Government broadband plan ‘disconnected from reality’

22 Jun 2009

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Critics of the Irish Government’s Next-Generation Broadband policy paper have said it lacks teeth, has no clear actions and represents a missed opportunity for the country.

The policy document, which reads more like a state of the nation address as opposed to an action plan with aggressive targets, comes just a week after the Digital Britain report, which had clear objective such as a 2Mbps service for every citizen and a £6 sterling tax on copper lines to build a fund to pay for fibre.

The report published by the Department of Communications pretty much left it up to the private sector to invest in the next generation of telecoms infrastructure and issued a vague instruction to the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) to come up with an action plan on next-generation networks (NGNs) instead.

“Optimum regulation” on accessing fibre assets has been promised to a sector where local loop unbundling of copper DSL lines has been a market failure, so it’s no wonder operators may feel a little sceptical.

The ‘one-stop shop’ proposal to access stranded state dark fibre assets made a year ago is still in formulation, and the decision has yet to be made whether it will be a state body or yet another public/private partnership.

The only clear deliverable in the report was the news that 75 schools are to be part of a pilot plan to bring 100Mbps to post-primary schools.

Compared with aggressive policies such as Australia’s A$5bn fibre-optic plan or Digital Britain’s plan to ensure superfast broadband for the last third of the UK by 2012, it is clear an opportunity has once again been overlooked.

“This strategy skirts over the issues of speed, quality and cost,” said Aebhric McGibney, policy director of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. “High-speed broadband is a prerequisite for any new jobs in the knowledge and creative industries.”

Ireland ranks 25th out of 28 OECD countries on readiness to support next-generation services. “The new Government paper sets a target of reaching EU norms in terms of speed within three years, but is decidedly vague as to how this will be achieved. It’s as if Government is disconnected from reality.

“Business is very sceptical about Government reaching these targets. If anything, we fear Ireland will fall further behind our competitors unless more concerted action is taken, with huge implications for the creation of jobs in the knowledge industries,” McGibney continued.

“Current speeds are too low. We need to a set target for major urban areas of 100Mbps service by 2012. Future business applications for high-quality, high-speed broadband are rapidly being developed and implemented at a pace. To achieve a 100Mbps service by 2012, Government must do two things.

“First, it must fund directly and/or provide incentives to projects that seek to improve both access and NGN speeds, so that both Ireland’s rural and urban areas can compete internationally. Secondly, it must look beyond ubiquity as a sole target, and include speed, quality and price as equal metrics in measuring the success of implementing the strategy,” McGibney said.

ALTO, the organisation representing Ireland’s alternative licensed telecoms operators, echoed the views of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. “We feel that this is a missed opportunity by the Minister to commit to using his powers to set definite timelines and policy direction for ComReg, so that the market is more successfully regulated,” chairman Ronan Lupton said.

“The now imperative investment by alternative telcos in next NGNs will not come about until the market is more conducive to fairer competition,” Lupton reasoned.

In 1998, deregulation of the Irish telecoms industry encouraged companies such as BT, Smart and Magnet to invest considerable sums in unbundling local loop exchanges to provide DSL broadband directly to consumers. However, by 2009, some 96pc of DSL broadband in Ireland originates through Eircom, with the LLU providers representing the remaining 4pc.

European Commission backing last week to lower the prices Eircom charges competitors to access its network by 25pc was described by broadband lobby group IrelandOffline as “too little, too late.” It appears this latest broadband policy report may be going in the same direction.

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

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com