Don’t discount copper networks to meet superfast broadband targets, EU expert says

30 Jan 2013

Broadband expert Tim Johnson of Point Topic

Under ambitious targets set out under European Commissioner Neelie Kroes’ Digital Agenda for Europe strategy, by 2020 all homes and businesses will have a minimal standard of 30Mbps (megabits per second) broadband while half of European households will achieve 100Mbps.

Whether European nations in the grips of economic turmoil will be able to achieve these targets is another matter.

Last September, Ireland’s Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, set out a target of achieving 70Mbps ‘superfast’ broadband to 50pc of homes by 2015, followed by two tiers of at least 40Mbps to a further 20pc and a minimum of 30Mbps for every single premises in the land.

4G is on the way for Ireland

This spring, Eircom will launch 50Mbps quad play services (broadband, phone, TV and mobile) as it seeks to compete with UPC in built-up urban areas. New entrants to the fixed-line broadband market will arrive in the shape of players such as Sky.

Around the same time Eircom, Vodafone, O2 and 3 Ireland will launch the first set of 4G (fourth generation) mobile services, which promise speeds as high as 70Mbps over mobile networks, after bidding €855m for 4G licences.

It all sounds promising but, according to broadband expert Tim Johnson of Point Topic, which was appointed by Kroes’ Digital Agenda group to map out Europe’s broadband progress, Ireland is currently only 36pc of the way towards achieving the EU targets.

Dublin already has 89pc superfast broadband coverage, but outside of the capital city no region has more than 35pc superfast broadband coverage, according to Point Topic.

At present, Ireland relies heavily on its cable TV network which provides superfast broadband to 34pc of homes. Fibre to the home (FTTH) is available to just 2pc of Irish homes.

Johnson says that if Ireland is going to achieve the EU targets it should invest in VDSL (very-high-bit-rate digital subscriber line) technology. This technology effectively means that fibre will extend not directly to the home but via cabinets on the street, with the data being carried the last few hundred metres by the copper in the existing telephone network.

A push for FTTH

Johnson’s views are directly at odds with the FTTH Council, an organisation involving networking giants Cisco and Huawei, that is lobbying Europe to bite the bullet and invest heavily in FTTH.

Johnson cites the UK, where people often complain that more of their counterparts in France can get FTTH. Yet, he says, a much higher proportion in the UK can get 100Mbps via cable to their homes if they want, and this also relies on the last few yards being served by copper.

Ireland is a historically high rural population, which exacerbates the problem, but Johnson points to its very “decent” telephone network.

“I really think that what will be adequate for the next decade will be investment in VDSL. Some countries have diverted their investments into fibre all the way. If the same amount of money went into VDSL you could have at least doubled the number of people who are getting superfast broadband in those countries.”

“For Ireland, it would make much more sense to borrow money to fund investment in VDSL than it would be to borrow to attempt to fund investment in fibre to every single premises,” says Johnson. “You’ll get a much better return on your investment.”

Johnson also says that while there will be much hype over the advent of 4G services – operators who paid the €855m licences are only obliged to serve 70pc of the country with LTE (Long Term Evolution, a telephony and mobile broadband communication standard) – it should not be seen as a substitute for fixed-line broadband.

“Two years ago, the establishment view by the European Commission and the mobile operators was that LTE would be a big solution, with the marketing people saying 100Mbps per cell would be possible. That view has changed. What people failed to take account of is that 100Mbps is shared between everybody else who is in that cell.

“Nowadays people watch TV on their mobile devices and PCs, so if you’ve got 20 people streaming TV or Netflix at 4Mbps the entire cell is taken up. People will be able to do impressive things with 4G but to see it as an alternative to a proper broadband service where you can stream live TV at a modest price, that is not the case,” Johnson says.

“You’ve got to be realistic and say ‘well actually, here’s a no-brainer investment that can give you a good return and we can get on with it as quickly as possible,” Johnson says.

A version of this interview first appeared in The Sunday Times on 27 January

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