Towards a level playing field

2 Jun 2008

Ensuring Ireland is a level playing field for alternative operators to win business and provide competitive services is an all-consuming passion for the new chairman of ALTO.

While forum after forum is created by pundits, stakeholders and government ministers around the nebulous topic of next-generation networks (NGNs), alternative operators trying to build meaningful businesses from currently slim pickings are scratching their heads in wonder.

On the one hand, we are being told all is rosy. That said, there’s still a gaping 10-15pc of the Irish population who, if they wanted broadband, just can’t get it.

Independent providers of services say they cannot reach this segment of the population because economically it is too prohibitive and instead rely on eventually unbundling a local exchange or reselling broadband under Eircom’s bitstream service.

For Liam O’Halloran (pictured), chairman of ALTO, ensuring proper standards and fair access to equipment and services around these exchanges is proving to be a full-time job.

He is nonchalant about NGNs because he has already been there, building out fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) services for service provider Magnet. “I would be fairly familiar with what the future has in store for customers but I think much of this talk is premature when we are still faced with rural issues and not rolling out broadband to lesser populated areas of Ireland. This has been and will remain a challenge.

“While the Government’s National Broadband Scheme (NBS) is an acknowledgement of that gap, there is serious investment required to bridge it.”

As well as this, O’Halloran insists that the quality of what constitutes broadband also needs to be addressed. Not only is Ireland late to broadband but in doing a phenomenal catch-up job, has to be realistic and realise that services of over and beyond 12Mbps to 16Mbps are now taken for granted in many European countries.

“1Mbps is not good enough and the NBS will need to be revised to take this into account. We feel, however, that it’s important to get something done and find the mechanism to get it upgraded later.”

However, at a local exchange level, O’Halloran believes things should be continuing to evolve.

In recent weeks, ComReg proposed to drop the price Eircom charges operators for sharing lines at local exchanges by 65pc and O’Halloran says this is good news for licensed operators

“Eircom’s decision on this will be crucial to the development of the sector. At the same time, it could mean a considerable reduction in Eircom’s revenues, so it will look at ways to retain it.

“The current line charges are prohibitively high and are a significant barrier to unbundling. It is also a major barrier to new entrants and we want to see the price reduced to realistic levels that will encourage investment.”

Another major issue O’Halloran wants to see addressed is line failure rates, particularly for business users. “3pc out of every 100 lines for businesses fail a line test for broadband, compared with an international standard of 1.5pc.

“Another problem is the length of time it takes to fix the line. A major priority for ALTO in the year ahead is to make sure that service quality meets the expectations of customers and operators and begins to improve.

“The ultimate reason for this, we believe, is the major lack of investment over the past ten years into the main network.”

That said, O’Halloran believes Eircom’s investment in NGN for the core network is vital. “The solution Eircom is putting forward is moving ahead and we’re quite happy to see what will emerge.

“The key is to create a level playing field for alternative operators and to ensure that Ireland has a chance to keep up with competing economies. A lot has been done, but more needs to be done to achieve that improvement.”

By John Kennedy