Thursday 18 January 2018

Ultra-fast 5G mobile will bring speed - but not to every area

5G mobile networks can deliver 6,000Mbs – current 4G services deliver up to 100Mbs. Photo:
5G mobile networks can deliver 6,000Mbs – current 4G services deliver up to 100Mbs. Photo:

Wait a minute - did Ireland just have its 5G auction?

Last week, telecoms operator ComReg quietly put out the results of a mobile licensing contest seen as central to 5G mobile services here.

Five operators are to pay €78m between them for different tranches of the spectrum. The big three - Vodafone, 3 Ireland and Meteor - will jointly pay €53m. The 15-year licences they bought entitle them to start building 5G networks next year. At least one operator, 3 Ireland, says it hopes to start offering 5G services by 2020.

Is 5G about to kick off in Ireland? If so, what can you expect? And why has there not been the razzmatazz attached to previous 3G and 4G licensing auctions? Here's a quick guide:

1. What is 5G?

It's the next level up for mobile services, aimed at replacing our current 4G and 3G networks. In a nutshell, it's extremely fast and can probably take lots more traffic than our current networks.

Take its speed. If 4G currently gets you up to 100 megabits per second (Mbs) on your phone, 5G has been tested at 6,000Mbs in real world conditions. That's about six times the speed of top-end fibre broadband - it would mean downloading a full high definition movie in under two seconds.

But it's not just about speed. 5G is also about the ability of devices to react to other devices instantly, instead of waiting half a second. This is called 'latency'. It's really important in situations where devices are relying on each other, such as emergency systems or public utilities. If life-changing things like self-driving cars happen as we expect them to, it will be absolutely essential that their systems have almost no time lag in how they communicate with each other and with things such as traffic lights or roadside safety systems. It's equally important that thousands of them can do this all at the same time. This is why 5G is also seen as a big boost capacity.

2. When will we see 5G services in Ireland?

3 Ireland says that it is starting to plan its network now. Chief technology officer, David Hennessy, says that he hopes to have a 5G network in place in the next two to three years. "We'll be looking to do 5G trials next year," says Hennessy. "Then we'll look to launch services in 2019 or 2020, depending on the ecosystem."

Neither Vodafone nor Meteor will say when they think their own 5G networks might take shape. But having a network in place does not mean instant new 5G services. The mobile services we most prize now - Facebook video, Netflix, Snapchat and YouTube - are all deliverable on 4G. Indeed, Irish operators are currently rolling out what they call '4G Plus', a souped-up version of 4G that delivers speeds of over 100Mbs on existing devices like iPhones.

5G services, on the other hand, may start off being more industrial such as delivery or retail companies deploying tens of thousands of sensors somewhere in their logistics or supply chain flows. 5G could also give artificial intelligence systems a boost as some of these may need to make thousands of interactions per second with other devices. So 5G could be critical in the rise of the robots.

Eventually, though, more consumer-friendly services will catch up. When that happens, we might see even more of a shift to online services becoming the centre of everything. (There will be no need to 'download' anything when it's available so instantly online.

3. Will this finally mean ubiquitous mobile coverage in Ireland?

Probably not. Despite the current Communications Minister Denis Naughten saying that the next round of licences would require ubiquitous geographical coverage, this doesn't appear to be part of the conditions in the new licences.

Existing 3G and 4G licences only require up to 85pc of population coverage, meaning they can ignore most of the physical areas of the country outside cities and towns.

4. Why is the amount of licensing money raised this time so low compared to previous 4G and 3G auctions?

On one hand, the gap seems incongruous. The last 4G auction in 2012 raised €854m for the State.

Is €78m a big step down? The simple answer is that we don't yet know. Telecoms regulator Comreg may license more 5G-related spectrum in the next couple of years. And it may prioritise take-up of the spectrum over the highest price to be paid.

The economy is no longer in the doldrums of 2012, meaning there is leeway to focus more on the development of services rather than maximising cash for the Exchequer.

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