20-20 vision – Ireland is still only at the start of its fibre journey

17 May 2013

Ireland’s fibre journey is not a fait accompli and if anything time is of the essence if the Government is to reach its goal of having a minimum of 30Mbps for every home by 2015, says IrelandOffline, an organisation that was established 10 years ago to wake the nation up to the strategic relevance of high-speed internet access.

If you think back to 2003 there was a national disconnect when it came to the relevance of broadband, then a nascent enough technology before the advent of Facebook and YouTube and smartphone devices which have gone on to take over our lives.

Lack of understanding led to lack of imagination or inspiration. Hence no vision. The joke at the time was that politicians thought broadband was a 1970s showband and even esteemed telecoms regulators opined that the average citizen would never require more than 1Mbps or 2Mbps.

Zoom forward to now and the harsh reality is that if you don’t have an internet connection you won’t be able to apply for a job in today’s economy, pay your motor tax online or make video calls to your farthest yet dearest via Skype to Australia. Companies like Apple and Amazon won’t employ Irish people to work from home in today’s economy unless than have at least 10Mbps connectivity and Irish firms’ ability to export depends on being able to transact and communicate at an equivalent level to their counterparts in Asia and the US.

Dithering and delay tactics during the boom years meant that little or no investment in fibre occurred when the nation had the cash (very few schools were built either) and the investment instead had to be made during straitened times.

Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said as much during a visit to Ireland, and was scathing about the broadband mess Ireland found itself in. Schmidt said at the time: “You are behind on fibre to the home and you guys are late with respect to 4G rollout. France, Germany and the UK are already ahead of Ireland with respect to citizens and businesses connected to the internet. You just need to do it.

“There are many things that the Government can do, but the thing is it is hard to work with telecoms providers to get more broadband. But these are the roads of the future. There are very few things that are better use of your money that serves the citizens of your country.”

The consensus view of organisations such as the World Bank and the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) – two of the world’s most reputable economically-focused intergovernmental bodies – is that faster broadband and specifically fibre optic networks are a very good thing for any economy.

One recent World Bank study of 120 countries found that for “every 10-percentage-point increase in penetrations of broadband services, there is an increase in economic growth of 1.3 percentage points.” Other research by McKinsey & Company similarly concluded a 10 per cent increase in broadband household penetration produces a rise of 0.1 to 1.4 per cent in GDP growth.

Booz & Company meanwhile suggested countries that have higher broadband penetration rates have achieved up to two per cent higher GDP growth than those with lower penetration rates.

A new dawn

Eircom is past the first hurdle on its €1.5bn plan to connect 1.2m homes to fibre by the end of 2014 with 300,000 or so homes now capable of being served with speeds of up to 70Mbps. Cable broadband provider UPC recently passed the 1m customer milestone and can serve 41pc of homes in Ireland with speeds of up to 150Mbps.

In the ensuing months 4G mobile broadband speeds will arrive enable computer and smartphone users to achieve wireless speeds theoretically up to 70Mbps in 70pc of populated areas across the land.

So things are finally looking good, right? Not necessarily.

Ireland Offline chairman Eamon Wallace argues that it would be dangerous to think that this progress can mean we can rest on our laurels. He also believes we need to avoid making the mistakes of the past in relying too heavily on wireless 3G connectivity to join the dots.

Wallace says Ireland should look at the example of Finland which declared internet access to be a legal right, enforcing telecoms operators to actually provide services rather than use “best effort” regulations to allow digital divides to emerge.

“Now that the excitement of the ‘eFibre’ launch is over we can see the launch of fast broadband has demonstrated the latent demand for decent broadband across the State. VDSL is delivered via fibre to the cabinet and finally copper to the user. VDSL is merely an interim step to what should be our ultimate goal: fibre to the home.

“The launch mostly touches on urban and semi-urban areas. Do we abandon rural users to their fate of being ‘not economically viable?’ If we were to undertake the electricity rollout of the last century would that have been abandoned partway through as ‘not economically viable?’

“We should learn from the lessons learnt in our countries most notably Finland and Estonia.”

One of the key issues is that Ireland will have to rely on European structural funds to deliver next generation infrastructure where telecoms operators fear to thread – aka where there is no business case for them to do so.

But the problem is the European Union’s decision in February to chop €7bn off the €9.2bn earmarked to meet the Digital Agenda goals of 100Mbps for half of Europe could impact on countries’ ability to deliver on these targets in rural areas. European broadband projects had been counting on the €9.2bn digital part of the Connecting Europe Facility.

Wallace argues that Ireland’s policymakers should be making use of the fact that currently experts employed by Eircom and other operators who are in the country right now to help implement the current fibre rollouts should be consulted to evaluate how the last 400,000 homes can be reached by fibre in a cost-effective, but technologically future-proofed way.

“The National Broadband Plan (NBS) should be to deliver fibre to X km of every citizen (X = 10km/20km) and fixed wireless or other (better) technologies for the last kilometres if we are to approach the Digital Agenda for Europe obligations,” Wallace said.

He said that it is being increasingly whispered that the balance of the population can be served, in data terms, via 3G/4G LTE, that is, by an ‘over the air’ mobile wireless technology.

“Mobile is simply not suitable(for a number of technical reasons) to deliver the stated objective of a guaranteed 30Mbps to every citizen. Most of the country is too densely populated ( even in rural areas) for 4G to deliver reliable data communications. There is a built-in decrease in throughput as simultaneous connections multiply.

“The NBS ‘experiment’ shows that it’s impossible to guarantee even 3Mbps, or even a reliable data connection, on mobile. The only areas suitable for 4G are probably remote valleys, National Parks and small islands offshore where the population density is low. Even then topography may limit the effectiveness.

However Fixed Wireless can deliver a minimum 10Mbps and much more cheaply than 3G/4G and 30Mbps more expensively and that only with a 60GB to 120GB data cap to customers that are out of reach of fibre,” he said.

It has been argued in the past that if Europe failed to invest in fibre it faces the danger of becoming an economic back water. Ireland worked very hard to shed that particular tag over the years.

Luckily, in Ireland’s case, lack of vision and understanding has been replaced by a genuine effort to provide the country with the infrastructure it needs to be an economic force. And the achievement yesterday by Eircom in getting this far has to be given its fair dues.

But Wallace is absolutely right. We can’t enable some communities and leave others behind. The time for experimentation is over and we have to work with what we know will work.

The digital age is an age of promise and every household and business no matter where they are located deserves to be able to participate. And it calls to mind the economic philosophy of Sean Lemass: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Road ahead image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years