By Harry Keaney
Mobile phones are now so common in Ireland that visitors from an alien planet could be forgiven for thinking Irish people were born with the devices attached. And, it seems, the Irish will not be short of providers offering them the most up-to-the-minute gadgets to satisfy their insatiable demand.
Two companies, Eircell and Esat Digifone, are now daily signing up hundreds of new customers. Last week, a third player, the Irish-American consortium Meteor Communications, was given the green light by Ireland’s Supreme Court to join the fray.
Two years ago, Ireland’s director of telecommunications regulation, Etain Doyle, announced that she was granting Ireland’s third mobile phone license to Meteor, which comprises U.S. mobile phone company Western Wireless Corporation, the Irish company RF Communications, and Seattle-based consultant the Walter Group.
Doyle’s decision, however, was challenged by an unsuccessful competitor, a British company called Orange.
Last year, in the High Court, in Dublin, Doyle’s awarding of the license to Meteor was quashed following a 51-day hearing. The matter was then sent back to Doyle for reconsideration. The High Court found that Doyle’s decision was "objectively biased and unreasonable."
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Both Doyle and Meteor then appealed the High Court decision to the Supreme Court. Orange also appealed aspects of the High Court judgment.
At the end of Supreme Court appeal, which lasted 17 days, Chief Justice Ronan Keane said there was "not a scintilla of evidence" that Doyle or any member of her staff, or any of the consultants hired by her to evaluate the bids of Meteor and Orange, had any interest whatsoever in the outcome of the tender procedure.
The chief justice said that, in particular, Orange’s claim that there was "crude and xenophobic" prejudice toward Orange because it was a UK company "strains credulity to breaking point" and was "wholly unjustified."
"It seems to me the fact that a particular bidder was better acquainted with the circumstances of the Irish market and had sought to tailor the bid somewhat more closely to Irish conditions than the other bidder was a factor that the director was perfectly entitled to take into account," he said.
He added that the most serious allegation made by Orange was that the marks awarded had been deliberately manipulated to ensure that Meteor was awarded the license. "I have no doubt the charge was wholly unwarranted and unsupported in any way by the evidence," the chief justice said.
The court’s four other judges agreed with Keane in finding that the High Court decision be overturned.
The Irish market
After the Supreme Court decision, issued last Thursday morning, a Meteor spokesman said his company was delighted that it could now proceed with plans to bring a new mobile phone service to the Irish market, possibly by early next year.
Indeed, in a speech launching her annual report last month, Doyle said the next generation of mobile phone licenses, which will make way for high-speed data and internet services, will be offered by next February. She said more than one license would be on offer to providers of this "new generation" technology but the total number was still undetermined.
Doyle said the competition to obtain one of these licenses would begin sometime later this year.
The huge increase in mobile phone usage in Ireland has not been without its critics, particularly local groups concerned about the erection of telecommunication masts in their areas. Commenting on this, Doyle said people in small towns may consider mobile phone masts an eyesore but if people in these areas are to do business and receive services, they are necessary.
Meteor has obtained planning permission for 240 masts and will, according to news reports, invest £200 million in the roll-out of its network. When it initially won the license, Meteor predicted it would sign up 70,000 subscribers within a year, invest more than £200 million and employ 600 people.
Whatever about local objections to telecommunications masts, mobile phone users are likely to be the winners following Meteor’s entry into the marketplace against the current duopoly of Eircell and Esat Digifone. Eircell is owned by Éircom, the former state-owned telecommunications company known as Telecom Éireann. Esat Digifone is 49.5 percent owned by Esat Telecom.
Meteor said it will compete on price. Meteor director Sean Finlay said: "We will offer lower tariffs and superior service to the incumbents."
Only a few years ago, mobile phones were a novelty in Ireland. But now, the time is fast approaching when handsets, ever more sleeker and smaller in size, will be used for an array of e-commerce applications, from checking bank accounts and paying bills to even surfing the internet.
What’s known as WAP technology, an acronym for wireless application protocol, is now on the Emerald Isle’s horizon.