Tuesday, 18 Feb 2020

Mobile broadband 'no alternative' to fibre network, says Bruton

Communications Minister Richard Bruton has all but ruled out mobile broadband as an alternative to fibre for the State-backed National Broadband Plan roll-out.

Mr Bruton says that a 4G or 5G mobile broadband network capable of covering every rural home and business would require an extra 6,000 masts around the country in rural areas, double the amount currently in place.

He also said that it would take up to three times as long to build and that the broadband quality would be significantly poorer than a fixed-fibre service.

“A mobile 5G service is not a suitable alternative to fibre-to-the-home broadband, for many reasons as outlined by ComReg and others,” Mr Bruton said in social media comments.

“Mobile coverage of 30mbs to 99.5pc of the country would require an additional 6,000 new masts around the country, would take over 10 years, would have insufficient capacity and [the] signal would be significantly affected by home insulation and hills.”

Mr Bruton pointed to a recent report from the telecoms regulator, which estimated that it would cost almost €2bn to build a mobile broadband network that reached 99pc of the country, geographically.

The same report, commissioned by ComReg and conducted by Frontier Economics, found that the quality of a rural broadband network based on mobile technology would struggle in comparison to fixed-fibre counterparts and may not qualify under the “future-proof” requirements set out in the National Broadband Plan criteria.

“The [mobile] service modelled is not the same level of service outlined in the NBP service requirements, which are notably higher,” said the report. “In particular, the NBP proposed a minimum level of service of 30Mbps to premises, and bidders were also requested to provide a future-proofed network which responded to growing demand for bandwidth.”

However, the report also found that a mobile broadband network that was built to reach 99pc of the population, rather than the geographical landmass, would be considerably cheaper, at a cost of €511m.

Mr Bruton’s comments come amid criticism over the cost of the National Broadband Plan, expected to be around €3bn over 25 years. Some critics of the plan have suggested a 5G wireless or mobile broadband network instead, arguing that it may cost less to construct.

Others have argued that the state’s ambitions for high-speed broadband should be restricted to the original 1,100 villages and small towns initially identified by the process, and that communities themselves should then find a way to connect individual households and businesses to the state fibre.

The National Broadband Plan is expected to go before the Cabinet next week. Mr Bruton has indicated that he will recommend proceeding with the current bidder, Granahan McCourt. That consortium, led by businessman David McCourt, was the only remaining bidder for the contract after Eir and Siro – a joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB – backed out, citing a lack of interest in building the rural network.

If given the green light, the bulk of the network – which will reach 540,000 homes and businesses in mostly rural areas of the country – is expected to take three years.

Entry-level speeds under in the new fibre network will start at 150Mbs, which exceeds the best available speeds on the majority of Eir landline broadband services.

The Government has promised that access to the broadband services will cost rural householders no more than similar products in urban areas.

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