The great broadband myth

THE exchequer is celebrating an €845m windfall from last week’s 4G auction, but lobbyists say rural dwellers expecting a good broadband connection should leave the champagne on ice.

The great broadband myth

Eamonn Wallace, of Ireland Offline, says that the auction included a 70% population-coverage clause.

This seems reasonable, but is less than 13% of the country.

“Even worse,” says Wallace, “only 50% of the population need be served by the new technology by the end of 2015, and existing technology, such as 3G, may be used to fill in the remaining 20%. This raises the possibility that 4G coverage, even in three years’ time, could be well below 10% of the State, by area, and still comply fully with the insipid targets set by Comreg.”

It’s painfully familiar to rural dwellers. When Fiona Falconer moved from London to the Wexford village of Monamolin, she expected internet speeds would be slower. She hadn’t anticipated no internet.

“I couldn’t believe that there were no broadband options whatsoever,” she says. She was working as a documentary filmmaker, and drove to Gorey three days a week to use an internet café.

“I contacted all of the various people who were touting broadband services in the area, to see what was feasible, and it turned out there wasn’t anything feasible. We were in, what I was told, was a black hole,” she says.

“When I went to Eircom to get a campaign going to get our exchange upgraded, I found out that ours was never going to be upgraded, it was too outdated. As far as we can tell, there’s a mouse on a wheel up there running the phone system — the phones go haywire when it rains.”

Falconer’s story isn’t so unusual. Despite the mantra that Ireland is the broadband capital of Europe, the telecoms regulator, Comreg, has reported that we have 16,000 internet users on dial-up. We have a huge reliance (34.1% of internet subscriptions) on mobile broadband, which is expensive, unreliable and synonymous with small data caps.

“There are still huge pockets of the country with a weak reception, or none at all,” says Seamus Boland, of Irish Rural Link, “where you have constant dropping out. You’ll find them the more westwards you go, and, even in some of the Leinster counties the broadband is simply not sufficient.” Even when you get it, it’s not that good.

Lobby group Ireland Offline’s most recent report says that Ireland dropped five places, down to 56th in the world, for download speeds, and down to 80th for upload speeds, a worse performance than Mongolia or Laos.

The day that the results of the auction were announced, a report commissioned by UPC, and carried out by Amarach Consulting, said that the digital economy had the potential to add 18,000 jobs to the Irish economy by 2016. None of these jobs are destined for rural Ireland.

“We live in a two-speed Ireland,” says Wallace. “Some cities and towns have excellent broadband … but, once you get out to the 200 exchanges in rural areas that have not been upgraded, you find two further classes: the ones that get three megabytes of broadband and the ones that get no broadband at all.”

The other issue with Irish broadband is that it’s never as broad as claimed.

Ireland Offline’s report says that the gap between contracted speeds and delivered speeds is the third widest in Europe. Your provider will charge you for three megabytes, but you’ll rarely get it, if ever.

As Ireland continues to languish at the wrong end of international comparison tables, it’s not difficult to find examples of universal broadband roll-out in the most unlikely places.

In Finland, access to one megabyte of broadband is a legal right.

Despite working in some of the most inhospitable of terrains, the Finns are delivering bandwidth above the Arctic circle. Tanzania, meanwhile, is in the middle of a $250m dollar project that will ring the entire country with a 4,600-mile fibre-optic cable network.

But, given our economic woes, is internet infrastructure a luxury we can’t afford? No, say the critics: lack of cash hasn’t prevented other countries from getting their infrastructure up to speed.

“Latvia lost 12% of its GDP in only one quarter three years ago,” says Wallace. “Having invested in the provision of fast broadband, the country went into recovery very quickly and has managed ten consecutive quarters of GDP growth. Latvia has some of the very best broadband in the entire EU.”

Broadband may not be the silver bullet that Wallace says, but there is no doubt that our poor connectivity is hampering recovery.

Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, said as much in August. The IDA reported to him that broadband issues can prove a decisive factor for foreign multinationals scouting locations.

But it’s not all about foreign multinationals.

Falconer says when she began to mobilise the community to bring broadband to Monamolin, she discovered people who were in a similar position to herself. “One of the guys that came up to me was a web developer. He had his own business, and he again had to take that business out of the community and go up to Gorey in order to operate. Ours is a vibrant community, but businesses like this one were being taken out of it because of poor access to broadband,” she says.

Boland says he has no doubt that our failure to deliver decent connectivity into the regions is limiting their ability to survive. “We don’t seem to have come to the space where small businesses, the sort where you have eight or ten people needing broadband to take orders, to supply information, to upload files, can actually operate in a competitive and comfortable framework.”

The Government’s response to the issue is the Rural Broadband Scheme, which was set up to provide a basic broadband service to individual rural premises that can’t get broadband anywhere else. The scheme links small broadband providers with customers across the country.

It would appear that it is a surface-scratching exercise. The department received only 5,000 applications from broadband-less householders before the closing date of Jul 2011.

Only 3,700 qualified under the terms of the scheme, and, of those, only 2,000 gave consent to receive written offers of service from the participating companies.

The trouble with the scheme, say critics, is that you could only qualify if you had no broadband at all. Rural dwellers with a lousy service need not apply.

In the meantime, people like Fiona Falconer have little choice but to go it alone. When all of the providers she went to told her that she would never get broadband, she set up a community scheme, which now provides robust connectivity to the whole village.

The Rural Broadband Scheme isn’t the only initiative out there, however.

Last August, Minister Rabbitte launched Delivering a Connected Society — A National Broadband Plan for Ireland, based around the report of the Next Generation Broadband Taskforce, and published last May.

The aim is to deliver at least 30 megabytes of bandwidth to every home and business in the State, “no matter how rural or remote”, within the lifetime of the Government.

Speaking at the launch, Minister Rabbitte said: “Despite the pressure on government finances, we will invest public funds so as to make sure more thinly populated areas are not left behind. Internet connectivity is now as important for both employment and society as electricity has been for the last 60 years.”

The plan promises State investment of €175m, but says that this money will only be spent if the market alone can’t deliver. To that end, the initiative also promises a number of measures designed to make the market more efficient.

Will they be enough?

Wallace is sceptical.

He’s particularly concerned that the over-reliance on mobile technology will continue, and says that while the document is long on aspiration, it’s short on detail.

Wallace says: “It does no more than speculate about an indicative investment from indicative sources, delivered over an unknown time frame on unknown technologies, and will reassure nobody. It is not a plan, its more like a hopeful prayer. It’s simply a plan about a plan.”

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