Saturday, September 29, 2007

Ireland's broadband status: again more waffle than action...

Silicon Republic ran an “interesting article” some time ago describing all the good things that are being done to improve Irelands low level of  broadband penetration. The article was another one that was long on praise for Eircom and the Irish government but short on fact and insight. The general gist of the article is that now that the availability of broadband is reaching acceptable levels in Ireland, providers are looking at offering speeds higher than the “entry-level” 1-2 Mbps DSL products. While higher speeds would be a great improvement it is nothing to boast about. Service providers in most other European countries offer much higher speeds at prices lower than what Irish people are expected to pay for the paltry 1-2 Mbps packages. Ebay’s MD was right when he dubbed these services “fraud-band” instead of broadband.

The article discusses comments made by the Irish government and several providers (but mainly quotes Eircom soundbites). However there is no insight from spokespeople for the various industries that are losing their competitive edge in a global marketplace due to a lack of broadband.

The current availability of broadband in Ireland can be summarised in a few short sentences: Several forms of broadband (DSL, cable, wifi/wimax, fibre etc.) are available in the major urban centres. If you live or work outside these areas your choice is limited to (maybe) DSL and mostly wifi and/or satellite. Large areas can still only get Internet access by dialup, a technology that is being axed in a lot of European countries due to lack of interest. New entrants in the broadband market mostly start by offering their services in the same urban centres that already being over-serviced by the existing operators. Large swathes of urban areas are only being serviced by WISP’s that have sprung from grass-roots initiatives. These are quite often under-funded and struggling to cope with the demand. The Irish government is doing squat to assist these companies while continuously pandering to Eircom.

The debate has now been shifted to so-called Next Generation Networks (NGN’s). This is just a spin-doctors attempt to divert the attention form the real problem. The current infra-structure is simply not able to provide broadband to most rural (and some urban) areas. Even if every exchange in the country was upgraded to allow DSL type services and opened up to allow LLU it would still be unable to provide the required level of connectivity. Why? Because of the miles and miles of rotten 7 corroded copper that runs from the exchanges to the end-user premises. Apparently the line-failure rate runs at 40% at the moment. Yes, that’s right: 40%!!

Eircom keeps using the number of users connected to enabled exchanges as the number of broadband enabled users but this is plain and utter non-sense. Theoretical figures don’t mean anything, we need to look at the real numbers.

The best thing that has happened to the Irish broadband market in the last 10 years is the establishment of the Metropolitan Area Networks (MAN’s). Large rings of fibre optic cable put in place around large urban centres, cities as well as large and medium sized towns.  However the management of these networks was then contracted out to a company called E-Net who just sits on this huge assets rather than promoting the use of it. I recall asking one of their executives years ago how and who they planned to market these networks to. His answer was a surprised: “market? We’re only supposed to manage these networks”.....

Access to the MAN’s is only available by going through E-Net’s expensive and arduous application process.


So do I have any suggestions on how the current impasse can be solved? Off course I do!

If the MAN’s were made more accessible and affordable we would see a lot more smaller operators jumping into the market. Running fibre into rural phone exchanges and turning them into “mini-MAN’s” could turn them into jumping off points for more operators. If I wanted to bring broadband to the area I now live in I would need to put a backhaul into place running from a city over 50 miles away. If the local exchange had fibre running into it I would have provided broadband to the whole area years ago.

A quote that supports this point of view is by Dutch operator KPN’s vice-president John Quist:  “One of the cornerstones of KPN’s plans is that in our network rebuilding we will make it a fully open network,” says Quist. “This means that it will be open to all service providers. All operators can use the NGN in the same way as our own service provider KPN Retail.”

What we don’t need is government interference in market pricing and service levels. Open up the market and let free-market economics work away at the crappy providers, high prices and low service levels.




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