By Luke Kehoe
Distinguished for its rolling hills and ribbon settlements, Ireland has long posed a challenging environment for telecom operators to build out wireless networks. The trifecta of mountainous topography, low population density, and the island’s isolated position on the periphery of Europe have historically weighed on the commercial viability of network rollouts.
As operators seek to enhance capacity with 5G deployment, their network strategy is evolving to incorporate greater use of spectrum in higher frequency bands. However, the unique propagation limitations of this spectrum have compounded the inherent rollout challenges in the Irish market and contributed to a large number of so-called coverage ‘blackspots’ in rural communities.
Indeed, it has long been a strategic aim of the Irish government to reduce the digital divide in the country and to plug holes in wireless coverage through a combination of regulatory intervention and state-backed investment in wireless infrastructure. It is recognized that the provision of high-speed mobile connectivity can act as a catalyst for economic growth and balanced regional development.
Central to the country’s goals to improve access to wireless coverage is the deployment of more infrastructure in more places. Mobile operators and fixed wireless access providers are engaged in a period of intense capital investment that is seeing hundreds of new radio sites deployed in rural communities.
The breadth and depth of these wireless rollouts are on a scale not seen in Ireland before. They have necessitated a step-change in the deployment process, with new site designs required to minimize visual pollution and accelerate zoning approval, as well as an entirely new approach to proactively engage with local communities early and bring them onboard before, during, and after new equipment is installed.
Framing the Challenge: Difficult demographics, profound fragmentation & stringent planning legislation
With one of the most widely distributed and rural populations in Europe, where almost 40% of people live in rural areas, and just 3% of the population lives across 28% of the total land area, Ireland’s demographic characteristics have never been conducive to telecoms investment beyond its urban cores.
This unfortunate reality is laid bare by the quality of telecoms infrastructure deployed in the country over the last decade. Despite being home to some of the world’s largest technology and pharmaceutical companies, Ireland has long been a laggard in providing high-speed fixed broadband and mobile connectivity relative to its European peers.
The pace of the country’s 4G deployment cycle, kickstarted in the wake of a landmark spectrum auction in 2012, was negatively impacted by high reserve prices for licenses and significant fragmentation in the wider telecoms market.
The convergence of these factors led to a considerable disparity in the volume of network investment committed by individual operators in the market. It resulted in comparatively poor levels of 4G availability across low and high-band spectrum deployments in the country.
Unlike other European markets, Ireland’s operators enjoyed limited success with network sharing agreements over the last decade, which further contributed to high rollout costs.
Two of the most notable sharing agreements, NetShare and Mosaic, were plagued by internal misalignment of network priorities among operators and the sudden and profound change in market dynamics caused by the consolidation of two major operators in 2014. Both agreements have since ceased, and neither has been replaced.
On the back of these unfavorable conditions in the market, the country’s telecoms regulator, ComReg, commissioned a report to examine the commercial challenges related to expanding coverage availability.
It determined that the capital investment needed to expand 4G coverage rose exponentially at high levels of population availability in Ireland and calculated that providing mobile service capable of 30Mbps to 99.5% of the population would necessitate the construction of at least 1,466 new sites as part of a €511 million investment over ten years.
On the ground, despite the very real digital divide that existed in rural communities, proposals to develop telecoms infrastructure and improve coverage levels were not always welcomed.
The specter of a large lattice or monopole site, the types that have been traditionally employed to achieve a wide coverage area in rural environments, overshadowing an area of perceived natural beauty pitted communities against telecoms operators due to a lack of engagement between stakeholders before, during and after the deployment process.
The stringent nature of planning legislation exacerbated these rollout barriers for telecoms infrastructure in Ireland, which was not proactively updated to reflect changes in site design aimed at enhancing concealment and reducing visual pollution.
It often meant little incentive to invest in expensive solutions to conceal antennae and associated equipment. The sheer stringency of the planning process added considerable time and, therefore, the cost of network rollouts and contributed to market failure in rural areas.
Framing the Solution: National strategy, collaboration & technological breakthroughs
Recognizing the immense scale of the digital divide in Ireland and the economic perils of continued inaction, recent Irish governments have considered telecoms infrastructure a key strategic asset and a central plank in their wider policy to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) and promote balanced regional development.
As part of this strategy, a major cross-government initiative, the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce, was launched in 2017 to improve practical cooperation between government agencies and industry. The task force sought to identify immediate solutions to address deficits in wireless coverage and executed a program of actions agreed upon by stakeholders.
The establishment of the task force heralded a profound shift in Ireland’s breadth of collaboration between academia, government, and industry. It contributed to several vital outputs that have materially reduced the barriers to telecom rollouts in the country.
These included reducing the cost and streamlining the planning process for the deployment of telecoms infrastructure, installing ducting on motorways and primary roads to support fiber deployment for backhaul networks, and fostering better information sharing between stakeholders to identify coverage blackspots in rural communities and map them through the publication of an open-access coverage checker tool.
While the task force concluded in 2019 and has been re-convened on a bi-annual basis since last year, the collaborative theme of its work has permeated other parts of the industry in recent years. Local authorities such as Laois County Council and Dublin City Council have worked with the industry to deliver custom-made new solutions to improve coverage availability and network capacity while minimizing urban clutter.
One of the country’s largest telecoms infrastructure providers, Cellnex, has been a front-runner in pursuing these innovative solutions and cross-stakeholder collaboration. It recently developed and launched a new community-driven initiative, ‘Get Connected’, to proactively gather support for telecoms installations as part of community call-in locations where coverage blackspots exist.
The initiative represents a radical change in how telecom operators engage with communities, ensuring they work hand-in-hand to ensure priorities are aligned. It has already seen notable success in locations such as Ballyfin, Castletown, and Vickarstown in County Laois.
Alpha Wireless has been proud to partner with Cellnex as part of its ‘Get Connected’ initiative and to support efforts to reduce the digital divide in Ireland by deploying new site solutions such as the Streetworks form factor. Alpha Wireless’ AW3871 and AW3836 multi-band, tri-sector canister antennas have been at the heart of the Streetworks solutions deployed by Cellnex.
Thanks to a discrete, compact design that is easy to conceal and rapid to deploy, Streetworks solutions now form a vital part of every operator’s network densification strategy in Ireland. The slimline form factor lends itself to a simplified planning process unique to Streetworks structures, reducing zoning approval timescales from months to weeks.
Cellnex has recently deployed a significant array of Streetworks sites to provide in-fill coverage in rural areas, where traditional site designs were not permissible, and in-fill capacity in urban areas, where the space for new rooftop or larger ground-based lattice installations has mainly been exhausted.
Framing the Outlook: Collaboration triumphs over historical challenges with Irish solutions to Irish problems
Ireland’s unique topographic and demographic features complicate telecoms deployments, adding significant cost to efforts to improve coverage availability in underserved rural communities. A history of stringent planning regulations, profound market fragmentation, and high reserve prices for spectrum licenses have contributed to a wide digital divide characterized by widespread coverage of blackspots in rural communities.
Academia, government, and industry have been making progress in surmounting these challenges with the aid of new solutions founded on deeper collaboration. Cellnex’s breakthrough ‘Get Connected’ initiative and Alpha Wireless’ discrete, tri-sector canister antenna for Streetworks form factors are part of the Irish solution to a uniquely Irish problem.
Watch our latest Chamber Chat video with Alpha Wireless and Cellnex