Life in the (broadband) fast lane
By Will Goodbody, Science and Technology Correspondent
When you see the long running campaign for better broadband, Ireland Offline, offering a hearty welcome to an announcement from Eircom, it’s a pretty clear indication that something positive has happened. And that was the vocal lobby group’s reaction yesterday to news that the Irish telco was ready to begin offering high speed broadband to up to 300,000 homes and businesses in the first phase of its fibre optic network rollout. For those potential customers who choose to avail of the service, it will mean access to up to 70Mbps up, and 20Mbps down, with a pledge of up to 100Mbps later this year as the technology evolves.
There are, of course, some “buts”. Rollout will continue over the next two years, eventually reaching 1.2 million homes and businesses. But even when it is complete there will likely remain many rural locations that will still not be able to avail of the faster network. For those that can access the network, it will mean a significant increase in speed. But because the fibre is only running to a roadside cabinet, not into homes and premises, distance from that cabinet will have a bearing on performance, as the last leg will still be over copper wire. Customers of other operators, whose services piggy back on the Eircom network, will benefit too. But this will be dependent on those operators rolling out their own service offerings.
All in all, though, it is hard to quibble with Ireland Offline’s claim that this is a positive development. But arguably the real story here is the fact that it has taken Eircom so long to get to this point. For years, Irish broadband users have had to make do with, for the most part, second rate broadband services. So much so that Eircom’s rivals, like UPC and Magnet for example, started building their own high speed networks long ago. Credit must be given to current Eircom management for seeing the light and driving the change. For too long, Eircom as the predominant telco in the Irish market, was so consumed with its own financial woes and burdened with debt, that it was unable to get it together sufficiently to upgrade its network to first world standards. The result was undoubtedly an avoidable constraint on the development of ecommerce and the digital economy here.
And the data bears this out. According to the most recent statistics from the European Commission, Ireland is the fourth worst performer when it comes to access to high speed broadband (10Mbps+). As a consequence, it is not surprising that high speed broadband penetration among households and businesses is low compared to many of our European peers. The proportion of next generation lines here as a percentage of overall broadband access is middle of the table, at 20%, compared to above 50% in countries like Romania and Belgium. As a result, the proportion of the population using next generation services here is tiny, at 6%.
Local statistics back that up, with this week’s Comreg Consumer Survey 2013, finding that just 16% of people here have a fixed line broadband speed above 10Mbps. Yet, 1 in every 5 was willing to pay more for faster fixed line broadband.
It’s a clear business opportunity, and one already being leveraged by the likes of UPC, which says it can now offer up to 150Mbps to 41% of homes here. While Magnet says its Fatpipe 70Mbps offering will be available to 250,000 homes by the end of the summer. With Sky already in the mix, and Vodafone announcing its high speed service on Monday, the market is becoming crowded and competitive. And all that is before the mobile operators begin offering 4G services later in the year.
So fasten your seatbelt and hang onto your modem. After way too many years of living in the slow lane, it appears broadband quality in Ireland is finally about to improve. 21st century communications, here we (finally) come.