Rural electrification was one of the great infrastructural projects of 20th-century Ireland. Rural broadband – no longer a luxury but an economic necessity – is its 21st-century equivalent.
Since 2004 there have been four government initiatives to improve broadband, all of which have worked up to a point. But major problems remain. Broadband has got faster, and more places than ever are served, but 40 per cent of the population – and 96 per cent of the Republic, geographically – still lack commercial coverage.
The good news, according to the latest Akamai State of the Internet report, is that Ireland is now seventh in the world for average broadband speed, at 13.9 megabits per second (Mbps). The bad news is that Ireland has some of the most pronounced two-tier coverage in Europe. High speeds in urban areas have obscured poor coverage elsewhere.
Only 35 per cent of Irish premises have broadband speeds of 10Mbps or higher. More significantly, only 69 per cent of Irish homes have broadband that is faster than a very modest 4Mbps. Ireland ranks only 42nd in the world in the distribution of fast broadband. Commercial companies advertise broadband speeds of 240Mbps in cities and towns while rural areas subsist on speeds of 1-2Mbps no broadband at all. The digital divide has become a chasm.
Everybody with an interest in rural Ireland recognises the importance of broadband and the problems caused by its absence, which affect young and old. Rural primary schools have bought expensive electronic equipment, such as whiteboards, that are undermined by poor broadband.
“The current position is like having bought a powerful car but discovering it has been restricted to a crawl, as it has only one gear,” says Brendan McCabe, president of the Irish Primary Principals’ Network.
Age Action says its efforts to promote computer literacy among the elderly are being thwarted in rural areas because of poor broadband. The Irish Rural Network estimates that 10,000 jobs are lost in rural areas every year because of poor broadband service.
But good broadband can help struggling rural areas. Those involved in internationally traded goods and services, for example, can set up anywhere there is broadband. Broadband opens up a global market for rural tourism and for small artisan producers.
The World Bank has found that a 10 per cent increase in broadband penetration increases economic growth by 1.3 per cent over the long term.
30Mbps for all
The Government has said that its national broadband plan, announced last year, will deal with this long-standing problem. By 2020, it says, all premises will have access to broadband of at least 30Mpbs, the minimum that the European Commission has set for a viable service.
Minister for Communications Alex White says the importance of rural broadband has been brought home to him many times. “A farmer said to me just a few weeks ago – and I agree with him – [that] there is no more important issue in rural Ireland in terms of economic infrastructure and the future prospects for rural Ireland. Broadband is going to make rural Ireland sustainable into the future.”
He acknowledges that people are frustrated by having to wait for broadband, but he asks for patience. “We want people to keep faith with it, because, when they get it, they are going to get it at a standard comparable to anywhere in the world,” he says. Monthly progress reports will be published between now and 2020.
White has already spoken to the European Investment Bank and the European Commission about finding the bulk of the estimated €500 million to fund the State end of the project. “I would see this as being funded from a variety of sources,” he says.
Eamonn Wallace of Ireland Offline, an internet lobby group, believes the problem of poor broadband is most acute along the western seaboard. He likens parts of Cos Galway, Mayo and Clare, and swathes of Co Cork, to a broadband wasteland. “The national broadband plan is the only hope for these places. It has to work.”
It is estimated that, by the end of 2016, commercial operators will cover 70 per cent of premises, leaving 750,000 without commercial broadband. It will then be up to the State to step in and provide broadband for the rest. To achieve that, the Government will first have to survey the problem down to the last house, in accordance with the rules governing state intervention.
Every advanced country has a problem with the digital divide, but Ireland’s problem is unique in Europe. Our population density, at 65 per square kilometre, is among the lowest in Europe; the way the population is dispersed compounds the problem.
About 30 per cent of the population live in rural areas not covered by commercial broadband – the average in Europe is between 15 and 20 per cent – but only 17 per cent of those people live within a kilometre of the centre of a village, which is to say close enough to connect easily to a high-speed network.
The Irish love of one-off housing and ribbon development has made bridging this digital divide a particular challenge.
The Department of Communications has said it will provide the network of fibre-optic cables to connect rural areas. Whichever operator or operators win the contract will then link rural homes to that network, bringing high-speed broadband the last step of the way to the public.
Eircom, which has confirmed that it will bid for the contract, believes the total cost of universal broadband will be less than €1 billion.
The buzzword around the national broadband plan has been “future-proofing”. Our expectations of and demand for broadband have shot up. Ten years ago most people had a dial-up service that worked at less than 1Mbps. UPC already offers a 240Mbps service in some areas; future-generation broadband may have speeds of 1Gpbs (1,000 megabits per second).
A draft intervention strategy, outlining how the plan will be rolled out, is to be published in the middle of this year, after consultation with the public and commercial operators. Then plan will go to the European Commission, which has to be satisfied, first, that the State is not intervening where the commercial sector should be and, second, that the new service will be a big improvement on what is currently available.
The plan will go out to tender at the end of the year. Eircom, BT and, in a joint venture, ESB and Vodafone – some of the biggest telecoms operators in the State – have all expressed an interest in winning the State contract. (ESB and Vodafone would use the electricity network to offer broadband too.)
The project should start in mid 2016, and the first homes will see high-speed broadband shortly afterwards. Most homes are expected to be completed by 2018, and all by 2020.
Among the first to get broadband will be the 1,300 rural primary schools and the 600 business parks not currently served by commercial broadband.
This will be cold comfort to businesses, in particular, that find themselves on the wrong side of the digital chasm, but the department says there is no other way. “It will take time. You can’t build a railway or a road network overnight,” a spokeswoman says. “You could solve it on the cheap fairly quickly, but we’re there to fix it properly and for good. We must never have to intervene in the broadband plan again.”
Types of broadband: A bluffer’s guide
– There are two types of broadband: fixed-line and wireless. Fixed-line broadband involves providing a service through an existing telephone line – known as a digital subscriber line (DSL) – or through the cable network of an operator such as UPC using a copper coaxial cable.
– The speed and quality of a DSL connection vary according to the distance to the telephone exchange. Some broadband can also be slowed down by the contention ratio – the number of houses sharing the line.
– UPC and Eircom are delivering high-speed broadband via a technology called “fibre to the cabinet” (FTTC) . This is where a new fibre-optic cable is brought to a street cabinet and then to the home using a telephone line (Eircom) or a coaxial cable (UPC)
– UPC offers speeds of up to 250Mbps (megabits per second), the fastest of any commercial provider. Vodafone, Digiweb and Sky use Eircom’s network to offer their customers fibre broadband.
– Only Magnet brings fibre as far as your home. Eircom and, in a joint venture, ESB and Vodafone, plan to deliver fibre to the home over the coming years, giving speeds of up to 1,000Mbps (1Gbps). But as fibre is expensive to install, it is economical only in built-up areas.
– Wireless broadband – the most common form of broadband in rural areas outside towns and villages – connects a home or business to the internet using a radio link to the service provider. That link can be via your smartphone, via a wireless dongle or via a router that picks up the signal and transmits it around your house or business.
– Wireless can be used in places where it is too expensive to bring cable, but multiple users can slow down the speed. Wireless also needs a clear line of sight, so premises in a valley or behind a hill might not be able to use it.
- Mobile broadband is becoming the saviour of many rural areas. 3G (third-generation) and 4G (fourth-generation) broadband on smartphones can bring people wider access to fast broadband .
– 4G can deliver speeds of up to 50Mbps. Customers can access 4G through a wireless modem, allowing them to use their laptops. But with most contracts imposing data limits, it can result in big bills.
– Satellite broadband is usually used by people who can access no other service. It is expensive to set up, subject to severe data restrictions, and slower than other forms of broadband.