Business Technology

Saturday 30 August 2014

Some answers to key questions on rural broadband

Adrian Weckler

Published 04/05/2014 | 02:30

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Rural areas have a shot at competing with big urban areas, thanks to high speed broadband. Picture: Thinkstock

SO the Government says it's going to fork out up to €512m to roll out state-subsidised fibre broadband to remote rural areas. Lots of questions remain. Here is what we know, together with some of the key questions about such a service.

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The "core" lines will be fibre broadband

The government swears that this is not an exercise in providing some unspecified "high speed" broadband. It is "fibre". That means relatively high-end broadband speeds.

Every village "will get" fibre

This is important. A government spokesman has clarified to me that each of the 1,000-plus rural villages named in the Department of Communications' will see the fibre physically arrive into the village and not some nearby hill. That means 15-strong Blacksod in County Mayo, Spanish Point in County Clare and other such far-flung places.

Rural homes and businesses may still need phone lines or roof antennae to connect to the service

Here's a minor catch: if the fibre is simply "arriving" in each village, it won't reach most rural-dwellers. That's because many live in the wider townland area, often several kilometres away from a village.

A key question, then, is where the fibre goes once it reaches the village. Does it stop at a single point? Does it carry on into each business or home? (It won't.) Or does it simply attach to an Eircom phone line cabinet?

No details as to this 'last mile' delivery are yet forthcoming. But it's hard to see beyond phone lines, wireless providers or even mobile 4G signals being used to connect homes and businesses to the rural fibre. "Details of appropriate access points are to be identified as part of the process," said a spokesman for the Dept of Communications. "These could include buildings, cabinets or base stations," he said. "The Department will engage intensively with industry to ensure the optimum routing of the fibre for the purposes of next generation access."

This will have a massive impact on the actual speeds the service delivers. If, for example, it becomes a fixed wireless service (connecting to the fibre pipe), it could be limited to 10Mbs. That's still far better than many rural areas experience now. But it's also still miles behind 150Mbs available in urban areas.

The Government has backed away from promising minimum speeds

The last time the Government proffered its "National Broadband Plan", it specified a minimum speed of 30 megabits per second (Mbs) to every rural home in the country.

This was never achievable on any kind of manageable budget and the government had to conceded that it wasn't deliverable.

Now the government has declined to nominate any specific minimum speed.

On one level, this is sensible recognition of reality. On another, it's disappointing: the EU has based much of its continent-wide digital targets on minimum speeds being attainable.

Big questions remain over the mapping

The government insists that all listed villages will get fibre. And it has costed the venture at between €355m and €512m. But it will not say how its assessors – Prisa Consulting and New Era – came to that figure, or how many km of fibre are involved.

This information, it says, is "commercially sensitive" ahead of a tender process. But it's a pretty crucial bit of the jigsaw and one that goes directly to the credibility of the proposed project.

It could be three to five years before it's fully rolled out

The timeframe here involves the government spending much of the rest of the year consulting existing broadband companies such as Eircom and UPC and then getting approval from the European Commission for its state intervention.

After that, it's a question of drawing up public tenders. And only then – perhaps in late 2015 – will the actual fibre networks begin to roll out.

Sunday Indo Business

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