Sunday 19 November 2017

Mobile, broadband and Eir - Comreg primed to make some collect calls

Comreg chairman Jeremy Godfrey. Photo: Adrian Weckler.
Comreg chairman Jeremy Godfrey. Photo: Adrian Weckler.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

As chairman of Ireland's telecoms regulator, Jeremy Godfrey has a pivotal role in making sure that citizens and businesses get access to modern broadband and mobile technology. Right now, the former CIO of Hong Kong has a few big issues on his plate. The Londoner spoke to our Technology Editor about some of them.

Adrian Weckler (AW): There is considerable disquiet among Eir's rivals about what they say is an abuse of its dominant position in the market. What is your response to that?

Jeremy Godfrey (JG): I think we've got some concerns. I wouldn't say we have reached any conclusions. We have seen a number of breaches of regulatory obligations. We have seen quite a slow pace of response to requests. That has created some concern about whether or not compliance with regulatory obligations is sufficiently institutionalised within Eir. There are rules that require Eir to be transparent in the way it deals with other operators. Those rules say that Eir should not treat its own retail arm any more favourably than other operators or not to discriminate between other operators in its retail arm.

Any regulated industry needs to institutionalise compliance. You shouldn't have an attitude that says 'I'll try and get away with doing as little as possible and hope I never get caught'. It should be part of the way you run your business to make sure you comply with the regulatory obligations. That said, Eir has had its own programme of wholesale reform. So you wouldn't say that there has been nothing happening. Recently, Eir published its own internal audit looking at its compliance and identifying places where it hadn't complied. That is unprecedented. Almost nowhere in Europe has that degree of transparency occurred. I don't think anybody believes that incumbents across Europe are all squeaky clean and that it's only in Ireland where you get problems of non-compliance.

So we haven't got a view on the extent to which what Eir has done is fit for purpose. But we think it's really important that we should now get that view. Eir has been at it long enough that it's sensible to take a look.

AW: So what are you doing to get that view?

JG: We need to base things on evidence. Maybe what we need to do is tighten up the way we write some of the regulatory obligations. Ot it may be that we need to go down the route of looking at what they call structural remedies.

AW: Structural remedies?

JG: There are separation-type remedies which are more intrusive and require a higher burden of evidence before we could conclude they were necessary. And they actually require the specific approval of the European Commission. Those are all things we can look at once we have done the study.

AW: How are you collecting that evidence?

JG: We are going to recruit a consultant or a contractor to help us do that study.

AW: Why is all of this taking so long?

JG: Well, like any other public body, we had to reduce our staff numbers in response to the financial crisis. Inevitably that means you have to make some choices and you can't do everything as quickly as you'd want to.

We would much prefer to be able to do these things more quickly, but we have a very wide range of responsibility. We uphold consumer rights, we get spectrum out there, we have to write the rules and keep them up to date and we have to enforce the rules.

AW: You were heavily criticised at a recent Oireachtas Committee over lack of mobile coverage in rural areas. How do you respond to public representatives' anger on this issue?

JG: It's quite clear that there is an information gap about the experience that consumers are getting particularly in more remote areas. We have good information about the coverage where most of the population lives.

ComReg, public representatives, local government and central government all need better information so they can make better choices about the things they do that affect mobile coverage. We are looking at how we might be able to provide, collect and disseminate that better information.

AW: How do you propose to do that?

JG: There are different techniques that can be used, including propagation modelling and engineering models of the networks, including verification of that through ground testing. That's something we'll work out over the next few months.

AW: But does Comreg actually know what rural coverage levels are?

JG: The mobile operators have produced their coverage maps but we haven't verified those maps. It's clear the public representatives aren't willing to rely on those maps and it's clear that there is now a need. 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.

It's not exactly a regulatory obligation, it's not related to existing regulatory obligations.

We have two sources of information about coverage. One is the measurements we do, the other is what the operators tell us about their coverage.

Every operator publishes their own coverage map, but of course those are being used for their own marketing purposes. So people maybe are a bit sceptical about how accurate those maps are. There is maybe something we can do to help people sort out reliable information and I think that would be a useful thing to have.

AW: Do you understand the anger about mobile coverage?

JG: There's an issue with people's expectations about what mobile networks can and can't deliver. With a radio network, you can never get the same degree of certainty about where the service is going to be delivered as you can with a fixed network. It's affected by the weather, it's affected by reflections from buildings, it's affected by trees. You can get a great signal in one place and if you move 10 metres to the side and for some reason you don't get a signal.

AW: Do you plan to change your understanding of rural mobile coverage?

JG: Having heard from the Joint Oireachtas Committee and having reflected on it, we think it's necessary to provide better quality information. And to provide it both to consumers and policy makers.

There's a number of different techniques that can be used. We are looking at what the best approach would be so I can't tell you today. But this is what we're going to do. I think the need to provide better quality information about mobile coverage not just for the 90pc of the population but whole of the State.

AW: Part of this problem is down to mobile licence obligations that only specify 70pc, 80pc or 85pc population coverage. Should a higher percentage of the population be stipulated for future mobile licences?

JG: Sorry, but I'm going to give you a very cautious answer to that. Obviously, we are the decision maker about what to put in those licences. So we can't prejudge future decisions. But we have to look at what the real constraints of coverage are. Is it that the licence conditions are not onerous enough? Or is it actually a combination of the practical difficulties in deploying the extra masts? Obviously, in some of the very remote areas, it's just not economic to deploy a mast.

Licence coverage obligations are just one part of the picture and not necessarily the most important part of the picture of what drives coverage.

For us, I think the issue is is about the good use of spectrum. If the [licence] conditions are too onerous, maybe nobody will take on the licences at all. What we find is that the amount of coverage you get is largely driven by the competition between the operators. They go well beyond the licence conditions and mean they have to have a national network. Once they've got the national network then they inevitably have a competitive incentive to make it as good as possible.

AW: At least one major political party is talking about future mobile licenses being imbued with a universal service obligation, where operators are obliged to cover the entire population in the same way as Eir is with landlines. What is your view on that?

JG: That's a policy issue. That's for the government to decide whether or not that's a right it wants to give everybody. If it decided it wanted to give that right it wouldn't be economic. And so money would need to be found to fund the gap between what's economic and what's not economic. But that's obviously a matter of priorities. Does the government regard that as a priority for spending money compared to all the other priorities it has? If that were to be explored, then of course ComReg could provide expert technical input to the decision makers but, really, it would be a policy decision. It's not a decision for a regulator to make.

AW: Is 28k (0.03Mbs) an acceptable speed for Comreg and the state to classify as "functional internet access"?

JG: No, it is time to look again at whether that can be described as functional internet access. And it's something that over the next few months we'll start a dialogue with the public and the industry about.

AW: Surely anything under two or three megabits couldn't now be considered functional?

JG: Yeah, I don't want to anticipate what we're going to say but obviously what you look at is what speed is required to do things like download a modern web page, send an email, watch a video or be able to work from home. We'll be looking at what that should be.

AW: Does Comreg intend to regulate rural areas covered by the proposed state-subsidised National Broadband Plan, which will make up 30pc of broabband subscribers, or will it leave that to the government?

JG: No we regulate the market as we find it. One important piece of regulation we have is wholesale regulation. That applies to operators who we found to have significant market power. The other form of regulation we do is consumer protection regulation. That applies to everybody, whether or not they have significant market power. So we regulate everybody from that point of view. Once the National Broadband Plan is set up, the contractors there will have various obligations under the contract with the government. They are in principle subject to our regulation as well. Whether they have been funded with government money or private money is not a concern of ours when it comes to regulation. Under the current regulatory regime we have to look at significant market power, we are obliged to do that. So I wouldn't say the 30pc is none of our concern.

AW: During the election we saw anti-mast protestors in leafy areas of Dublin claiming that radiation was dangerous to nearby schools and dwellings. Comreg regulates radiation levels and claims these masts are safe. What is your view on this?

JG: In all the monitoring we have never found a mast that was not complying with the emissions standards.

AW: Doesn't that mean that the protestors are simply wrong?

JG: It's probably not my job to tell them they're wrong. But one of the things we can say to people is that you can't have a mobile phone service without masts. For the people who make the decisions about where masts are, if your decision is based on the science about the safety of masts and you permit them whenever the science tells you they're safe, you're likely to get a better mobile phone service. But I'm not an elected representative. It's really up to the elected representatives to make the decisions about the concerns that their constituents have and to judge between genuinely felt concerns against what the science is telling them.

AW: When do you think we will see 5G services in Ireland?

JG: It's still quite a few years away, I think. It's all still in the labs.

AW: The big market players are talking about operator testing and rollout between 2018 and 2020.

JG: I'm sure we'll start to see things within the timeframes you talk about. Of course the licences people have now are technology and service neutral, so nobody really needs to come to ComReg for that. Even the 3.6 gigahertz spectrum that we're hopefully going to auction later this year will be technology and service neutral. Maybe some people will buy that for denser areas with a view to using it for 5G type services. Our job is to get the spectrum out there but we don't tell people how to use it. They can make the commercial decisions about when it's best to deploy different technologies. With 5G you're really talking about the internet of things. You can talk about driverless cars or smart thermostats.

AW: Speaking of spectrum bands, when will the 2.6Ghz band [redesignated from Virgin Media MMDS customers] be reassigned?

JG: We had originally intended to do the 2.6Ghz band now but then the operators all told us that it was much more important that we do 3.6Ghz first. We can kind only do one at a time so we prioritised 3.6Ghz. With 2.6Ghz, it may well turn out to be usefully done at the same time as 700Mhz. A lot of the experience is that actually it's quite good to assign coverage bands and capacity bands like 2.6 at the same time so one of the things we're looking at is whether or not we will be able to do that and save time. These are all decision we have yet to make.

AW: Do you think we are getting close to a post copper telecoms infrastructure in Ireland?

JG: I think we are getting to the point where we need to contemplate a post copper telecoms infrastructure. People are beginning to talk about it. So, as a regulator, we need to start thinking about how that transition might happen.

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