Light at the end of the fibre for Ireland?

18 Mar 2014

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of the world wide web, when Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist at CERN in Switzerland, drafted the web’s framework. Today, the web contains some 30bn webpages, 919m websites and 265m domain names, according to Google, Netcraft and Verisign, respectively.

Today, the internet faces bottlenecks as the speed and amount of data driven by video, social, photos and e-commerce, not to mention smartphones, surpasses the ability of nations to deploy sufficient broadband infrastructure. The lynchpin of being able to keep up will be the availability of fibre-optic networks that link villages, towns and cities with the highways and byways of the global world wide web.

Neelie Kroes, the European Commissioner for Digital Agenda, summed up the issue recently, when she spoke at IT event CeBIT in Hamburg, Germany.

“Germany has autobahn for cars and mostly village streets for internet! Good enough? No,” Kroes said.

Fibre connectivity will be just as vital in the 21st century as roads, airports, electricity and water infrastructure were for the 20th century.

Countries such as Japan and South Korea boast 1Gbps (gigabits per second) availability in homes and more than 45 US cities are vying to be the next to receive 1Gbps speeds via Google Fiber. Already there is talk of creating the first 10Gbps homes in the US within three years.

While Ireland may be nowhere near this rate of progress, there is something of a revolution going on.

Irish Government goal: 30Mbps by 2015

The Irish Government has a goal of having a minimum of 30Mbps (megabits per second) for every home by 2015. The past six months saw telecoms operator Eircom stick to its plan to roll out 100Mbps fibre-based broadband to 1m premises by this summer and it is understood that 700,000 homes can access fibre-based broadband through copper technology known as vectoring.

Cable player UPC now has 330,000 broadband subscribers receiving 150Mbps (and 500Mbps for businesses). Some 700,000 homes are passed by its network and are capable of receiving speeds of up to 200Mbps.

Electricity provider ESB even harbours ambitions to open its network through a joint venture with another telecoms or infrastructure player on a wholesale basis, understood but not confirmed as Vodafone, in a move that would benefit at least 500,000 homes.

So has Ireland finally got its house in order when it comes to broadband and how does it stack up internationally?

“Eircom is currently undertaking one of the largest private-sector rollouts of high-speed broadband in Europe, investing over €400m in our network,” said Carolan Lennon, managing director of eircom Wholesale.

“By 2016, our fibre broadband will be available to 1.4m homes and small businesses – approximately 70pc of the premises in the country.

“As of today, we are halfway through this rollout: 6,000km of new fibre has been installed and fibre broadband is available to 700,000 homes and small business in 26 counties.”

How vectoring works

Lennon said vectoring uses noise cancelling technology to boost broadband speeds to homes and businesses. This process strengthens the broadband signal and vectoring technology is capable of boosting broadband speeds up to 100Mbps for more than 700,000 homes and businesses across Ireland.

Eircom has deployed vectoring technology to 150 of its fibre broadband cabinets, Lennon said. By the end of this month, vectoring will have been deployed to the vast majority of Eircom’s 3,000 fibre broadband cabinets.

“The key thing to understand about our rollout is that it’s not just the cities or larger towns that can access the network,” Lennon said. “Places like Carrickmacross, Gorey, Fermoy and Clonmel are all live on the network today. By the end of this summer, fibre will be available in 100 locations across Ireland – most notably in towns with approximately 4,000 in population, places like Skibereen, Birr and Bundoran.”

Upcoming phases of the rollout will see the fibre network brought to areas with a population of fewer than 1,000 people, she added.

“It is a huge commitment by the company to address the genuine need for high-speed broadband in towns of all sizes across Ireland.”

An alternative technology to copper and fibre-based VDSL (very high bit rate digital subscriber line) is fibre-powered cable deployed by TV and broadband player UPC as a result of a €500m investment by its parent company Liberty Global.

“UPC’s constant service innovation has led us to becoming speed leaders in the broadband space,” said Magnus Ternsjö, CEO of UPC Ireland.

“We have been responsible for increasing the speed trend for the past six years, from offering 3Mbps back in 2008 to offering speeds of 200Mbps in homes today and 500Mb (megabytes) for businesses.

“I think overall we have been innovators in the need for speed and delivery of scale and we intend to maintain that position going forward.”

Increase in consumption of data and content

The consumption of data and content has exploded around the world and no less in Ireland. Data from INEX (the Irish Neutral Internet Exchange) has shown an 800pc increase in total traffic per month in Ireland since 2009, Ternsjö said.

Over at ESB, the company aims to roll out a fibre broadband service across Ireland to the tune of €400m – a move that will benefit 500,000 homes.

The idea is that once the network goes live, the joint venture will then offer fibre connectivity to other telecoms operators on a wholesale basis.

The first phase of this project will cover half a million homes that are not currently served by high-speed connections, said Stephen O’Connor, head of public policy at ESB.

“These homes are in towns all around Ireland outside of areas served by existing cable operators, giving access during the first phase to 30pc of the available building population in the Republic of Ireland outside of Dublin City.”

O’Connor added that Phase 1 of the project will target all towns with more than 4,000 buildings (homes and businesses) and depending on commercial performance, further phases will follow.

Phase 1 will also include those parts of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford that do not have an existing high-speed fixed-line (cable) offering.

O’Connor said the network will be built by attaching fibre-optic cable to ESB’s low-voltage electricity overhead and underground network in urban areas outside of the major cities.

The building of the Fibre Co network involves an investment of circa €400m, which will be spent on contractors, materials and other services and will directly support 200 jobs over the five-year deployment, said O’Connor.

He had no comment on whether Vodafone has been declared preferred bidder for the joint venture, and only said, “ESB is in advanced discussions with a major international telco about becoming a partner to ESB in this venture. ESB expects an announcement in the coming weeks. This partner has been chosen following an open public competition.”

Concern for small Irish communities

So the future is looking somewhat brighter for fibre in built-up areas, but the concern is for smaller communities, such as villages and rural districts, where the financial rewards are not great enough for telecoms companies to make an investment.

Eamonn Wallace, chairman of lobby group Ireland Offline, said many communities could be waiting till beyond 2016 to access fibre services.

Eircom’s more rural VDSL programme, announced in November, is not due until July 2016, said Wallace.

“Whatever about VDSL as a long-term solution in urban areas, it is the wrong technology for rural areas,” he added. “UPC is still in urban areas only. Cable is essentially an urban technology, but we welcome it, as far as it goes.”

ESB’s plans are welcome for those in suburban areas and large provincial towns, Wallace said.

“We have no indications that the commercial phase of this plan will affect rural broadband. It would be better if the various plans and proposals were co-ordinated; rollouts are expensive, and even though there should be competition, certain baseline co-ordination is a valid policy,” Wallace said.

Still, the economic benefits for Ireland are incalculable, said Ternsjö.

“Digital transformation has been a key contributor to Ireland’s economic recovery and job creation. If Ireland simply follows the trend in other countries at a similarly advanced stage of digitisation, then the internet’s contribution to the Irish economy will have the possibility to double its share of GDP by 2016.”

The real winners will be small businesses, said O’Connor.

“Small businesses can develop a cost-effective website and online presence, tapping into the estimated €4bn that Irish people spend online per year, as well as opening their virtual doors to a global marketplace,” he said.

Lennon also said fibre infrastructure will be the nation’s lifeblood in the 21st century.

“A large number of studies at a European level suggest a multiplier effect – that investment in high-speed broadband is returned a multiple of times through various parts of the economy,” she said.
“High-speed broadband is vital for economic development – and in particular balanced economic development.”

A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 16 March

Fibre optique, via LL Twistiti/

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years