Closing the loop

19 Sep 2007

As Ireland moves closer to an open market for broadband the debate is already shifting to next-generation network (NGN) services enabled by fibre to the kerb and to the home

Ireland is nearing the target of 700,000 broadband users and already the debate is on whether the average 1MB to 2MB of broadband available in 90pc of the country is enough. And will next-generation services like fibre to the home only be in urban areas?

There are two developments that may prove central to answering this question.

The Government’s National Broadband Strategy is to close off the last 10pc of the nation with affordable broadband and is about to launch with four consortia shortlisted for the project.

It is also expected that Eircom will soon enable open platform competition by separating its wholesale and retail business.

The first step in this direction — an intra-operator migration facility which will allow other operators to transfer customers from a bitstream product that piggybacks on Eircom’s services to a local loop unbundled (LLU) product — got off to a shaky start.

When Eircom this week prepared to release a wholesale bitstream product that industry rivals fear will be more attractive than LLU, telecoms regulator ComReg stepped in to direct Eircom not to launch the product.

Eircom chief executive Rex Comb hints that an open market for broadband is still possible.

“I’ve said this to ComReg; the network and the wholesale business must be run as an equivalent business that will service our own business as well as the needs of other operators. I’m very focused on driving service level agreements (SLAs) with other operators but also on having a retail service equivalent.”

He agrees moving beyond entry-level broadband is vital and the company is investing €60m in its core network as well as trialling both fibre to the kerb through VDSL technology and fibre to the home.

“We are going to move in the direction of fibre to the kerb but we are also examining fibre to the home services.

“If you think of what’s happening in the world of content, deployment of triple play services and new developments like high-definition TV, higher data speeds are critical,” Comb says.

Comb and other senior Irish telecoms executives will be speaking at the annual TIF conference in Dublin’s Mansion House on 16 October next.

Tommy McCabe, director of TIF, says in the past two years the pace of telecoms in Ireland has picked up and moving beyond entry level is important. “Competition has kicked in and most businesses and homes have a choice of broadband providers.

“The industry has been calling for LLU competition for some time now and suddenly it’s looking like that’s going to be available now. But the context is changing because now Eircom is going to be rolling out fibre so a leap-frog process is happening. In the short-term this will have limited impact but in the longer term speeds will be available to such an extent that some service will be available only via fibre.”

One concern is that Eircom may only make next-generation fibre services available in urban areas like Dublin and this may lead to an urban-rural digital divide.

“With the introduction of NGNs we need to agree to an industry-wide consensus,” says Gerry Fahy, chairman of TIF and also head of strategy at Vodafone.

“The challenge is to get the balance right. It may mean compromise in some quarters but it means a bigger share of the pie at the end of the day for everyone,” Fahy says.

One man who has considerable experience of the Irish telecoms market is Dutch operator KPN’s vice-president John Quist, who held senior roles at Eircom between 2001 and 2006. “One of the cornerstones of KPN’s plans is that in our network rebuilding we will make it a fully open network,” says Quist. “This means that it will be open to all service providers. All operators can use the NGN in the same way as our own service provider KPN Retail.”

Quist says that worked in the Netherlands was a combination of intensive discussions with the regulator.

“The regulator’s position in Holland was positive and it was engaging with the other operators. My view is that this is the only way, not only for KPN, to come to a win-win situation with NGNs.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured are Rex Comb, left, and Mike Moloney who will both be speaking at the annual TIF conference on 16 October.