Mobile telephony

The Department of Post and Telegraph made its first tentative plans for mobile telephony in the early 1980s. A number of alternative systems were available. The Department opted for the TACS system which was being developed in the United Kingdom.

Eircell was launched in 1985. There were initially 1000 users with handsets costing up to £2000 rental charges £105 per quarter and calls at 32p per minute. The initial system had a radius of 50 km from Dublin from a base station at Three Rock. It was an analogue system with the 088 number.

There was 12,000 customers by 1990 and prices began to fall. The cheapest phone was £900. By the early 1990s the landline waiting list had finally been eliminated.

The mobile phone replaced earlier telecommunication systems such as the pager system. Telecom Eireann had a joint venture with Motorola established in 1988 callws Eirpage.

Motorola manufactured pagers in Swords Co Dublin. It had a software centre at Blackrock Co Cork established in 1981 employing 500 people which was a worldwide centre for operations and maintenance software to monitor the performance of mobile telecom networks

Telecom Eireann signed a memorandum of understanding committing them to use the GSM system global system for mobile communications with over a dozen other EU European countries. This left the earlier analogue systems ultimately outdated and eclipsed. Analogue systems were vulnerable from a security perspective and could be listened to with an FM receiver. GSM permitted encrypted the transmissions.

The 087 digital system was launched in 1993 . Initial coverage was around the major urban areas. GSM sets were initially larger. In 1995 only 2.5% of Eircell’s 80,000 customers used the 087 analogue system.

In 1994 Telecom Eireann had a six month period in which it could erect masts up to 16 m high without planning permission. Numerous masts were erected. There were controversies in relation to the siting of mobile masts.

By 1996 there were 125,000 subscribers on the 088 analogue network.

1996 to 2000 saw an enormous increase in the mobile market.

The competition for the second mobile licence was launched in 1995. There were six bidders including several international companies and Esat /Telenor. The Esat Digifone phone bid led by Denis O’Brien as the surprise winner of the competition. It was much smaller in scale compared to some of the other bidders including Cellstar majority-owned by a US cable and mobile giant Comcast with stakes held by RTE or Bord na Mona and Ganley communications.

The award of the licence later led to a Tribunal of Inquiry which took some 14 years to report and cost €100 million.

Digifone found it difficult to secure the requisite network of masts. It entered an agreement with the Department of Justice to use radio masts on Garda stations, but  encountered planning difficulties.

Planning regulations were amended to allow exemption for up to 12  mobile telephone antennae on  existing radio masts and the replacement of existing masts without planning permission. EsatDigifone e launched in March 1997 and attracted over 100,000 customers by the end of the year partly due to complaints about Eircell systems.

Eircell launched the “Ready to Go” product with prepayment. This facilitated mobile phones for children and many others who would not wish to face the risk of large bills later invoice. By 2000 there were almost 2.5 million phones in use in Ireland.

A third mobile licence competition was announced in 1998 by the ODTR which had  taken over the Department of Communication’s responsibilities in licensing. Meteor owned by a US-based company with an Irish partner won  over Orange the only other bidder. Orange challenge the award and was successful in the High Court but that decision was overturned in the Supreme Court.

Meteor launched in 2001 with coverage of about 50% of the population. The delay in the court case and the limited coverage impeded its growth.

Full mobile number portability commenced in July 2003. It was possible to move network and keep the number including the prefix. A new centre/database was established.

Eircom sold Eircell to Vodafone for €4.5 billion in 2000. Vodafone was the first UK privately owned mobile telephone company in Europe commencing in the UK in 1985 and having a vast worldwide footprint by 2000. The deal offered 400,000 Eircom shareholders shares in Vodafone for each Eircom share.

The 088 network was closed in 2001 by which time relatively few users remained. It did have certain advantages including a range of sea leading to its use on fishing boats.

British Telecom purchased Esat Telecom for €2.4 billion in 2001 and 2002. Esat Telecom owned its mobile company subsidiary Digifone as well as a fixed line business. British Telecom rebranded networks as O2 and 2006. It was acquired by Telefonica a large scale Spanish provider.

In 2004 Eircom’s restrictive covenant noncompete clause had expired and it re-entered the mobile market purchasing Meteor. By the early 2000s, Ireland’s rate of mobile penetration was one of the highest in the world. This was assisted by the Celtic Tiger phenomenon.

The SMS short message system arrived at the turn-of-the-century and became immensely popular. Eircell launched SMS in 1997 and it was available to prepaid customers of Eircell and Digifone by the end of 1999. Ireland’s use of text messaging became one of the highest in the world.

Mobile virtual network operators provided competition to a greater extent in other countries. They purchased capacity from the incumbent at wholesale rates and sold it to their own customers at a markup. By middle of the first  decade of the 2000’s the main Irish mobile businesses had a combined turnover of nearly €2 billion and profits of €500 million per annum

Mobile Internet initially WAP  wireless application protocol,  had been developed through the 1990s and began to come to the market in the first decade of the century. There were many technical limitations.

The BlackBerry smartphone was introduced in 2002 and became popular in the business community. It initially functioned on a more basic system but was facilitated by the rollout of 3G technology. Licences were sold for use of the bandwith by governments.

Companies bid for the 3G network licences  each for a substantial cash payment to the Exchequer and an obligation to build a 3G network. Vodafone 02 and Meteor developed networks.

Three became the fourth Irish mobile network in 2006. It incurred substantial losses in its early years in seeking to enter the market.

In 2007 Apple launched the first iPhone which utilised older technology. By 2008 a  3G version followed. Google developed an android operating system and by 2010 iPhones and androids competed on the market in Ireland.

The amount of data carried increased enormously with the rollout of smart phones. 3G networks reached capacity. 4G was able to use the rollout of digital by using part of the disused UHF band. 4G licences were offered in 2012 by auction . The four operators bid netting the state €850 million for the licences. 4G networks became operative in 2014.

Tesco Mobile entered a joint venture with Telefonica who owned O2 using O2’s network as the first mobile virtual network operator. An  Post postfone used Vodafone’s network and Lycamobile launched in 2012 used O2’s network. They offered value for money

Telefonica sold O2 Ireland to the owners of Three for €850 million in 2014 and the networks merged leaving three major networks.

Virgin Media enter the market as a mobile virtual network operator in 2014.  The mobile virtual network operators brought competition and prices fail. By the 2020s the prices were substantially less than those paid at any time before.

Formerly roaming charges for use of mobile device abroad were very expensive. Arrangements were made in the early days of mobile allowing use on the island of Ireland without substantial roaming charges crossing the border. The European Union legislated for the restriction of roaming charges which proved popular in 2007.

By the 2020s over 90% of the population were smart phone users as smart phones eclipsed telephones landlines and mobiles.

ComReg auctioned spectrum space for 5G operators in 2017.


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