Rural Ireland is partly to blame for its slow broadband

Karlin Lillington: Internet inertia has exposed several ugly truths about State’s priorities

‘The Government weakened its own position on the rollout of broadband by handing Eir the best cards in an already mediocre playing hand.’ Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

‘The Government weakened its own position on the rollout of broadband by handing Eir the best cards in an already mediocre playing hand.’ Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

 

Eir’s unfortunate announcement that it was withdrawing from the tender for National Broadband Plan (NBP) has rightly angered and frustrated the half-a-million plus homes and businesses that remain without fast and reliable – or in many cases, any – high speed broadband.

I fall into that category myself, having moved a few years ago from some of the State’s fastest speeds in Dublin (thanks to living in an inner city area that benefitted from early grants and trial rollouts) to a Dublin/Wicklow border network that crawled so slowly that it was nearly impossible to play a YouTube video.

Any slower, and I’d have been reliving my DSL modem days and worrying about the Millennium Bug.

It’s better now, thanks to Vodafone improving the old Eircom offering, but our house remains in a designated NBP development area. So I guess it might be 2024 before we’re watching Netflix.

That observation isn’t as facetious as it sounds. Streaming services are a symbol of a capacity norm across the EU. If a business or household cannot access a service capable of streaming video, then much else is beyond doing, too.

Hard questions must now be asked. How can a national broadband plan launched in 2012, with a realisation date of 2016, still be in the (flailing) tendering process as we enter 2018?

Not that we have ever lived in a broadband golden age. Ireland’s broadband rollout has been plagued with woes for over two decades. A trip through The Irish Times archive brought up columns I’d written in the late 90s on the issue that I could copy and paste here right now without anyone being the wiser.

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The unfortunate truth is that there are no swift solutions to Ireland’s broadband problem, due to everything that could go wrong did historical reasons, long-standing government inertia, and continued national indulgence of one-off housing in rural areas.

Crap broadband

On the latter point, rural TDs, councils and individuals have to accept some blame for their crap broadband. Permissions for isolated housing projects proliferated in the same period as broadband development here, setting an easy to foresee national stage for a costly broadband nightmare. Supplying fibre out to little clusters of a few houses here and there is expensive.

Opposition TDs quoting statistics about Ireland ranking lower than some developing nations for broadband lose moral high ground when it’s recalled that many also defended piecemeal rural development.

Developing countries typically have larger aggregations of population living in higher density housing, making it easier and cheaper to supply decent broadband.

And Ireland has a population smaller than single cities in many countries. Combine that with a scattered rural population, and you begin to see why the State faces challenges in getting parties to bid on the NBP in the first place.

For two decades now, the State has focused on servicing multinationals’ large-scale infrastructure demands

The historical problems date back to the sale of then Telecom Éireann at possibly the worst moment possible in hindsight. Yes, a State-run telco could have shouldered the cost and delivered a network at speed. But . . . really? How many arguing this angle remember that the waiting time just to get a landline in the 80s and 90s could be not weeks, but years?

Privatising sluggish State telcos was seen as a market and competition-led solution to this problem. Unfortunately, everyone forgot markets are markets.

Just as newly renamed Eircom and a number of other communications companies all signed up to utilise fibre from the government’s truly groundbreaking deal with Global Crossing, which brought a direct undersea fibre link to the US, many of those companies, including Eircom, were sold in the volatile telecoms market of the time. That nullified their obligations to roll out broadband networks. So near, yet now so far.

Viable plan

Ever since then, successive governments have struggled to find a viable plan to implement a badly needed national network. Telcos get away with hard bargaining, because competition is limited.

Competition is limited in part because telcos generally want the easy to get customers so they can monetise the new infrastructure. Providing broadband to rural areas is a pain.

So the Government’s decision a year ago to allow Eir to cherry pick 300,000 “easy” customers off the NBP – in advance of the tender – was shockingly inept.

Why wouldn’t Eir walk away now? Every excuse Eir has made for that choice could have been set against the carrot of accessing those “easy” customers had the Government not weakened its own position by handing Eir the best cards in an already mediocre playing hand.

A mix of these elements has brought us to the point where there’s now no competition – hardly likely to speed the negotiation process when the advantage lies with the sole bidder. And serious concerns remain as to whether a small player’s consortium can fulfil the demands of such a challenging contract. And whether Eir will make infrastructure available to the project on reasonable terms.

The current situation exposes an ugly truth: for two decades now, the State has focused on servicing multinationals’ large-scale infrastructure demands, while largely ignoring critical 21st-century infrastructure for smaller Irish businesses, and the general population.

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