A proposed auction of mobile facilities next month could result in a massive decline in coverage in rural areas.
An expert engineer from one of the big mobile providers, Ericsson, has warned that the failure by ComReg to push for a universal service obligation (USO) — which would require mobile phone operators to provide coverage for the whole country — will result in an inevitable decline in coverage for rural customers.
“The USO option, unless implemented quickly, fails to deal with the threat of coverage ‘erosion’ that Ericsson has highlighted and if such a trend takes hold, ComReg will be pretty powerless to do anything about it given that the licenses will have been issued with the low coverage obligations,” the engineer’s submission said.
As it stands, the new licences to be issued by ComReg will only require mobile phone operators such as Vodafone, O2, Meteor, and 3 to provide a service to 70% of the population.
Broken down into geographical coverage, it could represent just 10% of Ireland’s land area — the heavily populated East coast.
However, ComReg is hoping competition for users will drive the operators to maintain their networks in rural areas.
Successive communications ministers accepted 100% coverage was impossible. Vodafone’s original licence required 85% coverage, O2 about 80%, and Meteor 53%.
A spokesperson for the regulator said: “ComReg considered that actual coverage levels are expected to exceed this 70% population obligation, given the competitive nature of the market and the limited risk of roll-back of coverage from the existing levels.”
However, within ComReg’s own consultation documents, the commission admitted that if it doesn’t force mobile phone operators to provide rural coverage, consumers will suffer.
“The end result could be that the overall level of coverage provided by the market could be much reduced from current levels. This would potentially be very damaging for consumers who would no longer have the ubiquity of mobile coverage in rural areas that they are accustomed to,” ComReg said in a consultation document.
A spokesperson for lobby group Ireland Offline said: “Investment decisions will be made in the UK (Vodafone) and Spain (O2) on the basis of coverage requirements set out by Comreg.
“If the operators are not required to cover rural areas this will lead to the inevitable decline in rural coverage as the operators will see no regulatory requirement to invest in rural areas and may abandon lesser- served areas.”