RootMetrics report puts mobile operators on the spot

Image: GreenBot

9 August 2016

Niall Kitson portraitLast month mobile communications analyst RootMetrics released its first report in to the Irish market. Looking in detail at the centres of Dublin, Cork and Galway the study gave us an impartial picture of the quality of service users are getting in calls, text and data. What they found provides a window on the level of network investment in the market and probably validates what a lot of consumers have been thinking about the relationship between price, network investment and quality of service. Let’s have a closer look.

RootMetrics rates network operators using 100 tests covering factors like call quality, text delivery and data transfer speeds, back end support, and reliability. Each test score is collated then run through algorithm to generate an overall ‘RootScore’ score out of 100. For this study over 32,000 individual tests were conducted in roughly 80 locations.

Nationally, Vodafone came out on top with a RootScore of 98, followed by eir/Meteor on 95.1 and Three on 93.4. That’s a comfortable win for the team in red and quite a distance between first and third positions. This positioning repeats across they key categories of network reliability, network speed, call performance and data performance.

It was far from a clean sweep, however, when the scores are broken down by territory to the three main urban areas of Dublin, Limerick and Cork. In Limerick eir/Meteor topped all the major categories. In Cork the result was more fractured, with no one operator able to assert itself.

RootMetrics also released an incomplete mobile coverage map of Ireland that’s also worth a look. Contrary to expectations there are still plenty of mobile blackspots across Ireland. As the company continues its work we’ll get a clearer picture but early results show a disturbing lack of service across the country.

When it comes to any discussion of mobile telecommunications in Ireland I always bypass stats on calls and texts and go straight to data. For me, if a network can do data, it can do calls and texts. Data is the nation’s pain point and no gussying up of call and text packages can hide the fact that people can do whatever they want online – network speeds and data caps are where it’s at. The good news is that the arrival of 4G has had a massive impact on the market and in some cases puts Ireland in the same cohort as the US, UK and France.

Capital idea
Focusing on Dublin, the area with the greatest population density, the top median download speed of 28.7Mb/s (by Vodafone), puts the Capital on a par with London (29.8Mb/s by EE) and Paris (29.7Mb/s by Orange), and far ahead of New York (23.7Mb/s on T-Mobile) best performers. What comes out as cause for concern is the difference in performance between networks at home. Where Vodafone excelled, eir/Meteor managed a top median download speed of 21.6Mb/s and Three, the network with the most generous data allowance, managed only 14Mb/s. With all three providers touting their 4G networks why is there such a difference in performance? I’m going to put a historical spin on these results and look at the shape of the market over the past 20 years to come to some explanation.

Vodafone scored the highest marks in Dublin but it also had the longest period of uninterrupted network investment, entering the market in 2001 after acquiring Eircell from Eircom for €4.5 billion. According to figures from Comreg, in the first quarter of 2016 Vodafone commanded a 38.5% market share, making it the largest player in mobile.

Eircom returned to the mobile space in 2005 after buying Meteor for €420 million from Western Wireless. A nice bit of business, to be sure, but at the time Meteor had a meagre 10% market share after seven years in operation and was focused on call and text service. Today it manages an 18.6% market share between the Meteor and eMobile brands.

Three presents the most interesting results based on its position as the second largest operator with a 34.9% market share. This is in part down to the acquisition of O2 Ireland in 2014 for €850 million. Three promotes tariffs with unlimited data, but it also has the worst performing network. You might also remember said network crashed on the same day the O2 deal was announced – an unfortunate coincidence.

Under the terms of the O2 deal, Three had to let two new mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) enter the market on its network. This they did in the form of Virgin Mobile and ID (owned by Dixons Carphone). But wait, Three’s amalgamated network is also used by a number of other MVNOs. Post-merger, Lycamobile, Tesco Mobile, 48 Months, and permaNet all operate on the same infrastructure. Compare this with only An Post’s Postfone on the Vodafone network and none on eir/Meteor that could explain a lot of the performance drop-off.

So what does any of this mean for the consumer? Well, if you’re attracted by an MVNO it’s important to know what the host provider is offering to its own customers and how good it is at delivering on that service. Three is catering for six(!) other brands at the moment, each with their own selling points. Vodafone and eir/Meteor are holding their own without having as many passengers. The downside is that not all call packages are made equal and higher downloads speeds don’t come cheap. Unlimited data? Sure, but at what speed?

If I was taking a buying decision today I’m not sure RootMetrics first report would give me much pause. Let’s see how the rest of the country fares.

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