Friday 19 December 2014

Rumours of the landline's demise have been greatly exaggerated

Herb Hribar

Published 10/07/2014 | 02:30

'It is critical for operators to have both fixed and mobile infrastructure'
'It is critical for operators to have both fixed and mobile infrastructure'
Herb Hribar

There has been a lot of debate about the 'steady decline' of fixed line telephony. On one level, it is hard to argue with the statistics. Between 2004 and 2014, the revenue we generated from our fixed line services fell by almost a third.

This has not been an Eircom-only phenomenon or even an Irish one. It is a trend seen the world over.

Thus, many analysts predicted we would all be hanging up the landline for a mobile-only world.

Seems logical, right? Well, perhaps not. It turns out that the conventional thinking was wrong. Just because we were all spending a little less time on the landline, that doesn't make the physical connection into your home or business irrelevant.

It turns out that maybe there isn't an 'either or' decision between fixed and mobile. Customers, it's now being seen, need both in today's 'always on' world where high bandwidth solution -- both at home and on the go -- are critical and must be supported by a high capacity network. So it now looks like even the future of mobile is fixed.

Why do I say this? Because, today there are more broadband connections on our network than ever before. Back in 2010, our network peaked with 714,000 connections. That fell to just over 660,000 connections by 2013.

When I rejoined Eircom as CEO back in 2012, we put our money where our mouth was and got serious about investment. We knew we had to offer services that are relevant, reliable and attractive.

Within 12 months of starting one of the country's largest infrastructure projects, we launched what is now Ireland's largest fibre broadband network passing 900,000 premises and Ireland's first 4G mobile network now covering of 50pc of Ireland's population.

As of last week, there are almost 720,000 broadband connections, real evidence to demonstrate that our investment has delivered the kind of new and relevant products that people want: high speed broadband, TV and voice calls.

To underline that further, the number of customers who have our eVision TV service has doubled during the past three months to more than 20,000 users. That tells us, to borrow a quote from the film The Field of Dreams, that "if you build it, they will come".

Not only are we building it at a fraction of the cost of our peers, we are building it faster than operators in the UK and Germany and we know the demand is there. Our network traffic volumes are exploding with data traffic growing 40pc year on year. We now estimate that 90pc of our total traffic will be generated from fixed broadband by 2018.

More importantly, ours is an infrastructure that is future-proofed, built not just for today's or next year's demand but one that can be upgraded easily and cost effectively to 'fibre to the home' in the future, so that we can continue to offer relevant services.

Building a network as deeply as possible across Ireland is one thing. Offering truly converged services such as watching your TV service outside of the home or having seamless connectivity to business applications (regardless of device) is another. This isn't the vision of industry futurologists -- these are services already under trial and to be launched later this year.

This is why it is critical for operators to have both fixed and mobile infrastructure. And right now, no one has more infrastructure than us.

We aren't the only operator to realise you need fixed and mobile capability, but when you are the first to do so and you are the largest telco, it matters for Ireland. So while others have been talking, we have been delivering throughout the country.

High speed connectivity helps Ireland's competitiveness. It is critical that we do everything we can to ensure that as Ireland emerges from the recession, we are not left with black spots in the 30pc of the country where no commercial case for investment can be made.

Let's not kid ourselves that in a country that has the population of Greater Manchester, spread out across an area the size of Scotland, that it is easy to deliver ubiquitous services. But that doesn't hamper our ambition. There is now a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Ireland to put in place an infrastructure for rural Ireland that ensures the kind of data speeds that will be needed for the next 25 years.

Would inverting the digital divide in the most rural parts of Ireland really be a bad outcome? It means that someone who wants to choose the quality of life of rural Ireland can compete for business or jobs not just with someone sitting in Swords or Sandyford but with someone sitting in Silicon Valley or Singapore.

For those who question Eircom's commitment to investment, our relevance in the Irish market, our role in the digital agenda or our ability to compete aggressively and successfully and to provide innovative solutions to our customers I say this: fasten your seatbelts because we are more relevant than we have ever been. We are investing more than we ever have. And we are prepared to do whatever it takes to compete and retain our leadership position.

No-one is going to eat our lunch.

Herb Hribar is chief executive of Eircom.

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