Why cheap Androids rule Ireland
As you read this, the world's biggest mobile technology conference is kicking off in Barcelona. There's plenty of Irish interest, with a number of companies there pitching their wares, particularly on the networking and software side. But Mobile World Congress is about changing our lives in ways that other tech conferences don't achieve.
How budget Android phones have changed Irish life
Forget about Facebook or Google or Apple. The single biggest transformation in daily tech habits over the last two years has been ordinary, cash-strapped (or late adopter) people getting access to cheap, large-screen Android phones. These are people like your parents or your shop assistant.
Up to recently, entry-level or mid-range handsets had smaller screens and modest processors. For about the last 18 months, almost every new budget phone has come with a five-inch screen.
This has had a bigger effect on TV, newspaper and music habits than anything we've ever seen.
For instance, Sky's football viewing figures fell for the first time last year, probably because many just looked up a pirate stream on their new large-screen phone. (There are other possible reasons.)
Similarly, the newspaper ABC circulation figures published last week showed that tabloid sales fell much more steeply than 'quality' papers, possibly a consequence of tabloid readers switching to big-screen budget phones to get their news and sport. (A couple of years ago, it was quality newspaper sales that fell more steeply, perhaps because large-screen phones were the preserve of wealthier customers.)
The snazzy new phones being announced this week
By the time this column reaches your eyes, there will also have been some big new smartphone launches. (Check independent.ie later today and tomorrow for my hands-on reviews.)
While specifics are being withheld by the major manufacturers until Sunday evening, it is known that the thrust of the new features relate to cameras on the phones, specifically the ability to take photos in low light. Other than Apple, it's the usual manufacturers you would expect.
But with new souped-up cameras come new issues. In particular, rules around privacy and photography now appear more muddled than they used to be, with experts (right up to the data protection commissioner) agreeing that, absent consent, the law isn't satisfactorily clear on the question of how someone is permitted to use photos they capture on their phones.
The situation becomes even more intensified with new phones' enhanced video-recording capabilities.
These are now on a par with standalone cameras and, together with handsets' boosted storage capacities and free cloud-hosting services such as Google Photos, may be changing our expectations of privacy.
Don't blame younger people, either. The under-30s are far more attuned to controlling privacy levels than their bumbling parents. This is why so many of them use Snapchat, a social media platform set up almost specifically to side-step photos and videos being left up online for all to see.
The most identifiable theme from Mobile World Congress this year is ongoing preparation for the next generation of mobile technology: 5G.
The use cases for 5G are already well-touted: autonomous cars, smart cities and the 'internet of things', generally. It's not just the extra speed that's considered important, but the lower 'latency', which allows things to react to one another far more quickly than with current 3G or 4G services.
In Ireland, the earliest we expect to see 5G services is 2020, with major operators here planning their trials now.
"We expect to be doing 5G trials around Q4 of this year with a view to commercially launching some services in 2019," a spokeswoman for Three Ireland told me last week. "From a device perspective, routers will come first, with availability during the second half of 2019. The first early handset devices are expected in the second half of 2019. However the majority will be available from 2020."
Three's main rival, Vodafone Ireland, conducted its first 5G test in Dublin this month. The exercise, completed with network manufacturer Ericsson, achieved speeds of up to 15Gbs (15,000Mbs) with a latency of less than five milliseconds.
The operator also tested 'pre-standard 5G' on Vodafone's recently acquired 3.6GHz spectrum, which is expected to be used for 5G services when 5G is launched.
"There seems to be a consensus that we will see 5G in Ireland from 2020 onwards," said John Griffin, head of Ericsson Ireland. "In the interim period there will be trials and proofs of concept but the entire ecosystem needed for full launch will only be ready in that time frame. We know that certain other countries will have limited 5G launches in 2019."
Griffin said that speeds are likely to reach 1,000Mbs, currently only available on fibre-to-the-building systems.
There are several obstacles that could get in the way.
One major challenge is availability. If there is to be a new round of licensing for 5G, it's likely to follow the geographical format of previous licensing auctions for 3G and 4G licences. That means a requirement only to cover up to 90pc of the population, with no geographical coverage requirement. This leaves huge swathes of rural Ireland without an equivalent service.
Last year, Communications Minister Denis Naughten indicated that the next mobile licences to come through the Government would have a stipulation that 100pc geographic coverage might be required.
Will this happen? It would be a wonderful thing if it did. But the economics might get in the way.
Sunday Indo Business