Catch-22 for community broadband schemes

10 Mar 2005

A growing number of community groups in rural areas are combining resources in order to speed up the deployment of broadband communications. These interest groups, which are demonstrating an instinctive professionalism, are achieving varying levels of success and are developing into quasi-internet service providers in their own right.

The phenomenon was encouraged this time last year when the then Minister for Communications Dermot Ahern TD unveiled the €25m Group Broadband Scheme aimed at bridging a potential urban/rural digital divide. The scheme was to be run along the lines of the Group Water Scheme with the Government paying up to 55pc of the cost (depending on location) of bringing broadband to towns with a population of less than 1,500 people.

So far, some 31 broadband projects representing a total investment of €1.1m have been approved. It is estimated that these projects alone will provide broadband services to more than 20,000 people. A further nine projects are likely to be approved.

According to Christian Cooke of the Group Data Scheme Society, which originally presented the idea to the Government in 2003, some of these schemes have yielded successful flagship projects such as the Kinvara Network Co-operative in Galway, which uses fixed wireless access and is a service provider in its own right. On that network users get 2Mbps broadband for less than €40 a month.

Cooke also believes that some schemes can be viable even without government funding. He cites the first community group data scheme in Knockmore, Co Mayo, which launched last year without any outside support. “It’s not the capital costs that are a determinant but the real viability is dependant on ongoing financial stability and the organisation behind it. I’ve been involved in schemes that are viable with only 25 users.”

One such scheme that has decided to go it alone without Government funding is Meath-based TaraWAN established by two computer science students in Trinity College Dublin, which is hoping to build a line-of-sight Wi-Fi-based broadband service. Co-founder Daniel Kane explains that despite the proximity of the area to Dublin and strategic towns such as Navan, it could be years before broadband services are deployed. “Eircom say it’s not their job to bring broadband to towns with fewer than 1,500 people, so someone’s got to look after the area.

“We are in the process of setting up our first access point that will allow people in the areas of Kiltale, Kilmessan, Dunsany, Tara, Trim and Robinstown (anywhere that has a clear line of sight to our access point) to communicate with each other over the wireless network. We have expressions of interest from more than 30 local people most of whom will be able to connect to our first access point, once it is up and running. We will be running the network as a club with members paying €20 per month for membership,” Kane says.

However, the future of such schemes may be stymied due to some core problems, namely insufficient wholesale services being made available and lack of interest on the part of major telecoms firms. Cooke says: “These schemes are dependent on a wholesale affordable internet access rate being offered.

“The irony is that Ireland has significant backhaul infrastructure,” Cooke claims. “There’s fibre running up and down the country and it needs to be made available to these group schemes.”

Niall O’Donnchu, principal officer at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, agrees that more wholesale broadband needs to be made available and says that there is more than enough fibre in the ground for such services. “I am disappointed at the level of support from established telecoms firms in the country. Eircom has really rowed in, but other companies didn’t respond as expected.”

In relation to the Government’s metropolitan area network (MAN) scheme covering 150 towns (of which 25 are live and managed by Limerick-based E-Net), O’Donnchu rejects claims by telcos that access to MANs are prohibitively expensive resulting in the inability to offer wholesale services. “E-Net is offering fibre for €2 per metre including maintenance – that’s significantly less than the €10-€12 per metre being charged in Dublin a few years ago. It’s ironic to hear telcos, particularly mobile telcos, complaining about the cost of MAN connectivity considering the revenues they make and their resistance to allowing other operators into the market. The fact that fixed-line telcos are moaning about high prices is laughable considering some of them were charging €100 a month for DSL a year ago.”

O’Donnchu says his advice to group broadband schemes seeking wholesale broadband services is to shop around. “There are lots of alternatives out there – ESB, Bord Gáis, Eircom, Aurora, Esat BT and Chorus all have fibre capacity reaching across the country. Both RTÉ and ESB also have significant tower infrastructure that no one is looking at. As well as this E-Net have reserved some 500Mbps of capacity on the MAN network suitable for up to 150 group schemes.

“Another development to watch is the mandatory infrastructure sharing on wireless masts that was recently mandated by the Commission for Communications Regulation. That’s going to be very important for the development of wholesale services in the future,” O’Donnchu adds

By John Kennedy