Time to get the ball rolling on Ireland’s fibre infrastructure

24 Jun 2010

There are a number of misguided people – unfortunately many of them in the upper echelons of Ireland’s ailing economic engine – who think that high-speed fibre broadband is only about enabling people to download movies and play video games.

This infrastructure will be integral to helping Ireland escape the clutches of recession, however. Fibre infrastructure equals opportunities for job creation and as Google CEO Eric Schmidt pointed out during his visit to Ireland late last year: “Broadband leadership will be a pre-condition for economic growth.”

Evidence of the impact of the availability of fibre in rural towns in particular can be seen in the first 27 towns to get Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) – they grew their share of foreign direct investment from 24pc to 90pc in the first four years.

But the problem facing Ireland, is who is willing to invest the estimated €2.5bn? The Government believes in letting market forces decide, aka the telecom players. Yet, the telecom operators believe that if they do make the investment it has to be a collaboration of all players.

The problem is none of them know how to make this happen.

Time for action

“There’s been a lot of talk about next-generation access and I don’t think we can go for another year talking about it,” Eircom CEO Paul Donovan said last week at the company’s announcement that it is to invest €20m in piloting fibre-to-the- home broadband of 150Mbps in both Wexford and Sandyford in Dublin.

The purpose of the pilot is to find out exactly how much it will cost to deploy fibre in a country with a dispersed, low-density population. Eircom says it is willing to work with other operators to find the answer.

“Today 15pc of the traffic on the internet is video,” Donovan explained. “By 2015, 80pc of the internet will be video. The present telecoms system will struggle to keep up.”

To illustrate his point, Donovan said 3D TV will require 16Mbps speeds for each eyeball watching the World Cup.

“Two years ago, 1Mbps to 2Mbps would have been considered adequate. Today, between 6Mbps and 10Mbps is good enough. Tomorrow, the users will be looking for up to 30Mbps and very soon speeds much beyond that.”

The key, he said, is to avoid an overbuild of fibre capacity in just one part of the country – like Dublin – and focus on a more regional dispersal of fibre.

“Regulation will need to move from a focus on competition to regulation that encourages investment. I’m not asking the Government or Telecoms Regulator to do anything. I believe it is industry that will need to come forward with a model for the future. I would encourage all industry players to participate in this trial to really understand the supply-and-demand economics and build fibre-based services.”

Trials by Eircom

Eircom, in the past two years, conducted technical trials of both fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) and fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) technologies. In January 2010, speeds of up to 24Mbps were introduced for 500,000 customers using ADSL2+ technology. In March, Eircom launched its Next Generation Broadband, raising the entry level broadband to up to 8MB for Eircom customers and offering improved broadband performance for up to 1 million customers.

Speaking from Shanghai last week, Communications Minister Eamon Ryan TD said that in the past three years, €1.5bn in public and private money has been invested in Ireland’s broadband infrastructure. This comprises €516m invested in 2008, €700m in 2009 and an investment of €230m in the National Broadband Scheme.

In the coming months, cable provider UPC will launch 100Mbps fibre-powered broadband to potentially more than 500,000 homes.

One provider that is already providing fibre-to-the-home broadband is Magnet Networks, which has 11,000 homes and businesses in Dublin and Portlaoise achieving speeds of 50Mbps and higher. The company is planning to pilot 200Mbps speeds during the summer.

Magnet CEO Mark Kellett says he is looking with interest at Eircom’s plans to pilot fibre and would be willing to take part in the pilot. However, he warns that a major difficulty will be educating local authorities to approve fibre deployment in towns and along motorways. “They need to ask themselves, do they want to enhance their local area in terms of jobs and investment?

“There’s a big job to be done around educating people about connectivity.”

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