ComReg broadband figures tell a lamentable tale of two Irelands

9 Dec 2016

On paper, 83pc broadband penetration looks good. The reality is not so good. Image: James Kennedy/Shutterstock

There has been a 42pc surge in the number of VDSL connections in Ireland and for the first time, VDSL has the largest share of broadband lines. But don’t be fooled – the digital divide is as wide as it ever was.

ComReg’s quarterly reports always make for interesting reading, that is, if you can get past the stunted and awkward legalese and technical jargon.

The report for the third quarter of 2016 shows a vast improvement in the quality of broadband services consumers – that those who can get it – are opting for.

‘Just calling something broadband does not make it broadband’

But don’t break out the party whistles or champagne just yet.

Fixed broadband subscriptions increased to 1.34m, up 3.6pc on the year, and Ireland’s fixed and mobile broadband penetration rate at the end of Q3 is 83pc, higher than the EU average of 80pc.

This is where the party balloons need to be burst because this is not a real depiction of broadband penetration; it lumps in all kinds of services that call themselves broadband with actual broadband services.

Don’t be fooled. Broadband as defined by the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as anything above 25Mbps.

Just calling something broadband does not make it broadband.

The ComReg figures show that 76.5pc of all fixed broadband subscriptions were equal to or greater than 10Mbps, up from 71.9pc.

Yay … oh, wait, that’s not really true broadband as defined by the FCC.

OK, here’s where there is some potential: 62.5pc of all fixed broadband subscriptions were equal or greater than 30Mbps, up from 54.2pc last year.

So what that means is two-thirds of fixed internet connections in Ireland can be defined as real broadband, while the rest can be called faux broadband, or fraudband, if you wish.

If it is not greater than 25Mbps, it is not broadband. Do you get it?

So, the 83pc statistic is a total misnomer. It looks good on paper, but it is not a real depiction of what quality broadband is.

This is still a lamentable tale of two Irelands.

For a sense of perspective, there are 900,000 premises, or 1.8m people in Ireland – about a third of the country’s population – who are waiting to be addressed by the National Broadband Plan, an intervention plan to ensure that those on the wrong side of the digital divide get connected.

This plan aims to provide homes that do not get broadband with a minimum of 30Mbps down and 10Mbps up.

It is due to kick off in June 2017 but contradictory language from the department of Comms Minister Denis Naughten, TD, suggests it may or may not happen until later in 2017, meaning it could be 2022 before the final homes in Ireland are brought into the 21st century.

The emphasis from here on in should be on quality of connection. Not lumped-in statistics about fixed, wireless or mobile but the actual quality of the connection.

There is a silver lining in the broadband car crash that has been Ireland for the past decade and a half: next-generation technologies are finally making inroads and quality, for those who can get broadband, is improving.

VDSL, or very high bit rate DSL, is a technology that provides speeds potentially up to 100Mbps due to fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) infrastructure and copper over the last mile.

Year-on-year, VDSL penetration was up 48.2pc, while traditional DSL was down 15.1pc.

Cable broadband was down 2.1pc and fixed wireless access was down 4.2pc.

The next dimension will be real fibre directly to the home.

Siro and Eir are battling to move to the next phase which will be fibre to the home (FTTH). It is still early days on this front.

Some 100,000 of homes in rural broadband-deprived areas targeted by Eir will be capable of receiving 1Gbps FTTH broadband by March next year.

In all, Eir wants to connect 1.9m homes to next-generation broadband by 2018 – 300,000 of them with 1Gbps. Meanwhile, Siro, a joint venture between Vodafone and ESB, aims to connect 1m homes with gigabit speeds.

The VDSL figures in the ComReg report starkly contrast a tale of two Irelands – an Ireland very much in the digital 21st century and an Ireland gazing hungrily at what real broadband looks like but still cannot get it.

Don’t be fooled by statistics that mix mobile and fixed broadband together.

If you are not getting any internet speed in excess of 25Mbps consistently and without interruption, then you are not getting broadband.

It’s fraudband and you are still on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The ball is now in Minister Naughten’s court to ensure the National Broadband Plan begins on time.

Who knows, maybe by 2020 more than two-thirds of the country’s population will be receiving what the FCC defines as proper broadband.

Unless, that is, they decide to revise that figure upwards. Because that is what progressive nations do.

And still, I have relatives asking me when will they ever get broadband …

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