South West goes wireless with satellite internet trials

8 Jul 2003

Tests are under way of a new broadband initiative aimed at supplying high capacity internet links to businesses in the South West of Ireland. The field trials are part of a pilot programme organised by the South West Regional Authority (SWRA), using satellite and wireless connectivity to provide the necessary infrastructure where fixed-line broadband is unavailable.

The programme is being driven by the SWRA, which has a remit to promote the area’s economic sustainability and to encourage inward investment there. According to project manager Sinéad Crowley, the scarcity of broadband to date is seen as the final barrier to developing a knowledge-based economy in the region. Using satellite access also gets around the problem of providing fibre optic cable to remote rural areas.

The initiative has a budget of €500,000; half of this is being provided by the European Space Agency with the remainder supplied by other partners in the project, such as network hardware manufacturers, satellite internet service providers and organisations such as County Councils and Údarás na Gaeltachta. The list of partners includes iDirect, 3Com, Europe*Star, Ildana, Hughes, Satlynx, DCM Group, Tachyon, Englight Teststation, UrElectronics and Intel.

Originally the project was to involve just providing satellite internet access to fourteen sites in the region such as business parks, but the SWRA added wireless networking to the plan. Last month a WiFi network was set up in Cahirciveen, Co. Kerry and a similar infrastructure will be publicly launched in Bantry, Co Cork next Friday 18 July.

Wireless access points are being set up around both towns, effectively making them one big wireless hotspot. For the duration of the trials, users with wirelessly enabled laptops will be able to access the internet at high speed, free of charge, from most locations around the participating towns. Network equipment maker 3Com is also making its wireless access cards available for resale at discounted prices, to encourage uptake of the service among users.

Although there is no cost for the service during field testing – likely to last between three and six months – users must first sign up to access the WiFi network. This will create an account for each user and will also allow the service to be evaluated according to criteria such as usability, reliability and the amount of time spent online. If the tests are successful, plans are in place to roll out hotspots in two additional towns in the South West.

According to Crowley, the service should pay for itself: if a participating local authority or enterprise board finds the service useful and sufficient numbers of subscribers are in place, then they will foot the bill for the cost of the satellite and wireless network equipment once the test period is over. If not, the SWRA has the option to remove the hardware and reinvest it in another area to gauge interest there. Crowley added that broadband was a means to an end in terms of making the South West a viable option for businesses and individuals to live and work. She said that if the satellite and wireless projects proved demand for broadband existed, telecoms operators may be persuaded to provide competing fixed-line services to these areas. At the very least, satellite services make broadband a good – and cost-effective – medium term option until DSL becomes a viable option, Crowley added.

Interest in the project has come from far and wide; the involvement of the European Space Agency and five satellite operators has meant that the results of the field tests will be distributed across the continent. Closer to home, ComReg and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources are also watching developments, Crowley added.

By Gordon Smith