The ubiquitous broadband future is closer than you think, says Vodafone boss
It's time for the Irish telecoms industry to start pulling together, says Vodafone's Charles Butterworth
WHILE walking around the GSM Association's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona recently it was impossible not to be wowed by the scale and sophistication of the mobile industry.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt's words were ringing in my ears: firstly, because of the super-fast speeds mobile networks will carry in the future, the days of being tied to a desktop are over; and, secondly, 60,000 Google Android devices are shipping on a daily basis.
By midnight last Friday there were 120,000 pre-orders for Apple's iPad tablet computer, which comes out in the US on 3 April, while Microsoft will very soon release its new generation of Windows 7 smartphones to the world. 2010 will be the dawn of a new era in mobile - ubiquitous computing.
This fact was drummed into my head again when Vodafone's new networks director for Ireland, Santiago Tenorio Sanz, showed me HD 1080p videos at speeds of between 14Mbps to 16Mbps over the forthcoming HSPA+ 3.5G mobile networks due to go live in September nationwide. Ireland is set to be in the vanguard of the ubiquitous computing revolution.
As I begin my interview with Vodafone Ireland CEO Charles Butterworth, he makes it clear that Vodafone no longer sees itself as a pure play mobile company. Instead, it's a total communications company that provides fixed and mobile services. Its partnership signed last year with BT gave Vodafone access to 22 unbundled exchanges and the aim of unbundling 58 additional exchanges - the first of which is due to be opened very soon.
For an Ireland of 2010 that, according to Forfás, is three to five years behind competing economies, the challenge is to ratchet up speeds.
"Broadband is the bedrock of the smart economy," Butterworth says emphatically.
"Without ubiquitous broadband we're not going to make the progress. One of the obvious implications of that is that economies will compete against each other based on the quality of their infrastructure.
"If you have infrastructure in country A, the industries they'll be able to start and attract, the applications and innovations they will drive, will be different from country B, which will be years behind. We're going to see competition between countries based on the broadband connectivity they've got."
One thing's for certain, Ireland cannot afford to be a country B.
"Here in Ireland and elsewhere we've started investing heavily in the next generation of our fixed and mobile-data networks. The net result is that if a year ago people were receiving less than 500Kbps in speed on a wireless network, which frankly isn't true broadband, the difference is going forward they'll be receiving anywhere between 2Mbps and 5Mbps on average. For a lot of the type of applications people like using today it becomes a perfectly good and usable experience. Along with fixed-line networks I see a lot of potential in developing that bedrock."
Butterworth says Ireland's telecoms market is divided into separate camps: fixed line via fibre and copper; state-of-the-art cable, which is not totally ubiquitous across the country; wireless WiMax, which has only just started; and wireless 3G networks that are going to move in the direction of 4G long term evolution (LTE). The question is how does the industry invest in all of these platforms and deliver the speeds the Irish economy will need to be relevant in the 21st century?
"Fundamentally, the next three to five years are going to be very important and will determine whether or not Ireland is going to take its place among the best-connected economies in the world. Infrastructure is key and then we can utilise the other benefits we have - the openness of the economy, the skills base, the educated workforce, the fiscal benefits - the things that attracted people to invest in Ireland during the Celtic Tiger boom years, so we'll be able to continue that."
From Vodafone's perspective unbundling more local loops and upgrading its mobile network is top of the agenda, but the stuff in between - the fibre - is an industry-wide problem that can't be solved overnight.
"The wireless, ubiquitous networks of the future will require fibre to each and every base station or other solutions. The reason why there is a challenge is we have a number of different players coming from different perspectives; getting alignment is not that easy. That's issue No 1.
"Issue No 2 is the important role that Government has to play in all of this and the framework that it sets.
"Spectrum is an issue and it's a scarce resource, and how that is allocated, what we do with the digital dividend when we turn off the analogue systems, all of these things are hugely important contributors to the eventual outcome.
"Another contributor is the attitude the operators have got. Our attitude at Vodafone is we don't think we should be building numerous different fibre networks. The reason for this is the investment case won't stack up given the scale of the country and given the dispersed population, compared to the UK and Europe.
"As an industry we'll have to work together and we'll have to find a way of competing very hard at a retail level and in making sure the investments are made on a collective basis."
The lynchpin of fibre investment is regulation, but he warns incumbent operator Eircom's role can't be underestimated.
"Eircom will have their stance, but I believe they do understand the need to work together given the economics.
"We really are at a stage where we can deliver a much different, more enhanced broadband experience across a wide geography. What happens there is the ecosystem around us - partners and customers and particularly start-ups and established businesses - start to be able to do a number of new things."
A good example of the innovation shaping ICT today is downloadable software apps and the onset of cloud computing, all enabled by better connectivity.
"While the first software apps people used for social enjoyment, there are a lot of practical apps businesses can embrace to become more efficient, reach out to customers in new and more exciting ways," Butterworth says.
"I see that lift in the broadband connectivity capability towards true ubiquity being an enabler and a platform for the future."
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