Sunday 23 July 2017

Rural business in for rough ride with broadband plan

If you're reading this in a rural area, there is a high chance that your only available broadband service is a fixed wireless one, the kind that involves an aerial on your roof pointing towards a hilltop mast
If you're reading this in a rural area, there is a high chance that your only available broadband service is a fixed wireless one, the kind that involves an aerial on your roof pointing towards a hilltop mast

If you're reading this in a rural area, there is a high chance that your only available broadband service is a fixed wireless one, the kind that involves an aerial on your roof pointing towards a hilltop mast.

There are at least 50,000 such broadband subscriptions in the country, covering a large geographical area. For you, the good news is that the Government's planned state-subsidised National Broadband Plan will upgrade you to a fibre line of at least 100Mbs sometime over the next six years. The bad news is that your existing service may be chaotic - or may even disappear - during that six-year hiatus.

The reason is that your wireless broadband operator is a dead man walking. It typically offers you speeds of 2Mbs to 8Mbs, enough for email, Facebook, casual web browsing and even a bit of Netflix. But it can't compare to the 200Mbs or 1,000Mbs that fibre-powered alternatives promise in the National Broadband Plan. So your wireless operator is gradually withdrawing from the sector.

"We're repairing our networks, but we're not investing or upgrading them," said John McDonnell, founder of Ripplecom, one of the country's larger rural fixed wireless broadband operators. "Why should we? As entrepreneurs, we're looking five years down the line at a state-funded fibre service that we can't compete with."

Oh well, you might think. That's the price of progress, right? Fibre is the future. But if fibre is a motorway, we could be in for a hell of a roadworks pile-up in rural areas. Those in remote rural areas could see their broadband get much worse or more expensive.

The quandary arises because there is a strong correlation between where wireless broadband providers operate and the most remote rural areas. These areas are likely to be scheduled last for connection to national fibre broadband. This could be as late as 2021 or beyond. So if the wireless operators walk away, well over 100,000 people may only have expensive satellite broadband to work from.

Mobile 4G broadband, you say? Sorry, that's unlikely to cover such areas anytime soon. Operators like Vodafone and 3 Ireland say they have between 70pc and 90pc 4G coverage, but that is rolled out by population centres. The geographical coverage is - and will remain - considerably more restricted. So what' s going to happen? Thirty-six of the rural wireless operators have come together to prepare legal action.

"So far, we've been ignored by the Government and locked out of the [National Broadband Plan] process," said McDonnell, who is heading up the industry lobby group. "We have to take a stand. The process is unfair."

Privately, some in Government just want wireless operators to just go away and die. Fibre, they say, is the narrative of the future. But they may have a logistical problem here. If the wireless operators can get in front of the European Commission and show a functioning private sector broadband service with certain minimum capabilities, the Government will have a harder job at persuading Brussels to let it go ahead with a taxpayer-funded intervention that is certain to kill off private industry.

Of course, wireless operators need more than their 5Mbs services to successfully argue that they are poised to participate in a high-speed broadband future for rural Ireland. And here, their problem is wireless spectrum. They don't have enough of it and it is controlled by telecoms regulator Comreg, which insists that it's not getting involved in the logistics of the National Broadband Plan. Sure, some wireless operators offer speeds up to 50Mbs in rural areas. But it is expensive. And without better spectrum access, they can't deliver such services to a wider market in any affordable way.

So the wireless operators may argue that it is unfair and unusual that they are kept from competing with soon-to-be state-funded fibre competitors because Comreg and the Government aren't singing off the same hymn sheet. And that could be something that forces the Government to think hard about its tendering process, which is expected to be a straight fight between Eircom and Vodafone-ESB.

The wireless operators may not accept crumbs from the table, either. For example, the Government may offer a few localised wireless hook-ups in the most remote areas. This would involve fibre being routed to a local 'node' such as a hill and then transferring to a wireless mast for cheaper distribution to some local areas.

"We want open access here," said McDonnell. "And we want the chance to compete."

A betting man would say that the National Broadband Plan, if it proceeds, will be based on fibre. But the prospects for disruption may become much more real.

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