2016 stands to be one of the most pivotal years in Irish telecoms history, with a far-reaching plan to connect over 750,000 postal addresses and 1.8m people to high-speed broadband. The stakes are high in terms of social and economic inclusion, writes John Kennedy.
There is a stretch of road in Meath where, on one side of the road, there is a Teagasc research centre and, next door, a massive EU agricultural research centre, both no doubt served directly with high-speed internet connectivity for their communities of vets, scientists and PhD researchers.
On the other side of the very same road – one of the busiest roads in the country, on which commuters from Meath, Westmeath and Longford trek daily to Dublin – are farmers, school teachers, and small business owners and other sole traders , but mostly families. They are not served with a broadband connection of any merit. At least, nothing that can meet today’s definition of broadband.
‘What will be the cost to the State of not doing this?’
– DEPT OF COMMS OFFICIAL
They are, in fact, a small percentage of the over 750,000 postal addresses – including over 600,000 homes and 100,000 businesses, and some 1.8m people – whose location has deemed them not commercially viable for the multi-billion euro telecoms sector in Ireland.
And hence the need for the intervention by the Irish Government to fix this anomaly we have come to call the digital divide.
The great divide
The issue is personal for me because my sister and her three daughters have been left on the side of that road in Meath, as far as the broadband ambitions of telecoms providers are concerned.
They are taunted daily by the local Bus Eireann coach that prompts a fleeting ‘Wi-Fi networks available’ on their laptops for about a second before whizzing by. You could argue that the bus is faster than their so-called satellite broadband service.
In 2011, I wrote about how I feared failure to connect with broadband would affect my nieces’ education opportunities and also economic opportunities for my sister and her neighbours. Well, it is 2016 now and they still can’t receive broadband, except for satellite services that I consider expensive rubbish. And I’m being polite. They go to their grandparents’ home in a nearby town to catch up with the world.
So it is personal as far as I’m concerned, and no amount of PR or marketing flimflam by telcos, lobbyists or civil servants will convince me we don’t have a serious problem.
I will be watching the National Broadband Plan’s rollout very closely. The social and economic prize is too great to ignore.
No one gets left behind
The digital divide is a pretty term for editors to employ, but it is a dangerous reality in a world where broadband is an economic force multiplier.
Think about it for a moment. You can’t realistically start-up a business today without broadband. You can’t apply for jobs without broadband, and employers like Apple and Amazon in Ireland will not employ people unless they have high-quality broadband in their homes. You can’t do Skype calls to relatives overseas or potential employers without broadband, and you can just forget about e-commerce. If you are a student, it is invaluable in terms of research and submitting papers. And services by providers ranging from banks to TV companies are increasingly pushing their services through the internet.
To be on the wrong side of the digital divide means missing out on economic and social opportunities. As such, countries like Finland have enshrined internet connectivity as a human right.
The National Broadband Plan – costed at between €200m and €500m – began a formal procurement process just before Christmas.
The largest broadband intervention by an Irish Government to date, all eyes are on Ireland to see how this turns out. So far, €275m of State aid has been approved by the Government, and the plan covers 96pc of Ireland’s national land mass, 100,000km of roads, over 1.8m citizens and 750,000 postal addresses.
The plan will go ahead regardless of the outcome of the national elections early this year.
The aim is to deliver a guaranteed minimum of 30Mbps download and 6Mbps upload speeds, with a guaranteed five nines (99.999pc) uptime.
Speaking to officials at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, it seems that a lot of painstaking work has gone into ensuring that whoever wins the tender (it could be one or possibly two providers) delivers for the State.
By 2018, 85pc of the homes and businesses targeted in the plan will be connected, with the last premises to be connected by 2020.
But not only are 1.8m people missing out, but currently and more broadly across the country there is a job of work to be done to ensure that elderly or unemployed people aren’t also cast adrift by digital transformation sweeping services from banks to healthcare.
Ownership of the network – which will no doubt turn out to be a valuable asset – after 25 years has yet to be decided; will it go back into the hands of the State or will the firm(s) that built it retain ownership?
Either way, it is a defining moment. Asked if the cost is too high, a department spokesman said truthfully: “What will be the cost to the State of not doing this?”
The state of the broadband nation
If you consider just how digital technologies have pervaded the Irish household, think back on this Christmas – the drones, the games consoles, the smartphones, the iPods, as well as the box set binge-fest on Netflix – and ask yourself, would your home have made it peacefully through the Christmas without broadband?
A survey of 1,000 Irish consumers commissioned by Pure Telecom found that we, collectively, spent €852m on Christmas gifts online this year, while 50pc of people think Christmas Day would have been a disaster without internet.
The latest Information Society statistics from the Central Statistics Office estimate that 85pc of households have access to the internet, up 3pc on 2014.
Figures from ComReg for the third quarter of 2015 found that approximately 54.2pc of all fixed broadband subscriptions were equal to or greater than 30Mbps, which is close enough to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) stipulation earlier this year that anything below 25Mbps can no longer be defined as broadband.
In the 15 years since DSL was first introduced in Ireland, we have certainly come a long way.
And that’s why we can’t leave 1.8m people on the wrong side of the digital divide. Not now, not when we are so close.
In those areas where broadband is readily available, things have never been so good.
Incumbent telecoms company Eir (formerly Eircom) has so far connected more than 1.35m homes and businesses to high-speed broadband of up to 100Mbps, and is ratcheting this up to 1.9m premises by 2020. This includes 1Gbps fibre for 56 towns and, so far, 30,000 premises are capable of getting 1Gbps speeds.
Before Christmas a spokesperson for Eir confirmed it will be pressing ahead with its own plan to add 300,000 premises to fibre.
Rather than replicating the State’s plans, he pointed out that the National Broadband Strategy contains a mechanism for recognising where the intervention area can be reduced through private investment.
“The intervention areas will require a minimum of 30Mbps, but we think we can go past that,” the Eir spokesman said.
The cable broadband operator Virgin Media (formerly known as UPC) has over 375,900 broadband subscribers capable of receiving between 150Mbps and 500Mbps. Some 700,000 homes are passed by its network and are capable of receiving speeds of up to 200Mbps. Speaking at a lunch shortly before Christmas, the new CEO of Virgin Media in Ireland, Tony Hanway, said that a major investment plan worth hundreds of millions of euros is on the cards to improve and expand the Virgin Media network in Ireland in the years ahead.
Another pivotal development that could improve the fortunes of the broadband nation are the efforts of SIRO, a joint-venture between ESB and Vodafone. In 2014, the European Commission gave SIRO the go-ahead to build a €450m, 100pc-fibre network in Ireland.
This network will cover 50 towns with 1Gbps broadband services and, last July, Dundalk became the first town on the SIRO network to be 100pc covered with 1Gbps fibre.
The last real piece in the puzzle will be the National Broadband Plan.
It will be an undreamed of opportunity to kickstart the economic and social fabric of Irish life, and secure it for much of the 21st century.
So come on. There are 1.8m people watching. And they are sick and tired of waiting.
Rural broadband image via Shutterstock