The Friday Interview, Mark Mohan, NTL

15 Jul 2005

Unlike the US, where cable is king, the use of cable for broadband in Ireland and across Europe is a slow burning fuse rolling inexorably towards a powder keg of explosive growth where one day triple-play services ranging across 10Mbps to 30Mbps download speeds will rule supreme, says NTL Ireland sales and marketing director Mark Mohan (pictured).

As a journalist writing about the ebb and flow of Ireland’s broadband fortunes, the opportunity to write about alternative platforms such as cable-based broadband is always welcome. The fact that ADSL grabs the headlines not only in Ireland but across Europe as the dominant platform of choice for accessing broadband, but this could change argues Mohan.

The rollout of cable broadband in Ireland prior to the bursting of the dotcom bubble was stymied by the sheer expense associated with the technology but Mohan says this was a universal trend. “Countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Portugal and large urban areas in the UK are perhaps the strongest in Europe for this technology. A decade ago, cable operators in the US were being written off in terms of the future, individually and collectively. However, hard investment decisions were made in terms of cable network upgrades and this allowed them to move on considerably with the result that cable is the dominant form of broadband access in the US over DSL.”

NTL Ireland kicked off its broadband investment programme a year ago, and according to Mohan the company is approaching 130,000 broadband-enabled homes, out of which almost 13,000 customers have agreed to sign up for broadband — up 9,000 on the year. “We are pleased with this progress, which effectively gives us 10pc penetration of our available market for broadband.”

In April, the company increased the speeds of its broadband services by more than 100pc. Under the enhancement, services that were previously 300Kbps are now 1Mbps for €25 a month. As well as this services that were 750Kbps will be expanded to 2Mbps for €35 a month and services that were originally 1.5Mbps will be doubled to 3Mbps for €45 per month. “We have the lowest network contention ratio in the marketplace for broadband, with a rate of 17 to one, compared with 40 to one under Eircom’s services,” Mohan says.

Mohan confirms the company is moving to upgrade its network to be capable of carrying digital telephony as well as broadband and digital TV. “The intention is to roll out the full triple-play package and we have placed a priority on this.

“In terms of digital telephony, we are planning to conduct trials in the near future. The product that we are developing sits nicely on top of our broadband infrastructure.”

Mohan explains while 100,000 of the company’s Dublin customer base will be enabled for broadband, it is planning to make its complete customer bases in Galway and Waterford capable of receiving broadband.

In May, European cable giant UGC — which also owns Chorus — emerged as the potential owner of NTL’s Irish operations. Morgan Stanley, operating on UGC’s behalf, acquired NTL Ireland for €325m. UGC has since stated it intends to acquire NTL Ireland from Morgan Stanley for €329m, which includes a €4m administrative charge, pending approval from the Irish Competition Authority.

It is believed the key to UGC’s success as a bidder for NTL Ireland was its capacity to invest a further €200m in NTL’s infrastructure. Sources indicate an upgrade path could lead to developments such as fibre from the street to the home and broadband speeds ranging from 10Mbps up to 30Mbps and beyond, a move that could play havoc with Eircom in urban areas.

While Mohan didn’t discuss the acquisition, he gave an insight into what an upgrade of NTL’s existing infrastructure could involve. “The existing standard for cable in Ireland is DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications) 1.0. We are planning to conduct trials on DOCSIS 2.0 and will deploy it if it passes the trial stage. DOCSIS will enable us to launch the extreme broadband products deployed over cable in the Netherlands and Austria — speeds ranging from 10Mbps up to 30Mbps — that’s the truly phenomenal territory we are heading into. We see a great future in terms of what cable can do for broadband speeds.”

Mohan says in the months ahead, NTL Ireland will be striving to boost its existing digital television offerings by adding extra channels and rolling out PVR technology with hard drives in the range of around 80Gbps plus. “We are in the concluding stages of a tendering process and hope to announce at least two partners. The PVRs will have substantial storage and will include a brand new set-top box for customers who want to avail of digital video recording.”

Despite the potential rise of cable broadband in Ireland, Mohan indicates the company is also eyeing up opportunities in the wireless spectrum over MMDS space. “We call it wireless cable — point-to-multipoint communications with plenty of bandwidth. We have been in talks with the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources about this as a means of commercial spreading broadband but we have received no specific feedback as of yet, so it’s more than likely a longer-term possibility.”

While MMDS remains in the background, Mohan is confident broadband over cable will entice the next generation of broadband customers. “This year we will probably enable 18,000 to 20,000 homes for TV and broadband services in the Dublin area alone and we are expecting to derive considerable business from the 80,000 new homes being constructed in Ireland annually,” Mohan concludes.

By John Kennedy

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