How this rural Irish community built its own broadband network

9 Mar 2022

From left: Declan Rice, Jim O’Brien and Paul Walsh. Image: Dylan Vaughan

Left out in the National Broadband Plan, two villages in Co Kilkenny decided to set up their own FTTP network led by local volunteers.

A small rural community in Ireland with limited access to good network connectivity has come together to set up its very own fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) broadband network from scratch.

Around 750 homes and businesses in a 3.4 sq km area near the border between Kilkenny, Waterford and Tipperary will soon have high-speed internet access of more than 150Mbps thanks to a local voluntary initiative called Broadband 4 Our Community (B4OC).

Until now, hundreds of families in the community have struggled with speeds between 1Mbps and 6Mbps, making work-from-home tasks such as conference calls and video streaming challenging.

Consisting of a board of enthusiastic local volunteers, B4OC is a not-for-profit based around the Kilkenny villages of Piltown and Fiddown. Inspired by similar projects in the UK and bringing together a range of skills and expertise, the group started a first-of-its-kind project in Ireland.

Project manager Jim O’Brien said that B4OC has aimed to deliver future-proofed, high-speed broadband in the area since the project was first initiated by the Kilkenny Leader Partnership (KLP) in 2019. KLP is a non-profit that works towards community development.

“KLP and its philanthropic funding partner, the Tomar Trust, supplied technical assistance, planning, training and capital funding to the community to develop and advance the project. After that, the community drove on and did everything else,” said O’Brien.

O’Brien, an IT graduate who returned to college in 2018 after a career in construction, was inspired to work on the project after he had difficulties accessing course materials because of a bad network – forcing him to buy a dongle and move to his garage to get a speed of 13Mbps, up from just 5Mbps prior to that.

Four men wearing construction gear digging a hole in the ground to bury cables.

Locals including Jim O’Brien and Brian Doyle burying cables in the area. Image: B4OC

The area is home to several businesses – including a major supplier of fresh fruit and vegetables, O’Shea Farms. O’Brien said that businesses have been stepping up to help the project in a bid to get better connectivity too.

“Businesses donated bits, gave us other items we needed at cost and dug deep with us. My own father-in-law is a retired fitter, and he has been out in the trenches and up poles with me as we built the infrastructure,” he said.

The project has now completed its first phase of development and has a few more phases to go. All the infrastructure has been built on private lands and “sits into the landscape”, according to O’Brien.

Outdated EU standard

The root cause of the slow internet problem is an EU broadband connectivity standard that was set back in 2010. Piltown and Fiddown are two of 20 similar-sized villages in Kilkenny that have been classified as having ‘adequate internet’ by the standard.

This disqualifies them from investment under the National Broadband Plan, which aims to connect more than 1.1m people across 544,000 homes, businesses, farms and schools in Ireland where commercial operators do not currently provide high-speed connectivity.

However, B4OC believes that much has changed since the 2010 standard and speeds that were considered adequate then are not adequate now – prompting locals to take matters into their own hands.

“This is a network in which our community is invested,” said Brian Doyle, chair of B4OC. “Given that laying fibre-optic cable is expensive, using the future-proofed FTTP model employed by the telecommunications industry was the only way forward.”

Doyle explained that the community was able to reduce costs significantly by doing the work themselves as a “service by the community, for the community which is owned by the community and run in its interest”.

“It is a much leaner development model and operates on a not-for profit, community-owned basis. We even hope to be able to pay a community dividend and the intention is that this money would finance other community projects,” he added.

Three women and two men stand next to each other holding a sign that reads "Welcome to Piltown".

From left: B4OC board members Mary Morgan, Gerri Hickey, Jill Downey, Brian Doyle and Paul Walsh. Image: B4OC

High-speed internet for locals is not the only potential benefit of the project. B4OC believes that, once completed, the project could attract SMEs to the area and improve connectivity in local schools and buildings. Local businesses have also provided loan capital for the project.

Declan Rice, CEO of KLP, said that community development and ownership of FTTP networks “should be as familiar as local group water schemes, of which there are hundreds”, arguing that installing FTTP networks “is not rocket science”.

“While a fibre network will require some seed money to get started, and needs wider landowner and community cooperation, as Piltown-Fiddown has shown, it can be done,” he said. “Piltown-Fiddown doesn’t have to be the exception, it should just be the pioneer.”

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic