Keeping Ireland’s broadband promise

26 Sep 2002

Within three years the Government has pledged to have 5MB of broadband delivered to every home in Ireland and substantially higher levels made available to businesses. So much for the future.

Right now, Ireland is currently trailing behind most of the world’s economies in terms of broadband connectivity, just how will such an ambitious vision be realised in light of cutbacks, regulatory rows and a telecoms downturn?

The nest of intrigue that is Ireland’s broadband future has finally been shaken from its tree as plans and services demanded as far back as 1998 finally rumble into action. Long awaited government strategies are being dusted down, reviving the local telecoms market and ensuring that the much needed infrastructure that is believed to form the linchpin of our nation’s economic future is finally put in place.

The battlefield hasn’t changed much over the last few years. The only difference is that it is strewn with dead and dying telecoms companies, not to mention an unmarked grave full of data centres. Independent telecoms players are still arguing harshly over wholesale rates from Eircom and accessing the last mile between the exchange and the customer, while the majority of today’s Irish SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises) are still relying on dial-up modems to vie against international competition for trade.

Few have digital subscriber lines (DSL) or leased lines between them. As well as this, stranded assets in the form of thousands of kilometres of dark fibre are spread throughout the country, unlit and connected to nothing.

Back in 1998, the Government believed we would be the principal European electronic hub for business by now. Instead we are languishing in 27th position in the list of 30 OECD countries in terms of broadband access, availability and use.

Earlier this year, the Government allocated just under €200m to a National Broadband Strategy under the auspices of the National Development Plan that would see high-speed metropolitan area networks (MANs), or fibre rings, built around some 67 towns, creating a network of some 56,000 kilometres of fibre.

At the time, the outgoing public enterprise minister Mary O’Rourke made her already infamous pledge: “In the medium term we expect that broadband speeds of 5MB to the home and substantially higher for business users will be minimum standard. Our aim is for Ireland to be the first country in Europe to have this level of broadband service widely available.”

In another strategy document from earlier this year, the objective was clearly spelt out in even greater detail: “The Government wants to see the widespread availability of open-access, affordable, always-on broadband infrastructure and services for businesses and citizens throughout the State within three years, on the basis of the utilisation of a range of existing technologies and broadband speed appropriate to specific categories of service and customers. We wish to see Ireland within the top 10pc of OECD countries for broadband connectivity within three years.”

The first part of the multiphase strategy will see MANs built in 19 towns — Waterford, Wexford, Carlow, Clonmel, Kilkenny, Cork, Shannon/Limerick, Galway, Athlone, Mullingar, Carrick-on-Shannon, Manorhamilton, Gweedore, Roscommon, Port Laoise, Letterkenny, Tullamore and Ballina.

The plan is to move in parallel with a public private partnership (PPP) structure to ensure that government investment is matched by private money. Each MAN will have its own co-location facilities and the first phase projects will be built over the next six to 18 months.

A first phase, involving some €44m — 90pc funded by the exchequer — is expected to begin within a fortnight, following a decision on a tender contract to construction firms and telecoms partners for the first MAN that will link business parks and main streets around Cork city. At present it is understood that some 20 companies, ranging from project management and construction firms to telecom organisations, are bidding for the lucrative contract.

The drawback is that after years of excessive spending during the good times the Government has embarked on a flurry of panic cutbacks that covers the entire spectrum of departments. It had been rumoured that broadband investment was to fall under the axe with some €20m being handed back to the exchequer.

However, a spokesperson at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has denied that broadband investment has been put on the chopping block. “Nothing was cut from broadband investment. We had surplus cash that we handed back to the exchequer. We basically overestimated the money required this year. In fact, we still have some €23m to spend between now and the new year,” he says.

According to the spokesperson, a decision will be made before Christmas about the appointment of the Management Services Entity (MSE), which will manage the 67 MANs throughout the country — a sort of Government-appointed telco for the telcos. “Basically, we have put notice in the Official Journal of the European Communities inviting tenders for running the MSE,” the spokesperson adds.

The MSE will represent the various local authorities that won’t be directly involved in the day-to-day running of the MANs because they don’t have the expertise. A competition will take place over the next six weeks to find a consortium that could take on the role of the MSE with bids expected from IT management firms and large telcos.

“The MSE will be paid a commission to sell dark [unlit] fibre and connectivity to the various MANs to telcos and ISPs, who in turn will sell their services cheaply and effectively to local businesses and homes,” explains the spokesman. “The open tendering process will basically seek interested companies and consortiums to tender business plans for the running of the network. We’ve hired a multidisciplinary team of experts from various departments to put this together and in two weeks’ time we will be issuing a consultation paper. We are co-operating with local authorities, government agencies and telcos on this one. The first 22 projects are essentially pathfinders.”

Rory Ardagh of wireless broadband firm European Access Providers believes that the goal to bring quality broadband to homes and businesses and see Ireland into the top three OECD firms is attainable. “Because it has committed to the PPP model, the main message from the Government is to bring private finance into the equation and allow the State to better manage finance,” he says.

“The PPP model should spring into action within the next six weeks and is based on significant successes achieved in other countries. This model has been successful in Hamburg, Milan, Canada and Sweden. Take, for example, the Alberta SuperNet, which managed to bring 10MB to homes and businesses in the Alberta province in Canada for around €40 per month.”

Ardagh explains that the thousands of kilometres of unlit dark fibre that languish alongside fields and railway lines will gradually be switched on. “All of these networks will interconnect with the various networks owned by CIE and ESB as well as the Global Crossing network,” he adds.