The Problem with Rural Broadband

The problem with rural broadband in Ireland … is Eir

Or “Eircom” as it was known. And “Telecom Éireann” before that. And the Dept of Posts and Telegraphs before that!

To explain why I think Eir is the problem, we need to go back in time a little.

You see, many years ago, in the dawn of time (the 80's), there were two classes of Internet users. The first were the big companies and universities, who had pipes connected directly to the Internet. These users were blessed with both high-speed and continuous connection. The rest of the users had to make do with dial-up modems, connecting to Internet nodes over the telephone system (or as we called it the “POTS” — the Plain Old Telephone System).

Dial-up modems were slow, and had to be turned on and connected when we wanted to use the Internet. But most services were text-based, so speed was not too much of an issue. Indeed the first company I worked for provided a payroll and accounting service where the users connected to our systems with a terminal and printer via a dial-in modem.

However, with the introduction of the World Wide Web, more people wanted to be connected, and they wanted faster and instant connections. The WWW also brought more graphic and media rich applications which demanded more bandwidth (faster modems!).

The solution to providing connectivity to all these new users lay with the existing telephone network — it already connected billions of people in the world to a standard, interconnected infrastructure, so it made sense to try and use it as the basic “connection block” of a new network. It would have been unimaginable to lay an entirely new network to provide Internet connectivity.

A new technology called Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) provided the answer. This was a technology that allowed a computer network to share the copper wires carrying the telephone network into each house or business. Technology in the exchange could “split” the connection into voice and data, and the customer only had to install a small “splitter” or filter at their end.

DSL also solved the bandwidth problem allowing for faster internet access — although it was dependent on the distance of the subscriber from the exchange.

Now Eir are the successor to Eircom, who are the successor to Telecom Eireann who are the successor to the Dept of Posts and Telegraphs. These are the people who build the entire physical telephone system in Ireland. And they still own most of it.

So outside of the metropolitan areas if you want to provide a broadband service, you have to use Eir’s lines. Within the metro areas, there are a number of companies using their own infrastructure to provide a competing service to Eir. For instance, Virgin (previously UPC) used their cable TV network to provide an Internet connection service. SIRO is using the ESB’s lines to provide an alternative service.

But the reality is for 90% of the country, its an Eir connection that runs to your house. And therefore it is Eir who defines the speed and quality of that broad band service. No matter who you buy your service from, it is most likely just a re-sold Eir service.

And there is the problem. Why should Eir invest millions to upgrade their network just so someone else can sell services on it? They have no real commercial driver to do it (no-one else is going to run a telephone network in parallel to theirs) and the government didn’t make any real public service obligations on them when they were privatised. There probably should be the equivalent of ESB Networks selling services to all providers, but Eir are both a RETAILER and a WHOLESALER.

The National Broadband Plan

Hooray! We have a(nother) National Broadband Plan! What happened to the first one, or two?

Well let us not snipe. It is, at least, an initiative to be welcomed! The plan is for the government to pay for the provision of fast broadband to all the areas that cannot currently receive it, mostly because it is uneconomic for a commercial provider. They will issue requests for tenders and pick someone to provide the service. The area covered is something like 90% of the area of the country! and something like 360,000 premises. (I could verify that but my Internet is dog slow today — again).

But then along comes Eir and says “eh, we are going to provide fast broadband to 360,000 use currently cannot get it!”. Now, you see the EU has some rules which we agreed to follow, one of which says a government cannot provide a service if it is possible for a commercial company to provide that service. It stops governments from distorting the market or undercutting commercial operations. By simply making that announcement, Eir have forced the government to stop in their tracks. That means no tender for provision of the service, and more importantly it has stopped Eir’s competitors from applying for the contract! Brilliant!

So will Eir follow up on their promise? I don’t know. But they are the limiting factor to Ireland having universally fast broadband, throughout the country.


Originally published at www.eoinmeehan.com.

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