Ireland should finally get 4G in 2013, after spectrum auction shatters expectations

In a salutary reminder of just how valuable radio waves are these days, Ireland’s mobile networks have shattered expectations for the country’s 4G spectrum auction haul. Having projected a win of €170m ($216m), the actual total turned out to be five times as much: €855m ($1.1bn).

With €481.7m going into the Irish government’s coffers by the end of this year, that’s a pretty timely Christmas present for a country whose economy remains somewhat shaky these days. The winning bidders – Three, Meteor, O2 and Vodafone – will pay out the remaining €373m in spectrum usage fees up until 2030.

And with the ensuing 4G rollout likely to lead to serious improvements in Irish broadband coverage, there should be further economic benefits too.

“I expect that the telecoms companies who were the successful bidders will move quickly to build the infrastructure so that we can start to benefit from 4G mobile broadband services in 2013,” communications minister Pat Rabbitte said. “This will be an important dimension of Ireland’s competitiveness in the coming years.”

So, who bought what?

All the carriers picked up spectrum in the 900MHz and 1800MHz, bands which had previously been used for 2G communications. Meteor, O2 (Telefonica) and Vodafone also acquired spectrum in the 800MHz band, previously used for analogue TV services as in the neighbouring United Kingdom.

Vodafone bought the most spectrum, and will be paying out a total of €280.6m for the privilege.

“We now have the best possible combination of available spectrum and work has already commenced on upgrading our network nationwide,” Vodafone Ireland CEO Jeroen Hoencamp said. “Our customers have access currently to the fastest data network and from next year, they will experience the next generation of mobile technology, 4G.”

Meanwhile over in the UK, it looks like early preparations are underway for the release of even more mobile broadband spectrum, this time in the 700MHz band.

Yes, 700MHz is already used in the U.S. and Asia for LTE services, but it’s yet to be freed up for such purposes in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. UK regulator Ofcom said on Friday that it was starting to plan the switch of digital TV services from the 700MHz band to the 600MHz band.

Given that it will take until 2018 for all the requisite international agreements to fall into place (it helps if everyone frees up 700MHz at more or less the same time, due to the global nature of the handset industry), it seems that this spectrum will be end up being home to 5G services. (And yes, it still feels like a joke to write ‘5G’, but it will be a thing.)

So the auctioneering – and those handy proceeds for Irish and other governments – will continue for some time yet.