Friday 15 December 2017

Mobile coverage for entire population 'unlikely' and 'not economic' - telecoms watchdog

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

Adrian Weckler

Ireland’s telecoms watchdog says that mobile coverage for the entire population is “not economic” and is unlikely to occur soon.

Jeremy Godfrey, chairman of Comreg, said that universal service obligations are a matter for the government to decide, but that the concept would face financial barriers.

“It’s a policy issue,” he said. “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.”

The mobile and broadband regulator also said that including mandatory 100pc population coverage in mobile licences in future was uncertain. At present, operators’ licences stipulate that they are only required to reach between 70pc and 90pc of the population with mobile services.

“I'm going to give you a very cautious answer to that,” he said. “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.”

“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.”

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

In February, the commissioners of Comreg faced a barrage of criticism from TDs and Senators over mobile coverage in rural areas of the country.

In response, Mr Godfrey said that there is currently an “information gap” on the true state of mobile coverage in rural Ireland. He said that Comreg would soon seek to get a clearer picture of areas not adequately covered by mobile services.

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