DSL rollout dogged by high line failure rates

7 Sep 2004

Less than 50pc of the 1.7 million phone lines in the Republic are capable of carrying digital subscriber line (DSL) due to a number of factors, including distance from the nearest unbundled exchange and the fact that telephone lines are failing tests by Eircom engineers, siliconrepublic.com has learned.

Complaints have been mounting over the past two years from individuals in urban areas and new housing developments that their lines have been failing tests for DSL, which offers fast internet access. They have been told by Eircom that the line is incapable of carrying broadband and that if they pay to put in a second telephone line that line may or may not work.

Soon to be released research from IrelandOffline indicates that failure rates are far higher than being suggested.

Separately, at present less than 50pc of phone lines in the country are capable of receiving DSL, claims Esat BT, which receives monthly line failure data from Eircom.

Esat BT director of products Peter Evans told siliconrepublic.com: “There are some 1.7 million lines in the country, 1.2 million of these are consumer lines. Of these, some 70pc are in broadband-enabled areas. On paper that looks good. But if you conduct line tests, 70pc of these are passing tests on an average basis, while 30pc are failing. When you factor in business users who cannot get broadband it works out that on an overall countrywide basis 45pc of the country can get broadband whilst 55pc cannot. This is either due to distance from the exchange or lines failing tests.”

Explaining why lines are failing tests, Evans pointed to the practice of line splitting, otherwise known as ‘pair gain’ or putting a ‘carrier on the network.’ In effect, homes with phone lines are unknowingly sharing capacity with neighbours even though they are paying a monthly line rental fee for the privilege of a phone line.

He explained: “This is a particular problem in Dublin and other urban areas around the country. There was a practice in the Eighties and Nineties of placing a splitter on the line into built-up developments such as housing estates. If there were 150 houses in an estate, all 150 houses would have a copper pairs that would run to a junction box outside the estate, and the splitter in the junction box would then split these down to less than 100 lines to the local exchanges. This was done on the assumption that not all phones would be in use at the one time.”

He continued: “This made perfect economical sense at the time and resulted in few problems for making calls. With the introduction of broadband, which required a telephone line to the exchange to be ‘always on’, it meant that out of the 150 houses, up to 100 houses might be able to get broadband whereas the 101st user would be rejected.”

Evans also said the reason why lines failed was sometimes not solely down to split lines but also the manner in which the test is done. “We have a database that is constantly updated from Eircom in terms of lines that pass and fail the test. Lines that pass get a green flag and lines that fail get a red flag. For some time now, lines that were red would flash green and go red again.

“We discovered that if users have other equipment on the line such as a fax machine or a Sky box, these would interfere with the test signal; other times it’s a matter of the internal wiring of the home. In these situations we urge users who have failed to disconnect the equipment and leave one telephone line connected and persuade Eircom to conduct a re-test – in most cases the line passes the test a month later,” he commented.

Eircom is obliged under its Universal Service Obligation (USO) to ensure that every home or business that requests a phone line gets one. However, there is no such provision for broadband.

Says Evans: “Every line is tested once a month. Since 2001 Eircom has been prohibited from placing further carriers on the line.

Broadband lobby group IrelandOffline also detailed the problem of splitting of copper lines into homes and businesses. IrelandOffline members Damien Mulley and John Timmons, who are both IT professionals, told siliconrepublic.com that they have been requesting statistical data from ComReg on the number of lines that are failing tests for broadband capability.

“Failure rates are far higher than is being suggested. In Ireland, Eircom will not state how many lines fail. They have supplied this information to the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg), who have also not published this information,” Timmons explained.

Siliconrepublic.com understands that Eircom is obliged to furnish ComReg with statistical data regarding line failures. It is understood, however, that the former State telco attached strict conditions that restrict the regulator from revealing this information to the public.

A source familiar with the issue has indicated that the mounting problem of line failures has resulted in TDs and Senators at Leinster House being “bombarded” with complaints by irate citizens. “Pair gain, otherwise known as a digital access carrier system, was a technology originally championed by BT in the last century to deal with what was then a pressing problem – providing people with phones and on the assumption that not everyone wanted a phone. Rather than dig up pavements to meet demand, engineers came up with a little box that allowed telecom companies to split lines. However, along came the internet and now you have a problem with people’s modems working at half-speed,” said the source.

Ireland Offline’s John Timmons alleges that much of the problem is due to the use of outdated equipment used by Eircom within unbundled local exchanges. Esat BT’s Peter Evans backed up this argument, pointing out that much of the equipment used in unbundling the local loop was acquired in the late Nineties; delayed by a court case with the regulator, Eircom only began unbundling the local loop in 2002.

Timmons’ colleague Damian Mulley said he has made numerous requests to ComReg for more information on the situation. “Eircom is supposed to provide ComReg with information on split lines, and while existing lines have been split, it has been prohibited from doing this on new lines.”

Mulley added: “IrelandOffline believes that Eircom is sweating its assets. It is charging the highest line rental in Europe and what we get in return is a substandard, decaying network.”

Siliconrepublic.com has sent detailed questions about the issue of line splitting to both Eircom and the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, and was still awaiting a response at the time of going to press.

By John Kennedy