If ever there was a time when we appreciated our internet service providers, the last 18 months or so have been it. The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic turned many of us into home-workers, home-schoolers and home-everything else possible.
Broadband became the facilitator of our social lives and family catch-ups, with virtual drinks parties and Zoom quizzes replacing our in-person interactions.
And as for work, conferences went virtual, and work meetings took place over video conferences as colleagues remained scattered around the country.
Things may be reaching a semblance of normality again – we’ve bid farewell to Zoom quizzes for a start – but we still have a heavier reliance on our internet access than ever before.
Things have improved significantly in Ireland when it comes to high-speed internet. Not only do we have a variety of affordable broadband options, but the speeds of the services have also increased. Virgin Media, for example, now has its entry level offering at 250Mb, while Vodafone and Siro have both announced the roll-out of 2gb offerings in recent weeks. That means better, more reliable connections for home working and all those other devices that are increasingly demanding access to our broadband connection.
What technology is best for your needs? Wired or wireless? Fibre to the cabinet or fibre to the home? Has DSL disappeared? What about satellite? And can you get by with mobile broadband?
There are several different types of broadband technology, each with their own benefits and drawbacks. But finding the best fit for you will depend on a number of factors.The first is availability, with operators offering a range of options depending on your address.
There are several different types of broadband available in Ireland.
ADSL, also known as standard broadband, uses copper phone lines to carry broadband signals. Typically this offers speeds of up to 24Mbps.
The upside of this technology is that it is cheaper and was widely accessible, costing around €35 per month; the drawback is that you need to have a phone line installed – something that is no longer a given – and the speeds are significantly slower than the newer technologies that have flooded the market.
Your quality of service can also be impacted by distance from the cabinet and by the quality of your phone connection.
Fibre and part-fibre
Fibre broadband, meanwhile, uses fibre-optic cables which offer faster speeds than ADSL and a more reliable service. If you use a lot of streaming services, play games online or have multiple devices connecting to the internet at once – as most homes these days will – then fibre broadband can help ensure that your service is consistent.
It also futureproofs the network somewhat, allowing for faster speeds as the technology improves.
But not all “fibre broadband” is equal. There are a couple of different types.
Fibre to the cabinet, also known as part-fibre, is where fibre-optic cables carry the service to the street cabinet, and from there use copper wires or coaxial cable to connect to individual homes. It offers a cost-effective way to get fast broadband to your home, but the speeds are slower as the copper cables to your home slow down the service. Typically costs can be from €40 up, without promotional offers and depending on what speed you want.
There is also fibre to the home or premises. As the name suggests, fibre to the home consists of fibre-optic cables all the way to your premises. Fibre to the home or premises can offer speeds of 1Gb or more, and is considered more reliable in service. It is also more expensive, coming in at €60 and up.
There are plenty of operators offering part-fibre, including Virgin Media, Eir, Pure Telecom, Digiweb and Vodafone.
Siro is one of the providers of such connectivity. The company, which is a joint venture between ESB and Vodafone, is building a fibre broadband network across the ESB's infrastructure. Last month it announced a €620 million upgrade and expansion of its fibre to the home network, which would almost double its reach to 770,000 homes and businesses or 2.1 million people and 154 towns across the State.
In early October the company launched its first 2Gb home broadband service, selecting Kilkenny as its first 2Gb city. The current upgrade of the fibre-optic network will also underpin up to 10Gb speeds in the future.
Siro also powers Sky and Vodafone's 1Gb home broadband offering; the latter has also connected its first 2Gb customer.
Another rival in this area is Eir. The telecoms incumbent has been putting millions into upgrading its copper network to a fibre one that can meet the increased demand for high-speed broadband.
The company announced in August it would expand the rollout of its gigabit network to a further 200,000 homes and businesses across the Republic. That will bring the total number of premises due to be passed by the network to 1.9 million, or roughly 84 per cent of all homes and businesses in the State.
Virgin Media offers some of the fastest speeds available around the country, with a mix of part-fibre and fibre broadband. Its pure fibre offering currently goes up to 1Gb in speeds, with part fibre for the lower spend, but the company has just announced an upgrade to its network that will see it invest €200 million and enable speeds of up to 10Gbps for customers. It will take about three yeras to reach the 1 million homes the project is targetting.
But where cities and suburban areas may enjoy access to super-fast connections, there are still parts of the country where the promise of a decent high-speed connection is a distant hope. That is where the National Broadband Plan steps in, aiming to deliver high-speed internet to thousands of properties and premises in rural areas of the country. It is tasked with passing more than 500,000 premises with a fibre connection in the coming years, although the Covid-19 emergency has caused some delays.
Wireless and satellite broadband
Available only in certain areas, fixed wireless broadband uses radio signals and local masts to get internet access to your home. If you can’t get access to broadband through more reliable cables it could be an option, with packages of up 150Mbps on offer from operators such as Ruralwifi.
Satellite broadband has been mooted as a potential solution for those homes that will not be covered by the National Broadband Plan.
In July the head of the National Space Centre, Rory Fitzpatrick, told TDs and Senators that it would be cost-prohibitive to provide fibre broadband in some areas, and suggested the Government could consider providing a grant or subsidy for households in those areas to allow them to avail of satellite services instead.
However, it is not generally considered a good option for those who need fast broadband with access for multiple devices simultaneously or heavy users.
There was a time when the idea of relying solely on mobile broadband was a last resort. Now it is finally a realistic prospect, with higher speeds and more robust networks on offer.
The advent of 5G has opened up new possibilities for broadband in Ireland. The high-speed mobile broadband connection in theory could deliver speeds of between 500Mbps and 1Gbps around the country. Some of the services are also portable in that they only require a plug and play modem that you can bring with you if you go on holiday, for example.
The one problem? Coverage. The 5G network is rapidly expanding, but it means there are still some places without services, and your coverage depends on how far into the roll-out of services your individual network provider is.
For those who can avail of it, Eir, Three and Vodafone all offer 5G broadband plans at a cost of around €45 a month.
For others, 4G broadband will get you 20Mbps – not quite fast enough to replace a fibre connection but enough to let you stream video and carry out most medium-weight online tasks.
BROADBAND BUYER’S GUIDE
What should you be looking for in your broadband connection? Do you known your ping time from your latency? And do caps still exist?
Speed is one of the first things we look at it in a broadband connection. But what does it actually mean?
Broadband speeds are measure in megabits per second or gigabits per second. The higher the number, the faster the data can theoretically transfer over your connection. For ADSL that is up to 24Mbps; for fibre it can be as much as 2Gbps. That means you can download a high definition film in under a minute or send photographs and videos instantly. It also helps when you have multiple devices trying to use your broadband service at the same time – downloading a video, playing games online, trying to carry out a video conference.
However, it is a good idea to read the small print. Some broadband speeds are advertised as “average” or “up to” which means you are looking at the speeds available to between 50 per cent and 80 per cent of customers.
There was a time when broadband plans had a limit on how much data you could download a month before potentially incurring penalties. Even the so-called unlimited packages had a “fair use” limit that if you consistently breached would result in either an impact on your service or in some cases additional charges.
During the early days of the Covid-19 crisis most of the telecoms companies lifted the limitations on broadband use they had previously imposed on customers in recognition of the fact that we were all suddenly thrown into the most unusual situation of our lives. However, it is still worth checking out the small print on your individual broadband plan. Just to be sure.
Latency and ping
This refers to the reaction time of your broadband. Like many things in life, you don’t notice the impact of latency on your broadband connection until it affects you in a negative way.
Measured in milliseconds, latency refers to how long it takes a signal to travel across the network and back again; ping time measures the time for the one-way journey. The lower the latency or ping time, the better.
Like all services, broadband usually comes with a contract. How long you want to commit is up to you. A 12-month contract is standard, usually with a discount that is removed after the initial period expires. Some providers, however, offer 30-day rolling contracts for customers, which is handy if you don’t want to commit to anything long term.
The cost of your broadband package is usually what we all zero in on, but watch out for other charges that may pop up. That includes an installation fee, equipment costs or the possibility that your monthly service fee will increase after six months or a year.