to telecoms issues, the only question that TDs wanted to talk about was mobile coverage - in particular, coverage in areas outside cities and large towns came in for highly-critical scrutiny. TDs weren't willing to accept assurances from either the operators or the telecoms regulator that mobile coverage is in a competent state in rural areas.
While TDs like to grandstand on such issues without disclosing their own roles as ultimate policymakers in mobile coverage levels, there is a tipping point being reached on the matter. Like broadband, adequate mobile coverage is entering a phase where it is an essential utility rather than a new-fangled luxury. And this means everywhere, not just in the cities.
Unfortunately, virtually all of the legislative and regulatory infrastructure in place right now is based on a licensing system that says operators need only cover between 70pc and 90pc of the population.
Why less than 90pc? Because that's the European standard licensing mechanism. It was designed this way to encourage as many operators into the market as possible, so they would compete, invest and build out networks to win more business.
To be fair, this has worked to a significant degree. Ireland has eight mobile operators and the country's two biggest networks, Vodafone and Three, have invested billions into their Irish operations in recent years. Furthermore, Ireland is now the cheapest place in Europe for prepaid mobile accounts and the third cheapest for consumer postpaid accounts.
But the current licensing setup may simply not be adequate to serve the needs of a population that has moved completely over to mobile as a primary means of communication.
Focusing mainly on the 90pc, mobile networks may be leaving up to half-a-million Irish people behind.
Privately, operators say that their basic 2G coverage extends to 99pc of the population, with 3G and 4G still reaching 90pc or more. But these figures are generally not open to review. For the most part, they remain internal and private.
To verify compliance with licensing obligations, ComReg tests coverage in the cities and along designated primary and secondary roads throughout the country. (It publishes these maps.) But it does not really know what coverage levels are in most of the country's geographical areas, because it has not actually ventured into those areas with testing equipment.
"The mobile operators have produced their coverage maps, but we haven't verified those maps," conceded ComReg chairman Jeremy Godfrey last week. "These are places where a very significant minority of people live. When you look at maps, it's a much bigger proportion of the land area of Ireland. There's a need for better quality information."
But even if that "better" information is gleaned, what is the future for mobile coverage in rural areas? Do we accept patchy, weak coverage in unpopulated places as the price to pay for cutting edge, advanced speeds (Dublin coverage is among the best in Europe) in urban areas?
This is not an easy question. Universal service obligations could well come with a public subsidy cost.
"It's a policy issue," said Godfrey. "If the government decided it wanted to give that right... money would need to be found to fund the gap between what's economic and what's not economic. If the licence conditions are too onerous, maybe nobody will take on the licences at all."
Fair point. But, like rural broadband, we may soon need state subvention here.
Sunday Indo Business