BT’s 21st-century network rollout to deliver Ethernet speeds across Ireland

3 Dec 2009

BT has deployed 150 new Etherflow nodes in areas currently under-served with broadband.

In what might be considered a strange quirk of fate, rural areas of Ireland previously under-served with broadband because they weren’t considered economically viable enough could emerge at the coalface of Ethernet-like speeds that only big corporate firms would have once been able to afford.

150 Etherflow nodes

All of this is being made possible by the rollout of some 150 Etherflow nodes by BT to serve mobile operators in rural and urban areas and provide speeds of up to 1Gbps to local businesses and home owners.

According to Shay Walsh, head of wholesale services at BT Ireland, the investment represents one of the first examples of BT’s 21st century network deployment in Ireland and can be considered a response to “bandwidth hunger” – the scale of the appetite that mobile operators are experiencing – in trying to cope with growing demand for video and voice over internet services.

In just 18 months, BT has deployed 150 Etherflow nodes to create a next-generation Ethernet platform that will allow it to increase bandwidth speeds that operators such as O2 and 3 can, in turn, sell to the market.

The idea is to create a national Ethernet wide area network (WAN). The new service will deliver core bandwidth speeds of up to 1Gbps that will provide businesses and residential users with access speeds of 10Mbps, 100Mbps and 1Gbps.

“The predominant driver for this has been the rollout of the National Broadband Scheme (NBS) that we are rolling out on behalf of 3 Ireland. Etherflow will deliver carrier-class Ethernet to businesses in urban and rural areas,” Walsh explains.

“What this means for mobile operators is that instead of delivering low bandwidth to traditional mobile masts at typically 2Mbps to cover 30 voice channels, they are now able to deliver 50Mbps services to towers with the last piece covered by microwave.”

Walsh continues: “What Etherflow allows us to do is put fibre deeper into the network and cut down on the number of hops that providers used to have to make from mobile mast to mobile mast. This reduces it all down to one hop.

“The irony is that because we will be focusing mainly on NBS areas, the areas that were traditionally victims of the digital divide with virtually zero coverage will get state-of-the-art carrier-grade Ethernet broadband speeds of up to 1Gbps.

“The value for this is once you have a 3G dongle you can connect via the device and connect at higher speeds as defined by your provider.”

Laying foundation for future

He says the Etherflow deployment will underpin the future rollout of long-term evolution (LTE) or 4G broadband technology by mobile operators. “This will lay the path for the upgrade to LTE for mobile operators and will boost BT’s ability to provide wholesale services to a variety of broadband providers.”

In recent months, BT entered into a pact with Vodafone that will see the mobile operator take over the company’s local loop unbundled (LLU) network of 22 exchanges and offer business and residential areas voice and broadband services. The move makes Vodafone the second biggest telecoms provider in the country and BT will expand this LLU network to 60 further exchanges by 2011.

Returning to the Etherflow network, Walsh says that on top of the 150 nodes already deployed, a further 200 sites will be delivered across Ireland.

He says the problem facing Ireland isn’t so much the core network, but the access layer. “All this talk about a one-stop shop for fibre isn’t going to solve the access problem. We need to be enabling people to provide better access services.”

3 nets contract

Mobile operator 3 Ireland was awarded the State contract to build the NBS earlier this year. The NBS sees an estimated €223 million investment by 3, of which a maximum of €79.8 million will be contributed by the Irish Government and the EU, to provide broadband services to the designated electoral districts covered by the scheme. This will see broadband being made available to some 220,000 homes and businesses in areas on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Robert Finnegan, chief executive of 3, explains that already a number of rural communities, including people living on the Aran Islands, are getting their first taste of broadband. Under the NBS, 3 will extend its network to provide mobile wireless-broadband services into the NBS area. Initially, the service will have a minimum download speed of 1.2Mbps, moving to 6.8Mbps by next year and 10.4Mbps by 2012 as part of scheduled upgrades.

“Small businesses in rural communities are now able to communicate and offer their products and services on the internet,” says Finnegan. “People will get a minimum speed of 1.2Mbps at the edge of the network and there are a range of repeaters that will boost signals in homes.”

He says it is vital to provide these services to all areas of the country to give firms a chance of competing for business. “These technologies also allow businesses to empower a mobile workforce that can work from home or on the move. The mobile workforce is no longer a thing of the future. It is a thing of now because that’s what businesses need.”

Wholesale services’ availability

Finnegan says 3, which has more than 440,000 customers, 35pc of whom are 3G mobile broadband users, and other operators are no longer hindered by a lack of wholesale services in rural and urban areas.

“Eircom’s core activity should be to build out a core network around the country, provide backhaul and make a return from wholesale services. But what they are finding is other providers like BT are making the necessary technological investments and allow other operators to bypass them. The days of Eircom being the only show in town are over. They need to move away from activities that are bleeding their cash reserves and get real about the wholesale opportunity.

“The landscape is shifting. If you talk to a sector like banks, the amount of money some of them are paying for leased lines to transfer data back to head office is enormous. Mobile services can provide that with greater security for 10pc of the price.

“We are talking with a lot of companies who are looking at cost cutting and are ditching fixed lines and moving to mobile because it is more cost effective.

“BT is continuously investing in fibre on our behalf and we are going to continue to push at the access layer. The key is to provide consumers and businesses with services they want at an affordable price.

“The days of obstacles like the digital divide are past. Now the challenges are around coping with growth in data traffic in terms of backhaul. With Ethernet and satellite we can do it.

“Our data traffic has trebled in the past 12 months – the challenge is keeping pace with that in terms of network and fibre. But we believe the market will find its own level. Compared to European norms, Ireland has lagged behind in terms of broadband penetration rates – that will change over the next 24 months,” Finnegan promises.

By John Kennedy

Photo: Getting reading for the next evolution of broadband are Shay Walsh, head of wholesale at BT Ireland, and Robert Finnegan, chief executive of 3 Ireland. – Digital 21 is a campaign to highlight the imperative of creating an action programme to secure the digital infrastructure and services upon which the success of the economy depends.

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