If they can bring broadband to Kerry’s Black Valley, anything is possible

30 Oct 2018

Entrance to the Black Valley in Kerry. Image: Illuminada57/Depositphotos

As Ireland’s National Broadband Plan reaches a dangerous impasse, it is time to bring the wireless ISPs back to the table, urges John Kennedy.

Critics of the National Broadband Plan (NBP) would often say it was a pipe dream and joke that you cannot bring broadband to the Black Valley, for example. Because of its remoteness, the Black Valley of Kerry was one of the last places in Ireland to be electrified in 1978, hence the metaphor.

But someone has indeed brought broadband to the Black Valley: a local company called Ivertec. And, if there was ever a time to rethink the NBP and find out how Ivertec did it, that time is now.

Last week, a furious debate sparked up around the NBP apparently costing €3bn – up to six times more than originally envisaged. Proclaimed by a national newspaper headline that cited unnamed political sources, if there was going to be a final nail in the coffin of the NBP, then that was it.

The NBP was never going to be cheap but it had the backing of €500m in investment from the European Investment Bank as well as €270m in Government-sanctioned funding. The plan, to deliver at least 30Mbps to more than 540,000 rural homes and businesses, was often likened to the electrification of rural Ireland.

First unveiled in 2012 by then Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, it suffered countless delays because of a ridiculously complex tender process and the inevitable departure of players such as Eir and Siro from the process.

The latest hijinks, which saw former Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, resign over alleged meetings with the CEO of the final bid led by Granahan McCourt, seemed to be the last straw.

The NBP has enemies and critics but, until the final audit by Taoiseach appointee Peter Smyth is published, we simply don’t know if it has a future.

Without the NBP, incumbent operator Eir might not be on the road to delivering fibre to 330,000 rural premises by next year. Without the NBP, the ambition of players such as Eir, Siro and Virgin to bring broadband to regional towns across Ireland might not reach its current velocity.

Why not the WISPs?

First off, bringing fibre to every single premises in rural Ireland was always going to be ambitious and, as such, the NBP was always going to need a wireless element, at least for the last mile. Secondly, the tendering process for the NBP isolated countless wireless internet service providers (WISPs), which had already been delivering internet infrastructure to rural areas.

There are up to 53 ISPs around Ireland, including dozens of WISPs. But, because of the disparate nature of their technologies, WISPs did not meet the EU’s next-generation access criteria and were ignored by the NBP, often at a cost to their own future in terms of landing investment.

Other factors, such as lack of regulatory clarity around the future use of 3.6GHz spectrum and the onset of 5G, also created financial uncertainty for these operators.

Last week, I received a tip-off that someone has already delivered broadband to the notorious Black Valley via wireless. Local company Ivertec serves the area’s primary school and about 30 houses, including an employee of a household tech brand name that prefers to work remotely.

The linchpin was Ivertec winning a contract from HEAnet four years ago to deliver broadband to the local school as part of the Broadband for Schools programme, which resulted in homes in the local area having a service they could also access.

“Loads of people mention the Black Valley because it was one of the last places to get electricity,” explained Ivertec’s Gerard O’Sullivan. “It is remote, but we serve it with broadband from Killarney through a wireless link. The Black Valley is not as deprived as you would think.”

Ivertec is in the process of rolling out a 100Mbps wireless network across Kerry. “We have the hilltops,” O’Sullivan said. “Valentia Island is our backyard and our new service offering is 100Mbps. The problem is, there is very little spotlight on this because there has been too much focus on fibre-to-the-home (FTTH).”

O’Sullivan agrees that the WISPs have been kept from the table. “There is no organisation that represents the WISPs and that’s why we don’t get recognition. There are a few clever entrepreneurs who have built decent businesses. Our wireless network covers an area made up of 26,000 rural homes, from which thousands have become customers of Ivertec. That demonstrates the potential, but people in Dublin don’t care. I think there should be more support given to the local operators.

“There is a big argument to be made about [whether] roll-out wireless is going to be made obsolete by new technologies. The reality is, wireless technology keeps evolving and can be equally capable as fibre. We have a transmitter in the Black Valley serving 30 houses. If that transmitter is kept up to standard, it could do the job for years as new technologies evolve. The problem is, there is too much of a focus on FTTH.”

Ivertec’s story calls to mind a story we recently published about Inis Meáin Knitting Co on the island of Inis Meáin, between the Aran Islands of Inis Mór and Inis Oírr. A global brand whose goods are stocked alongside premium designer brands on New York’s Fifth Avenue, it needs broadband.

Fed up of waiting for the NBP, the knitwear company was able to receive a 100Mbps wireless connection within six weeks thanks to Dublin-headquartered telecoms company Viatel, which serves fixed-line and broadband products. “We are now in a position to realise our digital ambitions,” said Tarlach de Blácam, co-founder of Inis Meáin Knitting Co.

As debate rages around the viability of the NBP and we await Smyth’s audit, the digital ambitions of thousands of people are being held up. Delivering fibre up every country lane might indeed be a reality one day, but what is needed today is creativity. As both Ivertec and Viatel have shown, there are players who can take the baton passed by fibre and bring the signal further into areas that were deemed impossible to reach.

Think about it: bring the fibre to the point of strategically placed transmitters rather than spending millions going up every boreen. Invite the WISPs back to the negotiating table. Nothing is impossible.

Entrance to the Black Valley in Kerry. Image: Illuminada57/Depositphotos

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Updated, 4.55pm, 30 October 2018: This article was updated to amend a quote from Gerard O’Sullivan to clarify the area covered by the Ivertec wireless network.

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