Is Ireland living with a great broadband myth

Jason Coyle of Mr. Crumb sitting on a window sill in his office, trying to keep his signal strong. Picture: Barry Cronin

We are 43rd in the world for internet speeds. Our network is patchwork and too many people are reliant on sluggish, inconsistent services. The economic damage is huge, reports John Hearne

WE are a disconnected society. Large numbers of people have little or no connection to the internet. While the minister responsible, Pat Rabbitte, said that broadband was as important to rural Ireland as electricity was in the last century, we are still at the bottom of international tables.

According to Ookla’s household download index, Ireland’s average internet speed ranks 43rd internationally, behind Lithuania, Romania and Bulgaria. The telecoms regulator, Comreg, reported last year that we have 16,000 internet users on dial-up. A third of internet subscriptions are mobile broadband, which is expensive, of variable quality and synonymous with small data caps. Eircom says 6% of the population can’t get a DSL connection. That’s 274,000 people reliant on mobile, satellite, or fixed-wireless services. Even for those who have a DSL service, our patchwork broadband infrastructure means the speeds frequently make the service unusable.

In April, Netflix announced that Ireland had the second-worst speeds of eight countries surveyed. In the July speed test, just one out of six Irish broadband providers achieved Netflix’s recommended 2Mbps streaming-speed measurement.

Minister Rabbitte’s comparison of broadband to electricity isn’t off the mark. Lobby group, Ireland Offline, has catalogued studies which indicate that the absence of universal connectivity is damaging to economic growth.

A recent World Bank study of 120 countries found that for every 10-percentage-point increase in the penetration of broadband there is an increase of 1.3 percentage points in economic growth. Research from McKinsey & concluded that a 10% increase in broadband household penetration produces a rise of 0.1% to 1.4% in GDP growth.

As we flounder at the bottom of international tables, countries with inhospitable terrain, such as Finland and Tanzania, are building decent broadband infrastructure (see right).

If you lie beyond the reach of Eircom’s fibre network, you have three options: mobile broadband, fixed wireless broadband, or satellite broadband.

Mobile broadband is available from a range of providers. You connect to the internet using a wireless USB modem, which is provided free as part of a contractual service, or for a charge by the service provider. Provider 3 offers a device for up to €59. As with most mobile broadband providers, 3 offers prepaid and bill-pay services. On bill-pay, the packages vary from €7.99 a month, for a 1GB download, up to €34.99, for 60Gb. Charges apply if you go above those download limits.

While 3 advertises speeds of ‘up to 21Mps’, few customers achieve anything like this. Their own speed tests reveal an average performance for the year, so far, of “circa 4Mbps”. Individual customers report huge variations in the quality of the service. Speeds are substantially dependent on how many customers are using the internet in any particular ‘cell’, at any particular time.

A cell is the signal mast’s catchment area. If traffic is high, bandwidth is shared between many users, thereby reducing the speed for all. 3, which won the contract to deliver the National Broadband Scheme five years ago, says that in cells where broadband is slow, due to high traffic, there are no plans to erect additional masts. A range of small providers, scattered throughout the country, provides fixed-wireless broadband services. They buy bandwidth wholesale, then erect a line of masts that ‘bounce’ signals to areas where other services are poor or absent. Ireland Offline has recently created a map, showing the different coverage areas and the companies that offer services in them. You’ll find it at irelandoffline.org/map.

Terms of service vary widely, but most fixed-wireless operators offer the usual, sliding scale, with prices depending on speed of connection and/or data usage. Rural Broadband, based in Clonakilty, Co. Cork, operates throughout Munster. Their most popular package costs €29.99 a month for a 3Mb download speed, while the one-off installation costs €99. There are no data caps, but a fair-usage policy applies.

Brian Sexton, who runs Rural Broadband, is also open to offers. Suppose, he says, a community that lies outside his catchment area wants broadband, and the infrastructure required to get the signal to that community costs €3,000.

“If ten families come together and put €300 into a kitty, we would do all the infrastructural work and they would have their own community broadband pole. Then, for each of those people who invested the €300, instead of charging the €30 a month that we normally charge, we would charge them something like €10 a month for a period of time, until they got their €300 investment back.”

Satellite services are the final fallback if no other signal can reach you. Prices vary substantially, so shop around. Eircom’s installation costs start at €772, while an 8GB download speed with an 8GB cap will cost over €45 a month. By contrast, Q Sat price installation at €149, with monthly data allowances ranging from €34.99 for 6GB, to €54.99 for 15GB.

Eamonn Wallace, of Ireland Offline, says there are several disadvantages with satellite. “The main problem with satellite is extreme latency (delay), just like in the movies, where they have to say ‘over’ and the other person knows it’s their turn to respond; that could be up to a minute later. Also, what they term ‘rain fade’ is a huge problem with satellite...if it rains you get no signal...not very useful in Ireland.”

Ireland Offline is also highly critical of the National Broadband Scheme, the €80m plan to ensure everyone has access to high-speed broadband.

The group has lodged a protest with the EU over how the scheme is being managed. “The National Broadband Scheme is a disaster,” says Wallace. “A technical disaster.”

Trying to keep jobs in the community

* Jason Coyle, director, Mr Crumb, Finea, Co Westmeath

“We employ 120 staff in Finea, a little village in Westmeath. We’re just one hour and 15 minutes from Dublin City centre, 25 minutes from Cavan town, and 25 minutes from Mullingar, but we can’t get reliable broadband.”

“We can’t get a service from Eircom. We’ve rung them every year since we set up in 1996, asking, ‘Any chance of the exchange being upgraded?’ They’ve always said ‘Yeah, it’s coming, it’s coming’.”

“We have a satellite service backed up by a dongle (mobile broadband). Broadband companies will tell you they’ll give you 30Mb speeds, but the reality is different. We are paying for 10Mb download and 4Mb upload, but we’ve done independent tests. The most recent one found we were getting 0.5Mb, upload and download.”

“Three weeks ago, we were without any broadband for five days. We deal with one of the largest satellite broadband providers in the country. They won awards, but their system is just unreliable.”

“We have a dongle as back-up, but, because the weather wasn’t great, we had very little coverage. On one of the days, I had to send a guy to his house to print stuff off and, another time, I had to get in the car and head to somebody’s house, near Mullingar, to print something off at 11 o clock at night. I lost at least two people per day for the five days the satellite was down, and we had to bring in external IT consultants to try and sort something out.”

“Someone asked me recently, ‘why don’t you move to Dublin’? It’s a fair point. But we’ve built up a business in a little village, which was a disadvantaged area with no employment. We’ve recruited lots of people from the farming community, people have moved to the area because of us, and we want to try to keep jobs in the community.”

“It’s just so infuriating, and it’s not good for an entrepreneurial society.”

Tourists congest the network

* Eileen Murray, Waterville, Co Kerry

“The biggest problem is that in the summer the influx of tourists means congestion is just too much. The other night, I did a speed test and the speed I got was 0.06Mb, and I’m paying for a 3Mb line. It’s absolutely crazy, it’s ridiculous.”

“I work as a web designer. When you’re self-employed, you don’t just work nine to five. When you have a project on the go, you’re working all the time. If I’m working late, it just crawls, because everyone is using it. There’s nothing I can do, except sit and grin and bear it. I have one project that has really heavy files, so I can’t really work on it here. I have to wait until I go to Dublin.”

“There’s another guy in Waterville running a video-production company, and you can imagine how frustrating it is for him, because he can’t send his videos. He has clients in Cork and Dublin who have fibre-powered broadband. He does video shoots, then edits the material. When he sends it off, they’re expecting it in 15 minutes. Four hours later, it’s not even gone from here.”

“Waterville is a fantastic place to live and more people could live and work here if we had proper broadband.”

Poor connection might drive Adam back on the road

* Adam Eccles, Kilmihil, Co Clare

“I’m a techie. I work as a project manager for a large, global computer company. In the last few years, I switched around jobs, so I could work from home, because it’s a 45-mile drive each way and it costs a fortune in diesel.”

“I live just outside the village of Kilmihil in Co Clare. Three years ago, we finally got DSL in the village. It was a long time coming; before that, I had to deal with 3G dongles and the best signal I could get was very poor. But when the Eircom guy came with DSL, he said ‘I can only give you 3Mb’. I was disappointed, but I said ‘fair enough’. I do speed tests all the time, and for the first couple of years I had a fairly solid 2.5Mb, but, in the last six months, it’s been gradually getting slower and slower, as more people get connected around the village.”

“The local exchange is enabled for 24Mb. My line is capable of 12Mb and I’m only a mile from the exchange, so I couldn’t understand why my speed was so poor. After a lot of research, I figured out what the deal is. The exchange is, indeed, enabled for 24Mb, but the link to Kilrush, where the signal is coming from, is a wireless microwave link and it’s capped at 16Mb, so we’ve only got 16Mb for the entire village.”

“My employer will only allow home-working if you can get at least 3 meg, and that can’t be a 3G connection. 3G connections vary hugely in quality, and there are ping delays (delays in communication between computers, making certain applications difficult to use). When my connection goes down, I have two choices. One is to drive to my sister in Ennis, who has a fibre connection, or I can give up working from home. That hits me immediately with €100 a week in diesel. And why should I spend two or three hours on the road every day when I can do my job from anywhere?”


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