Ireland needs to make tough, urgent decisions around building the core network that will ensure the country will remain relevant for decades to come.
A digital central nervous system will provide the arteries through which the economic lifeblood of Ireland over the next 20 to 40 years will continue to pump.
So much has been said and written about Ireland’s struggle to provide broadband. Today, 1.4 million people subscribe to a broadband service of one sort or another. While it is an achievement, talk of quantity will need to be replaced by quality and speed.
In other words, you cannot have a smart economy without a nationwide state-of-the-art fibre network that will underpin future technologies such as WiMax and Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and herald economic growth.
With a recession under way, the annual investment Ireland’s telecoms industry can afford to make in upgrading infrastructure has fallen from €720m a year ago to around €540m this year.
Talk of survival has replaced the talk of investment in creating the next-generation networks (NGNs) capable of carrying the levels of data that Ireland will need if it is to continue to punch above its weight in the decades to come.
Fibre infrastructure will be critical to the future of job creation, healthcare provision, protecting the environment and public services, and will even save the Government money in terms of greater efficiencies.
A bold plan
Ireland needs a bold National Digital Development Plan that sets out what needs to be done to complement existing investments such as the 94 towns around Ireland that will be equipped with metropolitan area networks (MANs) and the €220m investment in the National Broadband Scheme.
A full rollout of infrastructure involving public and private investment will set the stage for future job creation by enabling local entrepreneurs to sell and export globally from their locality, as well as attract foreign direct investment (FDI) to any region of the country.
We have already seen proof of this potential. According to E-net, the firm responsible for managing the MAN infrastructure across Ireland, the first 27 towns to get MANs grew their share of FDI from 24pc to 90pc in the first four years.
Fibre networks that link urban and rural areas to allow private telecoms companies to invest in access networks available to all must be deployed as a national priority.
The country is currently criss-crossed with fibre networks that are not connected to anything and which belong to semi-states like CIÉ and Bord Gáis. Brand new motorways have fibre optic ducts lying empty because no one knows what to do with them.
While the ESB is actively providing backhaul to connect up some of the MANs, CIÉ’s fibre network, if activated, could alone connect up to 80pc of urban centres across Ireland, says Magnet Networks’ CEO Mark Kellett.
Last year Communications Minister Eamon Ryan announced the creation of a ‘one-stop shop’ to make use of unused dark fibre networks around Ireland. The scheme promised universal broadband in Ireland by late 2009, early 2010, with 100Mbps of connectivity provided to secondary schools. That was a year ago and no definitive plan has been deployed.
As part of the Digital21 campaign, multinationals, indigenous technology companies and telecom providers all agree that work needs to commence on the creation of a core network upon which future access networks, from fibre-to-the-home to WiMax and the next generation of 3G, LTE, can all grow from.
Meanwhile, other countries are pressing ahead with ambitious plans to claim the digital crown that will be the driver of 21st-century progressive economies. Australia is going for the jugular, ploughing AU$5bn worth of investment into a nationwide fibre network.
In the UK, an ambitious Digital Britain plan has already been published that will not only deliver broadband for all, but will ensure that the one third of the UK not receiving ‘super-fast broadband’ will do so through a creative 50pc levy on every copper line.
Under Lord Carter’s plan, by 2012 all of Britain will be able to access a broadband connection with a minimum speed of 2Mbps through a universal service commitment. It will be funded mostly from £200m sterling of public funding, but will be supplemented by wider mobile coverage obligations on mobile operators.
Pressing ahead with a vital infrastructure plan as part of an overriding vision for the future of Ireland will also pave the way for regional regeneration.
In the UK, South Yorkshire has pioneered a £90m sterling ‘Super-fast Broadband’ network that will stimulate job creation in the region by providing 25Mbps broadband for over 1.2 million people.
Not only will the investment transform the region economically, but it will also lead to more effective public services in the areas of home healthcare and education, as well as more flexible working practices for home and office workers.
Alcatel-Lucent is one of the partners in the South Yorkshire scheme. In Ireland, the company operates a €43m Lucent Bell Labs R&D facility. According to the managing director of Alcatel-Lucent in Ireland, Kevin O’Callaghan, the speed of development for fibre deployment is immense. “The world is moving to IP, there’s no doubt about it. If you think about the deployment of paired copper that took 20 years, most countries are condensing future NGN deployment into two years.
“If you look at South Yorkshire, its digital region will be one of the biggest in the UK. It is about social inclusion, regenerating the region and kick-starting the local economy. It’s about more than just a network.”
Telecoms veteran Conal Henry of E-net agrees. “The Irish State has more to gain from the deployment of fibre than the private sector. It will get thousands of construction workers back to work. But, beyond that, investing in fibre will bring jobs in new industries to Ireland. While the telecoms firms will benefit by direct revenues, the Government will gain from increased tax revenue. To get there we need to create a national fibre footprint.
“The quality of telecoms competition over fibre will be a lot higher than over copper, there are the environmental rewards in terms of reduced carbon footprint because fewer people will have to drive to work. You will also set in motion an improved health and education system. The State case for fibre investment has been made and that’s being proven globally as we speak.”
Other steps that need to be included in a National Digital Development Plan around infrastructure include greater regulatory certainty for operators to invest.
The local loop unbundling (LLU) saga saw operators such as Smart, BT and Magnet invest in unbundling local loops, only to end up a decade later in a situation where 96pc of all DSL broadband originates with Eircom.
The infrastructure element of a National Digital Development Plan will need to be very clear on open access rights, ensuring a level playing field for all operators to compete and invest themselves in the various access platforms.
A future plan should also make provision for the creative use of Ireland’s abundance of wireless spectrum to encourage next-generation operators to use this country as a testbed for future services such as WiMax.
Such a plan must also look at ways of harnessing 2G mobile spectrum currently unused in the 900–1800MhZ range and free it up to be used to provide broadband in hard-to-reach areas.
Vodafone Ireland strategy director Gerry Fahy says he is anxious to see a re-farming of wireless spectrum in the 2G range. “We could today give 99pc of the population access to 3G speeds on the old 2G networks.
“3G is suitable for urban environments, but at present it doesn’t work well in rural environments. Our 2G spectrum is on a low frequency band and was built for voice, not data. If you want to spread 3G to rural areas, you must use the old 2G spectrum.
“We have done trials with ComReg’s permission and we’re confident we can deliver 3G broadband to 99pc of the population if the spectrum is re-armed. But we need the decision to be made.”
Ireland’s geographic position on the periphery of Europe is all the more reason for the country to pursue a digital infrastructure strategy, says Intel Ireland general manager Jim O’Hara.
“Ireland is ideally suited for the digital economy of the 21st century. It eliminates the physical barriers of our geography. We need infrastructure deployed right across the country to enable businesses to compete worldwide.”
By John Kennedy
This story is part of the Digital 21 campaign to encourage Ireland to develop a National Digital Development Plan, ensuring the country and its economy are strategically well placed to thrive in the 21st century. For more stories, and to add your comments, visit www.digital21.ie