Debate around broadband infrastructure needs to deviate from speed to quality

8 Oct 2009

Never mind talking about broadband speeds, how well are our connections faring, really?

If Ireland is to add any substance behind the claim to be a Smart Economy, it will really have to address the issue of broadband quality.

In recent years, we’ve become obsessed not only with the availability or lack of broadband in places, but also with speeds that adorn telecom companies’ advertising. Fast is good, right?

Wrong. There are multiple tools out there that consumers can check to see if they are getting the speeds that are advertised.

But the entire argument over what constitutes good broadband connectivity has shifted from speed to broadband quality. Is your connection capable of carrying the vast quantities of data that applications such as Facebook and YouTube, to name a few, will require in the years ahead?

The world is facing a data tsunami. Every minute, more than 70 hours of video is added to YouTube and every user of Facebook today shares videos, music and photos in increasing quantities.

Addressing the recent Telecommunications and Internet Federation (TIF) conference on Enabling the Smart Economy, the architect of Digital Britain, the former minister, Lord Stephen Carter, said that governments around the world are trying to deploy strategies to boost broadband for consumers and businesses.

In the UK’s case, Lord Carter has suggested a 50p tax on every landline to fund the construction of a next-generation network for the country.

He said there’s a multiplicity of approaches to the smart economy being taken by governments globally. “But the most common theme is infrastructure, infrastructure and infrastructure. It’s about the infrastructure, stupid!

“In Europe, this is very challenging because most European countries are not used to treating communications infrastructure as a public good. It’s very clear in my mind that communications infrastructure is a public good – but the problem is: who pays the price?”

Who indeed pays the price? Let’s pose this as a simple question: in Ireland who pays to build the roads? The taxpayer does via Government via the National Development Plan (NDP), with EU support. Construction companies don’t build the roads first and then bill people for using the roads.

But, if vital infrastructure such as fibre are the roads of the future through which commerce will flow to towns and villages of every land, why isn’t fibre infrastructure included in the NDP?

At a recent conference, which was held in Dublin by cable broadband provider UPC, the scale of the data tsunami about to wash over the world’s economy was laid out by Damian Lawlor of Google.

“Today, more than eight billion songs have been sold on iTunes, there are 300 million Facebook users and more than 118 billion emails and instant messages are sent daily. If Facebook was a country, it would be the sixth largest in the world. In the next year, more than one billion extra people will come online.

“The key message is that bandwidth will become ubiquitous. Alongside roads and railtracks, bandwidth will become as important a piece of infrastructure as anyone can mention,” explained Lawlor.

Robert Dunn, CEO of UPC, said that in the coming year his company will be introducing 120Mbps per second of broadband via the next generation cable technology DOCSIS 3.0 where UPC is present. “Our plan is to expand fibre to 700,000 homes, some 50pc of homes, over the next two years.”

Already in the UK, Virgin Media currently offers 50Mbps for £35 sterling a month, provides 10Mbps to more than two million people and has cancelled its 2Mbps broadband service as it’s no longer relevant. According to Jon James, executive director of broadband at Virgin Media, the company is already paving the way for 200Mbps services over cable.

“There is an arms race amongst network operators to ensure customers are getting a network capable of delivering the next generation of digital services such as gaming and rich internet content,” James explained.

The question we need to ask ourselves in Ireland is are we serving future generations of citizens, students and businesses by not having a clear route forward in terms of broadband quality?

Ivan Duggan, head of Cisco’s Irish service provider and public sector business division, thinks not. “We need to be giving kids of the next generation the tools they need. Providing next-generation technology to just 70 schools is not going far enough. All 700 secondary schools in the country need this infrastructure, so all students and teachers can reach the same standard.”

Irelandneeds to up its game not only in broadband speeds, but also in terms of quality. A global survey conducted on behalf of Cisco by a team of MBA students from Saïd Business School at University of Oxford and the University of Oviedo’s Economics Department found Dublin ranked 87th in the world for quality of broadband and Ireland ranked 39th out of 60 countries.

The need to address quality, particularly for high-end applications such as gaming, was approached by Magnet Networks last week when it boosted ping times via its Bolt product after consulting with 120 top Irish gamers. Slow ping times and network congestion could ruin the game for any player who is competing via broadband with friends online. He who shoots slowest, dies fastest.

“Broadband quality is intrinsically linked to a nation’s advancement as a knowledge economy,” says Magnet Networks’ CEO Mark Kellett.

Magnet manages both a DSL and fibre network in Ireland as well as transatlantic communications via sister company Hibernia Atlantic. Kellett says that Ireland has an opportunity as the last footfall before the US to capture significant investment if it improves broadband quality.

“We have the ideal opportunity as a connection point if only we upped our standards on broadband quality. Financial trade is moving from milliseconds to nanoseconds and the countries that meet this need will capture investment.

“Download speeds are one thing, quality is another and we need to address the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s applications,” Kellett said.

Eamon Wallace of lobby group IrelandOffline points out that countries like Finland have committed to ensuring that every home in that country is within 5km of a fibre connection and that what’s sorely needed here is a concrete plan.

“Every country has a broadband plan. But we seem to be in an endless cycle of discussions and debates. What is needed is the political will. We don’t need any more political consultations or framework documents. We need a concrete plan with firm deliverables.”

By John Kennedy

Photo: Mark Kellett, CEO, Magnet Networks; Robert Dunn, CEO, UPC; and Lord Stephen Carter.

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