Examine your rural broadband options

24 Apr 2008

New technology innovations are lightening the burden for broadband-hungry businesses in Ireland’s rural areas.

The number of the broadband disenfranchised in Ireland is greater than generally believed and the National Broadband Scheme (NBS) will form only part of the solution. When it is rolled out, the NBS will involve the Government in subsidising the cost, having already obtained EU approval. In theory, members of the rural population will enjoy broadband facilities at similar prices to their urban cousins.

The existing broadband coverage figures prepared on a county-by-county basis for the NBS proposal request are grossly inaccurate, with large parts of some counties shown as broadband-enabled, which is clearly incorrect.

According to these figures, the area where this journalist lives has broadband access but, in fact, there are many in the locale who cannot get a wired or terrestrial wireless broadband connection.

Thus, common sense and hearsay suggest that the broadband-disenfranchised population is much greater than 10pc, regardless of what the Government and vested-interests industry players might maintain.

The current figure of broadband-connected users includes mobile phone system deployment for broadband internet access. There are over 100,000 users already using this technology. But the reality in many cases is these individuals already have conventional broadband, so there is a significant amount of double accounting by the minister and his mandarins.

Many look to Northern Ireland, with its claimed 100pc broadband coverage rolled out with little investment required from the UK Government, and ask why we cannot emulate its experience. Apart from the smaller geographic spread, more concentrated population and less challenging geographic features, the copper-wire infrastructure in the North was in much better shape as a result of significant investment and renovations undertaken by BT over a 20-year period.

Essentially, there are four technologies in place for providing rural broadband access. Given reasonable population densities, the lowest cost for the foreseeable future is landline based on xDSL services delivered over copper wire. The next most popular is wireless, which requires line-of-sight between the user’s and service provider’s aerial.

Next are the mobile phone service providers with 3G services widely available in populated areas but not considered economically viable in sparsely populated areas. Lastly, there are the satellite providers which have traditionally been very expensive and subject to some technological constraints, although are the least affected by any terrestrial constraints.

Paul Bradley, communications manager at Eircom, says the 50pc of exchanges connected cover 88pc of users and enable a potential 83pc to be broadband enabled. The 5pc not enabled are either too far from the exchange or have inadequate quality copper line connections.

A different source has informed siliconrepublic.com that 23pc of copper lines across the country are not suitable for broadband connections. As most of the populated areas have been DSL-enabled, we must conclude that the copper-wire installations in rural area are of much poorer quality.

Bradley maintains that of the 570 exchanges which have not been upgraded for broadband, 319 will be upgraded by the end of 2009 and the remainder will be dependent on the NBS.

There are three remaining companies in ‘competitive dialogue’ for the NBS – Eircom, BT and Hutchison 3G Ireland. Peter Evans, BT product director, says the problem of the uneconomic delivery of broadband is a pan-European one.

On the situation in Northern Ireland, he says that only about 0.5pc of broadband connectivity was installed using satellite and wireless and that the situation in southern Ireland is quite different. He sees wireless being used on a much wider scale and satellite on a smaller scale here due to its cost. He also says that distances from the local telephone exchange and quality of the copper will mean DSL services will not be viable for a large number of users.

One of the problems he identifies with the rollout of broadband connectivity is the inability of the Government to promote competition amongst the telecom providers. This is at odds with its statements about rural policy and decentralisation, which require an effective communications infrastructure to be in place.

On the wireless side, Yvonne Rooney, managing director of Ice Broadband, says the wireless marketplace has become much more competitive and that consolidation will continue to be a feature across the supplier spectrum, especially given that many smaller players are likely to be acquired over the next 12 months.

Not to be left behind, Ice Broadband’s wireless speeds have increased to 3Mbps and its contention ratio has been maintained at a low 16. The company continues to expand geographically, having recently completed the roll out of wireless broadband to completely cover Co Limerick, and there are pending proposals for several other counties.

The provision of phone VoIP services has also become a more important part of the delivery service for Ice Broadband, generating 50pc of revenues over the past six months. Rooney was sceptical about the NBS achieving 100pc coverage.

Despite the likelihood that the NBS, wired DSL services and terrestrial wireless will not fill the rural broadband vacuum, all is not lost. In the US, we have seen internet satellite solutions for home and SOHO users grow phenomenally since 2004, having reached about 700,000 installations by 2006.

In Europe, the growth rate is likely to be much greater with the strong, affordable offerings enabled by the Astra chain of satellites. In Ireland, the option is being pushed strongly by National Broadband, which recently launched a double-play package in Cork for the home and SOHO markets with free national landline phone calls.

In addition to the double-play internet access and VoIP telephone services, the system can also support multiple satellite television LNBs that will enable both continental and UK satellite television signals to be received.

In the current climate and given the doubtful likelihood of the NBS being able to deliver on its promises, potential rural broadband users must ask themselves if they can afford to gamble with NBS uncertainties. There is a comparably priced option, namely satellite, which has been proved capable of delivering a reasonable service as part of a double-play or even triple-play package.

By Napier Williams