Mobile phone black spots to be outlawed in new licences
New mobile phone licences will require mobile operators to cover all of rural Ireland rather than the biggest population centres.
Communications Minister Denis Naughten said Ireland was to become the first European country to base mobile operator licences on geographical coverage rather than population coverage.
The move, which would start with upcoming 5G mobile licence auctions, means that Vodafone, Three and Meteor would no longer be allowed to have any mobile black spots around the country.
"Based on our dispersed population, we need to do it this way," Mr Naughten said to the Irish Independent.
At present, Irish mobile operators' licences require them to cover between only 70pc and 85pc of the country by population, meaning there is no obligation to extend 3G or 4G services into relatively unpopulated areas of the country or rural roads.
"There are lots of reasons for geographic coverage instead of population coverage," Mr Naughten said. "If you take farmers, they need access to services on their phone when out and about. Farming and rural services are changing quickly and we need ubiquitous coverage for that."
Mr Naughten said that 5G licence auctions were expected in Ireland in "late 2019 or early 2020" and that the relevant wireless spectrum for 5G was currently being freed up.
"We all talk about driverless cars coming down the line, but you can't have driverless cars without ubiquitous 5G," he said.
However, the new geographic coverage requirements won't be applied to existing 3G or 4G licences, which will be allowed to cover just 85pc of the population.
As an interim measure, Mr Naughten said that the Government was launching new initiatives to increase mobile penetration around the country.
He said that the use of equipment called 'mobile repeaters', aimed at boosting mobile signals in individual homes, would be allowed from next year.
He also said that some planning and mast-building hurdles for operators were to be minimised, such as development levies collected from mobile operators by local councils. Operators would also get more access to state property for infrastructure. Mobile operators would now report to a joint Government task force headed by Minister Naughten and Arts Minister Heather Humphreys.
Finally, a national mobile signal map was to be published by Comreg with input from the mobile operators' own data.
The measures were included in a new report from the Government's mobile phone and broadband taskforce, compiled by officials from the Department of Communications and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
Local authorities would "not need to be threatened" on funding issues during rollout procedures, Mr Naughten said.
"There will be a dedicated point of contact on rollout issues," he said. "They want better coverage."
A Vodafone spokesman said it had 96pc 4G coverage in Ireland by population. Meteor said it had 94pc.
The task force report also included suggestions to try to speed up local broadband delivery ahead of the delayed National Broadband Plan, which wouldn't begin connecting homes until 2018. The suggestions included the introduction of legislation to mandate new developments to be more broadband-friendly, including the mandatory provision of ducting.
The most recent broadband survey showed that some areas of Ireland were struggling with broadband speeds insufficient to load email messages or perform basic Google searches.
The Switcher survey showed that one in three Irish broadband users got under five megabits per second (Mbs), which was inadequate to perform most online tasks in a household or small business. A separate poll from Vodafone said that more than one in three Irish people might have to relocate to a town or city for work reasons if internet connectivity remained unavailable.