5G operators won't have to provide rural coverage
Ireland's telecoms regulator is unlikely to require Irish operators to have coverage in rural areas for 5G mobile licences, it has emerged.
It means that rural-based businesses and residents may now be left mostly without broadband or modern mobile data coverage in the coming years, with the Government rethinking its previous commitment to rolling out broadband in rural areas.
It may also signal a U-turn for the Government, which had promised geographical coverage commitments attached to new 5G licences.
"It is difficult to justify intervention in improving mobile coverage for social inclusion policy reasons," a recently published report from ComReg says.
"Access to high speed broadband connectivity for about 540,000 rural premises is expected to be provided by the National Broadband Plan.
"Therefore, mobile coverage enhancements are likely to make a minimal additional contribution in meeting any digital inclusion objectives."
However, the Government now says that it is unsure whether it will proceed with the National Broadband Plan, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar saying that it may not be worth the State's cash after dealing with Brexit and the National Children's Hospital.
ComReg is to consult with the three main Irish mobile operators in the coming months over issues such as coverage requirements for 5G around the country.
However, executives in Vodafone, Three and Eir say privately that widespread rural coverage for 5G as a licensing condition is an "unrealistic" goal.
Previous 3G and 4G licences have avoided geographic coverage targets, opting instead for "population coverage" of between 70pc and 90pc. Critics say that this barely extends beyond the five main cities.
Supporters of the current regime argue that it incentivises operators to invest more in their networks, knowing that they can expand them on a more sustainable economic basis.
ComReg has already licensed a first tranche of 5G spectrum, with no coverage requirements.
However, this is mainly for the backhaul capacity of the network rather than connection to phones and laptops.
"ComReg is currently formulating its initial views on mobile coverage obligations for forthcoming spectrum awards," said a spokesman.
"ComReg has already conducted and published extensive research studies on this important matter to inform our view and there will be further opportunities for input from stakeholders during the course of 2019. These studies and future consultations will assist ComReg in developing its award proposal for the Multi-band Spectrum Award and, in particular, the consideration of appropriate coverage levels."
Separately, the regulator has issued a report showing that mobile operators are in compliance with their coverage obligations throughout the country. The report says Eir and Three have closed the gap on Vodafone for data speeds.