Broadband dispute leaves 100,000 in rural towns saddled with slow internet
One hundred thousand people in regional towns are having high-speed broadband services withheld because of a technical row between Eircom and rival operators.
The dispute, which the telecoms regulator is trying to solve, is causing homes and businesses in town centres to miss out on fibre-connected broadband while neighbours on the outskirts of the same towns get speeds of up to 100Mbs.
"It's just pot luck depending on what street you're on here," said Neill O'Neill, president of Westport's Chamber of Commerce. "We have people running businesses here who can't get proper broadband even though it's available 100 yards down the road."
The row centres around whether Eircom can change the way it delivers high-speed broadband to densely packed town centres. The operator says that because large regional towns' main streets have little space left for new telecom 'cabinet' boxes, it has to put the relevant equipment in larger telecoms 'exchanges' to connect homes and businesses nearby.
But rival operators such as BT say that this interferes with their equipment in those same exchange centres, slowing their service to their own customers.
The result is that thousands of regional homes and businesses who should be able to get fibre-connected broadband according to Eircom's roll-out area plans are still in limbo.
"In a busy town like Westport, we have plenty of start-ups and a huge influx of tourists," said Mr O'Neill. "They all need fast broadband."
A spokesman for Eircom said that while the operator hopes to see the dispute resolved soon, it has left thousands without high-speed service.
"There are approximately 100,000 remaining customers affected by this who could immediately benefit from high-speed fibre broadband," said the spokesman. "Eircom remains focused on ensuring that these customers, only a small fraction of whom would receive slightly lower speeds as a result of the issue, can receive service as soon as possible."
But a spokesman for BT, which has challenged Eircom's technical plans, said that the broadband row was about getting standards right.
"Eircom is proposing changes to its network that could result in degraded broadband services for thousands of existing customers in Ireland," said the spokesman. "We are supportive of the change and are seeking for the regulator to quickly clarify an aspect of an independent consultant's report that determines the level of impact on existing customers. We just want to get it right."
A spokesman for the telecoms regulator, which is adjudicating on the matter, said that a risk of slower broadband to existing customers from Eircom's proposed changes meant that it had to delay its sanction for a solution to the problem to be found. "These changes require industry discussion and ComReg's agreement in order to ensure that the deployment of services does not cause an unacceptable degradation to existing services and users," said a spokesman for the watchdog.
"Mindful of the benefits to users who currently cannot access high-speed Internet services, ComReg facilitated industry agreement on the scope of the necessary follow-on work and commissioned it without delay."
The row comes after Vodafone and the ESB named 10 large regional towns that will see a new fibre broadband network rolled out later this year. The broadband network, which is named Siro and will see speeds of up to 1,000Mbs, will reach people's homes using existing electricity lines.
Eircom has also launched a plan to deliver fibre-to-the-home from the end of August. A spokesman said that 25,000 homes will be able to get the service by the end of August. Both Eircom and Siro are to tender for the Government's National Broadband Plan.