For all the complaints about the broadband situation in the country — and they are many — businesses in Ireland are not short of options when it comes to choosing an internet service provider (ISP).
“While Ireland always seems to get itself a reputation for being a laggard in regards to broadband, this is a residential issue rather than a business one,” declares John Doherty, commissioner for communications regulation at ComReg.
Cynics might be tempted to retort ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he’, but neutral observers suggest he has a point. “The market is very competitive, price-wise,” says Brian Chamberlain, a director of Getbroadband.ie, an independent website that compares the various broadband offerings in the Irish market. “In 2002, the entry-level business product was around €110 for 512kbps download, 128kbps upload,” he points out. “You’re getting, now, six times the speed for a quarter of the price.”
To get a snapshot of the state of the market, look to the Department of Communications website (broadband.gov.ie). Other broadband options include mobile operators, Vodafone and 3, which currently provide data services over their 3G networks. O2 hasn’t launched mobile broadband services yet but plans to do so this summer.
To make for an easier comparison, we chose a 3Mbps service, which sits between the entry level and the top end of the market. Set-up fees are thankfully minimal. Eircom, which supplies connectivity to many of the other providers listed here, is one of the few ISPs charging for installation, which tips its price towards the higher end of what’s offered.
The wireless providers such as Irish Broadband, Digiweb and Strencom represent something of a tradeoff. All three are extremely price competitive, with Strencom just shading the honours when set-up costs are factored in.
Against that, none of them has the reach of services that digital subscriber line (DSL) offers; this technology uses the phone network wherever telecoms exchanges have been upgraded to carry the signal. There are approximately 460 telecom exchanges ungraded to carry DSL.
What confuses the issue is that some providers offer bundles where the cost of access is wrapped up among other services.
Although BT offers a 3Mbps service for the same price as Eircom and others, its latest 3Mbps package includes set minutes of calls to mobiles and landlines, access and line rental for a flat monthly fee of €94.99 excl Vat.
Other ISPs might offer a free wireless router as part of the package, so that the computers in the office don’t have to be physically connected by cable to the internet point. Some services (UPC and mobile operators) have a cap on monthly downloads so it’s always worth asking what extra costs are incurred for exceeding these limits, which tend to be around 40-50GB per month. From our findings, the greatest choice and availability for broadband services still tends to be in urban areas. DSL-based services win out here, with BT fractionally cheaper.
Unfortunately for those based outside major metropolitan areas, the choices diminish somewhat, though that’s not to say there aren’t any options at all. But with distance to the telephone exchange still a factor for services based on DSL, options like satellite broadband might be the only viable alternative. This is available from several providers including Eircom, BT and Digiweb, but according to Brian Chamberlain of Getbroadband.ie, satellite can be “prohibitively” expensive.
To get around the coverage issue, some companies such as Digiweb and Magnet keep a foot in both camps by offering a main service on their own networks that doesn’t require paying line rental charges. In areas beyond their own networks, they provide DSL by reselling Eircom’s service.
Smart Telecom’s business broadband service is available exclusively through its own network, following a much-publicised spat with Eircom last year. Its entry-level product is included in the table, although the connection speed is slightly higher than our spec at 4Mbps.
Traditional DSL services are asymmetric, providing much faster download than upload. Most of the services listed here offer 256kbps or 384kbps upload. That’s fine for most purposes, but according to Joerg Steegmueller, chief marketing officer with the infrastructure provider Broighter Networks, symmetric broadband is worth considering for businesses with several offices in different locations, needing to send files regularly between them.
“It’s more for if you have traffic between different servers or CCTV and data going in both directions,” he says. For that reason, our research includes an option for symmetric broadband services, where the upload and download speeds are the same. The greater upload speed means that data can be transferred quickly between sites. More importantly, it allows for inter-site phone calls to be made over the internet instead of the standard telephone network, for further cost savings.
The advantage of wireless over copper or fibre-optic based networks is that a symmetric service tends to be included in the price. For symmetric services based on DSL, businesses pay a hefty premium — upwards of €400 per month with a more costly set-up fee also charged.
Despite the information now available to Irish businesses about broadband, there’s no evidence of active churn in the market. Doherty believes many SMEs don’t change providers easily. “They tend to be less mobile than large companies that would go out to tender. They build relationships with providers and tend to stick with them,” he says.
A recent poll of 545 people on the Boards.ie discussion website found more people were happy with their broadband provider than were dissatisfied. Not surprisingly, Eircom was the most cited — although BT ran a close second. Neither provider dominated outright and many providers listed here also featured on that table.
There was a large spread between different ISPs, suggesting many people have found alternatives, even if they’re not actively looking to change. As Steegmueller points out, this transparency makes for easier price comparison but it also puts the focus firmly on the ‘service’ in ISP.
Sites like IrishISPtest.com can be a useful guide to how fast a broadband connection is and it is at least a potentially useful negotiating tool the next time a broadband contract is up for renewal.
Where on the web
An independent website that compares broadband services on price, complete with a county-by-county breakdown
Department of Communications site listing all ISPs in Ireland
Well-known discussion forum with an area devoted to broadband and net access
Does exactly what it says on the tin: you can check your broadband connection free through a neutral third-party service.