Fergus Finlay: We’ve got the fibre, but have still made a meal of our connections

Trying to get to talk to someone in Open Eir is a recipe for a complete emotional meltdown, writes Fergus Finlay
Fergus Finlay: We’ve got the fibre, but have still made a meal of our connections

Our poor basic internet infrastructure sees many people use the hotspot on their phones to connect rather than use their wifi broadband network.

Think of me as a case history. I know the experience I’ve been having is by no means unique, but it’s driving me nuts. It’s the outworking of the craziest public policy decision ever made in the history of our country, and everything that flowed from that.

When I was newly married, you dealt with a civil servant, an officer of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, if you needed a phone in your house. It could take years, and you always had a sense that they didn’t give a damn. We were more than two years in the first house we bought before the phone arrived.

That was typical back then. In 1979, a report commissioned by the State (known as the Dargan Report) found that Ireland’s telephone system was probably the worst in Europe. It was a pretty seminal report, but it only told the government of the day what they already knew — that in an era of rapidly growing international trade and investment, Ireland was losing out badly because of its Mickey Mouse communications network.

Back then, Dargan didn’t advocate privatisation — in fact, his report opposed it. But the provision of a modern service needed focused management and decent investment. It got that by taking it out from under the dead hand of a government department and creating a commercial semi-state company called Telecom Éireann.

For 10 to 15 years from the middle of the 1980s to the end of the 1990s, it invested in modernising the system (remember the change from analogue to digital?). By the end of the 90s, Telecom Éireann was widely recognised as one of the best telecoms companies in Europe.

Not only that, but it was making a profit, and funding the major investment necessary for modernisation. We weren’t in the internet age, but we were ready for it. That was a time when it wasn’t possible for a government minister to make a speech without gloating that Ireland was about to become the e-commerce hub of Europe.

Then they decided to sell it. For a quick buck.

When governments decide to privatise, there’s usually a range of rationalisations — the private sector is more efficient, better at raising capital and keeping costs under control, etc etc.

None of those arguments (to the extent that they’re ever true) applied in the case of Eircom, as it would become known. It had been transformed in public ownership into an efficient, debt-free company — a really attractive proposition for anyone who wanted to make a profit.

Except, of course, as we all know, it didn’t work out that way. To maximise the early return, the share price was too high. The company was almost immediately forced to sell off its mobile phone operation to Vodafone. Then it was taken over — twice — and forced to borrow enormous amounts of money to finance its own buy-outs.

Our once-great national telecommunications company is now incorporated in Jersey. It’s owned by a French billionaire called Xavier Neil

It has been rebranded more times that I can count — it’s now called Eir, and it has a wholesale division called Open Eir.

A quarter of a century after the privatisation of our telecommunications system, thousands of us still have to live with the chaos it created.

Which brings me back to my case history.

I do recognise, as Humphrey Bogart once said, it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. The three little people in question are the three who live in my house, and have lived there for the entire duration of the pandemic.

We live in a little village on the south side of Dublin, in a cottage on the side of the road. It’s a lovely place to live, that still has a lot of the characteristics of village life. I spend hours every day in meetings — the work I do involves a lot of meetings! That means Zoom or Microsoft Teams or one of the other platforms we’ve all had to learn how to use. That means broadband.

That means forget it. 

I have lost count of the number of times I haven’t been able to get into a meeting, or the connection has broken down halfway through, or I’ve been frozen in the middle of a sentence.

I have a thing on my computer that allows me to check my broadband speed. Right now, as I’m writing this, the download speed I’m getting is less than 4 megabits per second — and I’m having a very good day. Less than 1 is common, and none at all isn’t unusual.

I do know people who live not too far from me who don’t have this problem. Weirdly, if I unhook my mobile phone from the house wifi right this minute, and just rely on its 4G signal for broadband, I get a download speed of 27.4 megabits. That’s why I spend half my life using the “hotspot” on my phone to try to keep the connection going through a meeting.

I pay one of the internet companies a fee every month — not a shabby fee either — for a “bundle” that gives me phone, broadband, and television. Naturally, I ring them every time the frustration gets too much.

But from all the research I’ve done, I know they’re not the problem. The problem is a little bit of clapped-out old copper wire that stretches from a pole outside my house into the house itself. That bit of wire, the thing that keeps me in touch with the rest of the world, shouldn’t exist. It should have been replaced by one of the hundreds of government promises of a brighter broadband future.

But the copper wire can’t be fixed until two things happen. First of all, fibre cable has to be laid underground throughout the neighbourhood. Then that fibre cable has to be connected to a cabinet somewhere within a reasonable distance of the house. In towns and cities throughout Ireland, fibre is the future.

But here’s the crazy thing. The fibre cable that this neighbourhood needs was laid under the road, not far short of a year ago. Literally, if I step out my door, it’s under the pavement I step on. And there is a fibre cabinet 70 paces from my front door.

But still, nothing is hooked up. It is the wholesale company called Open Eir that is supposed to be doing the hooking up. They have a website.

Sometimes, if I enter my Eircode, it tells me I’m eligible for a fibre connection. Sometimes it tells me I’m not eligible yet.

 Trying to get to talk to someone in Open Eir is a recipe for a complete emotional meltdown. And I know there are thousands like me.

It’s the end of 50 years of public policy. The first half of that time spent transforming a very bad system into a very good one — all in public ownership. The second half spent moving it into private ownership, in the most chaotic way possible, and dismantling its quality and service all over again.

Right back to where we started. How do we do it to ourselves?

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