Beating the broadband blues

11 Jun 2003

The hearings on the provision of a national broadband infrastructure last week at the information, communications and technology (ICT) sub-committee of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources proved timely and somewhat ironic given Eircom’s mounting court challenge to a long-delayed decision by the Commission for Communication Regulation (ComReg) to cut the cost which Eircom charges other operators to use its local access network.

The committee itself is in the process of preparing a report for the Communications Minister, Dermot Ahern TD, on how best to support broadband technology to the various communities around Ireland.

“We are looking at high-speed internet access in terms of connectivity, pricing and availability,” explained Noel O’Flynn, chairman of the committee. “This is as a result of concern being expressed to us throughout the country over the positioning of Ireland in terms of technology and broadband, and also the high prices being charged, which have made it harder for people to connect and use the internet.”

At the hearings, manufacturers and developers of software and equipment gave their views on Ireland’s broadband need.

According to Phil Smith, director of business development at telecoms equipment supplier Cisco, which employs approximately 1,500 people in Ireland and the UK, a developed broadband infrastructure is essential for a country to be competitive. “Where a country has a developed broadband infrastructure, we can set up a platform, a base and deliver new applications, we don’t have to worry about the infrastructure … For a company like us, it is very disheartening not seeing the investment in broadband in Ireland that you would expect to see.”

Hewlett-Packard’s (HP), public affairs director, Una Halligan, said that broadband was essential if Ireland was to keep its competitive advantage. “Ireland really cannot afford not to have a broadband infrastructure,” she said. “The Government cannot do all this on its own, and given the difficult economic circumstances, it does need to look to industry to work with them to provide broadband access for all.” HP employs over 4,000 people in Ireland.

Joe Macri, general manager of Microsoft Ireland, which employs about 1,700 staff at its European Operations Centre in Sandyford, listed three areas where Ireland lags other European countries: “High cost; the third lowest penetration of PC in the home in western Europe and the third worst in the EU for access to computers and IT in the classroom.” Extolling the benefits of a developed broadband infrastructure, Macri made a number of recommendations including the promotion and investment in remote rural satellite services, discounts for disadvantaged people, a public IT literacy programme and free broadband to schools.

Alternatives to broadband were also discussed. Leap Broadband, for example, urged for wireless broadband legislation in Ireland to be “updated urgently”. According to its founder Rory Ardagh, wireless legislation in Ireland is currently outdated and technological advance has been stymied consistently because of this. “State assets ought to be made available for use by Leap, and others, to provide broadband in towns around the country,” he proclaimed. “CIE has a great fibre infrastructure that, though incomplete, could be made available as is to reach tens of towns around the country. ESB, which is also in state ownership, should be forced to make available a usable product at a reasonable price. And Global Crossing connectivity should be provided all around the country instead of to just two Dublin industrial estates.” Ardagh also proposed that the Competition Authority undertake an independent evaluation of the state of competition within the Irish telco industry and to benchmark the effectiveness of ComReg to date.

John McAleer, director of the South West Regional Authority, spoke about the digital divide aspect of broadband. “Given market forces, broadband will only be provided where the largest customer bases exist, ie in the larger cities and towns. Telecoms providers will not be prepared to make large investments to service peripheral or marginalised communities. Therefore, instead of being an agent to promote dispersal and equality of access for rural and peripheral areas, it quickly becomes a very strong agent of economic concentration,” he said. McAleer added that providing universal broadband was not economically viable, if the approach was based solely on the rollout of fibre optic cable throughout the State and made the case for satellite broadband.

Other submissions included the National Centre for Technology in Education, the Atlantic Technology Alliance, Ireland WAN, Ireland Offline, the Southern Health Board, St Vincent’s Secondary School in Dundalk, the Dublin City Development Board, the National Union of Journalists and the RTÉ Group of Unions. The telcos and ComReg will appear before the committee in the coming weeks.

Summing up the hearings, O’Flynn told that he didn’t want the outcomes of the proceedings but hinted at the tack the committee would take. “Our recommendations will be asking for a further acceleration in investment. I commend the Government for its initiative in relation to the 19 towns where we are going to have metropolitan area networks, but we must not stop there. We must have connectivity throughout the whole country and no areas must be disadvantaged. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should have fibre to fibre all over this country, but what I am saying is that you must have a system available to all.”

By Lisa Deeney

Pictured with the Communications Minister, Dermot Ahern, were, from left, Anne O’Connell (16) and Ruth Devine (16) from St Vincent’s Secondary School in Dundalk, who enlightened the Oireachtas joint committee on the value of high-speed broadband internet technology in education