The next slide gives a snapshot of where the Irish market is in relation to others and where the Irish market is relative to others over a period of time. If one looks at the graph the Irish line is the top line - the green line with "X" on it. One can see all the other lines are more or less heading in the same direction, with sharp reductions towards the end of the 1990s. The Irish line took a little longer to come down and we believe this was caused by Meteor's late entry into the market among other reasons.
The price trend has been downwards because of technological advances, lower subscriber costs and increased competition. They have resulted in bringing down the cost in all markets. The net result is that although absolute reductions have been significant, Irish retail prices remain among the highest internationally. That is the answer to the first part of the question we were asked.
Moving from specific price comparisons to the importance of the provision of advice to consumers, we have two slides on this. One shows whether consumers are aware of the cost difference in price between an on-net call - a call to the same provider one uses oneself - and an off-net call. In our last survey 46% said they were aware of a difference and 53% said they were not. If one compares that to the question, "do you choose your operator based on the network you are most likely to call", 34% said they did and 62% said they did not. It is important to have this consumer awareness and that goes back to the point made earlier about transparency. I will return to this point when I deal with what ComReg is doing.
Roaming is an issue that needs to be tackled internationally. If we dealt with roaming we might benefit all the tourists coming into the country, and we would be glad to do so, but if roaming is to be solved for all EU citizens as well as Irish citizens it has to be done on a Community-wide basis. It is regarded as a very serious issue by both the European Commission and regulators. The Commission opened a big inquiry on this issue 18 months ago, raiding the offices of a number of companies, and that inquiry is still ongoing. The European Commission has also said this is one of the markets we need to look at in our market analysis and this is one of the issues we will be looking at in the next couple of months.
This is an area in which we have taken a considerable interest to date. We prepared a joint report on consumer awareness of international roaming with Oftel last year and we also have a consumer leaflet on how to reduce costs when using a mobile abroad. We have also co-operated with Oftel on Northern Ireland issues, not just mobile, and I have met Stephen Carter, the incoming chief executive of Ofcom. The committee may know that Oftel is to be merged with this new body, Ofcom, at the beginning of next year. Mr. Carter will be the new chief executive and among the issues we discussed was the mobile market.
We have carried out a great deal of work with the UK authorities to ensure that spill-over from one jurisdiction to the other is as limited as possible, between the North and the South. Obviously, a mobile mast does not know there is a political border anywhere. The types of problems we have are ones that can be replicated in all countries. Much work has been done technologically to try to keep that spill-over to a minimum. Our leaflet advises people to switch the mobile signal manually on the phone - perhaps this cannot be done on some of the older phones but one can switch the mobile on all new phones. Members will be aware of the work the Government is doing on roaming charges generally both with its counterparts in the North and in London.
We have set out some of the problems in the presentation and I would now like to deal with our response. We sought to influence the structure of the market to attract new entrants. Generally the more entrants into a market, the more competition, which means better results for consumers. The first consultation paper the ODTR issued was on the 2G competition which we held in 1997-98. There was a court case that automatically held up the decision made by the regulator; therefore, it was 2001 before Meteor entered the market. However, the knowledge that this should be done was there from the beginning. Second, we are working on seeking to get national roaming established between operators. We hope that can be concluded between the new framework or the old framework. Third, we ran another competition for 3G last year.
In designing that competition, one of the key things was to ensure there would be more competition in the market and to get new entrants to come into the market. The competition has been successful in that there are two of the existing operators and three have just entered the market. The conditions we required under that competition were specially designed to encourage entry. They provided that the licence must provide access for what is known as MVNOs. This would mean that another could use the 3G network to provide service. Obviously, this is much cheaper than having to build a whole network and it should permit more entrants in the market.
We require that existing operators in Ireland provide for national mandatory roaming to 3G. It would enable them to use the other networks for a period, and get themselves up and running much more quickly than would otherwise be possible. We kept the fees to a reasonable level so that the operators would be enabled to move forward quickly. One of the licences provides for 80% plus population coverage, so there will be that kind of spread across the country. We permitted infrastructure sharing from the start. Every operator must do 20% of its own network but after that it can infrastructure share. We believe there are more opportunities for competition coming through in this regard.
Mobile number portability was introduced at the end of July, the same time as the new EU framework. I am pleased to report that just two months on 20,000 subscribers have changed networks. Ireland has a system operating where transfers take place in two hours. This is far better than that which operates in other countries. Initial glitches appear to have been resolved at this point.
On mobile termination rates, that is, the rate at which one operator hands over a call to another operator, ours are among the lowest in western Europe. We have been seeking to get these reductions passed on to users. Licence coverage requirements are included in the licences. We check these all the time as operators roll out.
That is one area where ComReg has been active. The second area relates to the new regulators framework. The Commission defined a standard list of markets to be regulated, which does not include a mobile retail market. The directive states that regulatory controls on retail services should only be imposed where NRAs consider that relevant wholesale or related markets would fail to achieve the objective of ensuring effective competition. As we are currently carrying out this work, I am not in a position to say what our conclusions will be. We are reviewing the Irish situation and if an Irish mobile retail market is to be included, it is subject to a potential European Commission veto. We assume we will be in a position to have a final outcome on the matter early in the new year. The Irish wholesale market, including the mobile markets in all the other countries, is provided for.