The dawn of a new broadband age or just business as usual?

18 Apr 2009

Without a clear fibre-optics network plan, this country risks missing out on major employment opportunities and could endanger hundreds of millions of euro worth of current wireless network investment.

The recession seems to have put talk about next-generation networks (NGNs) on hold. But what it hasn’t stopped is providers’ ability to innovate with what they have and strike new deals with one another.

As Magnet begins to bring new fibre ashore in Northern Ireland, and once again investors bid for what’s left of Eircom, there is evidence that fixed-line broadband providers are consolidating and enhancing the networks they’ve built so far.

It emerged yesterday that BT and Vodafone are in talks about enabling Vodafone to source less wholesale capacity from Eircom to power its Vodafone Home product. Vodafone last year acquired Perlico for €80m, and its DSL services are largely resold versions of Eircom’s bitstream product. Earlier this week, Vodafone signed a €17m deal with E-net for multi-year access to Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs).

BT, for its part, this week revealed that in the 22 locations where it has successfully unbundled the local loop, new customers will automatically get 24Mbps broadband speeds at prices of €39.16 (including VAT) and €46.19 respectively for a 10GB and 30GB download limit, with line rental included. Users can get a no-limits download policy for €56.23 per month.

A spokesperson for BT told that all existing BT customers in the 22 exchanges will be upgraded at no extra charge from next month.

A reciprocal relationship between BT and Vodafone could prove advantageous to BT in terms of the mobile broadband stakes. The world is rapidly moving in the direction of ultra-mobile computing devices – somewhere between an iPhone and a netbook – and having mobile broadband services, perhaps as part of an MVNO (mobile virtual network operator) deal, would make sense for BT.

Arguably, mobile broadband is the one area of development of possible NGNs where there is actual energy. Meteor is constructing a 3G network that has a swift upgrade path to Long Term Evolution (LTE) or 4G. By September, the service will cover 53pc of the Irish population.

Also with an eye on the 4G prize is Hutchison Whampoa’s 3 Ireland, which earlier this year was awarded the €220m National Broadband Scheme contract to bring Ireland to 100pc broadband penetration. The rollout should have begun by now, and it is envisaged the 100pc coverage target will be reached by September 2010.

All of this sounds like things are going swimmingly. On paper, yes, if you believe in a future of ubiquitous wireless services that support any device for any citizen anywhere.

Wrong. For a fully developed wireless future, it would be a very naïve person who would think the jigsaw is complete without factoring in fibre.

A powerful data-intensive wireless network is only going to be as good as the fibre backhaul that supports it.

Talk about a wireless future is mere bunk, unless Ireland benefits from a deep concentration of fibre networks that criss-cross the nation. Then you can have your LTE or WiMax in any flavour, but not until then.

It is now almost a year since Communications Minister Eamon Ryan TD unveiled his Next Generation Network paper, which promised a one-stop shop for joining up the State’s existing rich trove of fibre assets that are sitting in the ground and not connected to anything. Sage sources at the time reserved their judgement until an actual delivery plan was detailed. They’re still waiting.

In fairness, ESB Networks have demonstrated vision and is providing backhaul that joins up the various Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) run by E-net, to which players like O2, Vodafone and UPC are able to serve more and more of the country.

But more needs to be done. We need deep-fibre networks.

What about the vast fibre rings owned by Bord Gais and the miles and miles of fibre cabling that runs along rail networks owned by CIE?

At a time when the country is feeling the pain of a global recession, the opportunity to build a rich and dense fibre-optic network through joining up existing assets must be grasped.

Otherwise, visions of an Ireland with vast wireless infrastructure to support indigenous export growth and inward investment is just watery talk.

In the UK yesterday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown indicated that the Government is considering “pump priming” financial intervention to ensure next-generation broadband is available to all UK households.

Strategists across the sea realise that the private sector on its own won’t provide the connectivity needed.

I have yet to hear our own Taoiseach Brian Cowen TD even mention the word “broadband”. The lack of joined up thinking – and this has been a problem for more than 11 years now – is not serving this country.

A brave fibre plan would help boost confidence in the telecoms industry, help kick-start the economy and, in another area that seems to be ignored by the establishment, lead to more civil engineering and construction work that would help thousands of unemployed people get back to work.

It’s time to wake up.

By John Kennedy

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