Ruling expected today on flat-rate access

7 Jan 2003

Communications regulator Comreg will publish a decision later today, ruling that internet service providers and telecommunications firms should be able to provide flat-rate internet access.

The decision, which will see consumers able to use the internet day or night for an unlimited period of time using a standard dial-up internet modem connected to a PC for a flat monthly fee, follows pressure from a number of interested lobby groups and a recent intervention by the Minister for Commmunications, Dermot Ahern TD.

The regulator hopes that today’s landmark decision will see such a service available within a few months.

The move, which is vigorously opposed by Eircom, which dominates the market, will force the company to provide wholesale flat-rate internet product to its competitors, allowing it to start offering a retail product in the near future.

Nearly every home and business in the country uses Eircom’s network, meaning that competitors have to get wholesale access to its network to offer consumers a flat-rate product.

One of the most vocal groups lobbying for the introduction of such as service is IrelandOffline. Speaking to its spokesman, David Long, says that while he would be delighted to see to such a development, it would be a hollow victory for lobbyists if the price of the new product was not right.

“There’s no mention of the price or affordability of flat rate. If it’s above €35 a month then it’s of no use. I see no value in it if it’s not less than this,” he says.

Long also believes that today’s expected ruling will ultimately benefit Eircom as it will increase overall penetration: “Penetration is currently stagnant at 34pc. Once a flat rate is introduced, most people will opt to have a connection at home because the cost will not be an issue.”

Because of Eircom’s opposition to the product – it believes it would not be economic for it – Ireland has lagged behind at least eight other European states where the service is already available.

Among the points expected to be raised during today’s decision is the fact that the provision of a wholesale service to rivals is mandatory for all existing operators under EU law.

Some have suggested the possibility of legal difficulties arising out of today’s ruling, with some claiming that the commission may not have the power to force Eircom to provide the product.

A set of directives was agreed by the EU two years ago with a deadline for member states to impose them by this year. According to Long, the transposition of the directives will improve the powers available to ComReg for the implementation of ‘capacity based products’ such as flat-rate dial up.

By Suzanne Byrne