Ireland’s eyes turn to Wi-Fi

4 Feb 2003

Ireland’s poor track record in broadband deployment has been highlighted in many embarrassing ways over the past few months. There has been the trouble with international fibre carrier Global Crossing in which the Government invested over €70m as an incentive to come to Ireland.

Then there was the data centre debacle in which out of 22 major projects, less than half remain. Successive competitiveness benchmarking reports such as that of the National Competitiveness Council and the recent eCities report from the Dublin Chamber of Commerce lambasted the country’s pitiful performance in providing businesses with affordable high-speed internet services. Only last week another in a long list of surveys, this time from Strategy Analytics, placed Ireland second last (as always) in Europe in terms of broadband penetration. Our fixed-line broadband work is anything but fixed.

Earlier this week, mobile telecommunications company O2 unveiled the first phase of its wireless local area network (WLAN) rollout to 12 business locations in Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway. The first phase involved an investment of €1.9m, of which €111,000 came from the coffers of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. Present at the launch, the Minister for Communications, Dermot Ahern TD, hinted at a growing preference in his department for wireless broadband access in regional areas over fixed-line broadband. The expensive and drawn-out romance with fibre optic networks spanning our nation and connecting us with the rest of the world, resulting in much heartbreak, is seemingly over as more and more concentration on alternative means of bringing broadband to the regions appears to be en vogue.

O2 WLAN programme manager, Tony Dempsey, says that the company worked closely with the Government on the project and adds that the decision by the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg) to relax the regulatory environment surrounding WLAN means that Ireland is currently likely to be one of the leading countries in Europe for spearheading WLAN access throughout the continent. The plan is to form roaming agreements with other WLAN, or Wi-Fi, providers in Ireland as well as increasing the number of wireless hotspots in Irish cities in towns. On the question of receiving further support from the Government for such projects, Dempsey says he wouldn’t rule out the option.

Wi-Fi networks, offering wireless broadband speeds of up to 11Mbps (megabits per second) in a 100 square metre radius, have been in existence for four years. However, it has been only in the past 18 months that WLANs have been proliferating faster than anything, particularly in the US, where coffee shops such as Starbucks and some 15 million businesses and homes opt for hi-speed wireless broadband. The present standard – 802.11b – looks set to be replaced in future months by the new 802.11a standard, which promises greater security. However, another standard -802.11g – is being pushed by Apple, promising speeds of up to 64Mbps. Wi-Fi networks are popping up in a variety of locations, ranging from airports to hotels and train stations.

The O2 WLAN service, offering users up to 11Mbps internet access in an area up to 100 square metres, will be available in two different pricing models – by voucher or through contract. Laptop or personal digital assistant users wishing to get internet access at any time in one of the above locations can purchase a voucher at a designated point that can give them access in one-hour or 24-hour formats. Under the contract system, for O2 subscribers, a €10 monthly subscription would buy the user approximately one hour of free access per month, with each session of 20 minutes thereafter costing €2 per session. For occasional contract users that haven’t registered as subscribers to the WLAN service, the charge is €3 per 20-minute session.

In Dublin, the O2 WLAN service will be available in locations including Heuston Station, Burlington Hotel, Westbury Hotel, Bewley’s Hotels at Newlands Cross and Ballsbridge, Jury’s Hotel, Towers Hotels, Shelbourne Hotel and The Hilton. Other national sites include Westwood Hotel in Galway, South Court Hotel in Limerick and Maryborough House Hotel in Cork.

To coincide with the launch of its WLAN service, which follows a rigorous trial period, O2 unveiled the Nokia D211 data card that includes GPRS functionality and retails at €329. However, most WLAN access cards can be acquired for less than €100 and will work with the various WLANs created by O2 and its partners. As well as this, Apple iBook users can enjoy instant WLAN access as most iBooks come with built-in AirPort technology for WLANs.

While Wi-Fi offers the user many advantages over traditional fixed line dial-up internet access, many of the providers who have invested in opening services in hotel lobbies and coffee shops have yet to make a red cent from it.

According to Dempsey, the emphasis will be on making a return on its investment. “Our approach differs in that we have deployed hotspots in key locations where there will be a business need,” he says. “Instead of placing them in coffee shops or ordinary public areas, we identified partnerships based on business customers and international travellers who will pay for the services. We are currently working to develop virtual private network services targeted at firms that are security conscious.”

Dempsey says that in order to expand WLANs throughout Ireland the company will be identifying areas of opportunities as well as establishing partnerships with other local WLAN operators. “We also have plans to establish agreements with overseas operators. We will look to do this on a country-by-country basis. We’ve been fortunate insofar as the regulator was able to make sure that the spectrum for WLAN has been unregulated. Compared with the rest of Europe, Ireland would be at the top of the scale in terms of the speed of deploying WLANs,” Dempsey concludes.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Dermot Ahern TD, with chief executive of O2 Danuta Gray