Business Technology

Saturday 23 August 2014

Why 'safety net' for our rural broadband users is wearing thin

Adrian Weckler

Published 13/02/2014 | 02:30

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Comreg chairman Kevin O'Brien. MARK CONDREN

Ever wonder why Ireland has a universal service obligation for land line telephone services but not for broadband? Given the choice, which is more important for your business?

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For those unacquainted with it, the country's universal service obligation (USO) is a law that guarantees you telephone poles and lines wherever you live or work, almost no matter how remotely rural that is. It costs the designated operator, Eircom, a fair whack every year to maintain. But there is no such provision for broadband services. Why is this?

I recently had the opportunity to discuss this issue at some length with the chairman of Ireland's telecoms regulatory body (Comreg), Kevin O'Brien. (Comreg is currently being legally challenged by Eircom over who should pay for USO telephone poles and wires in rural areas.)

"It's a question that's often debated," he said. "But we haven't thought that it was necessary to designate broadband as a universal service obligation and I'll give you the reasons why. First, the market has actually delivered for most of the country, meaning that you now see broadband penetration [as a percentage] in the high sixties. Then you have national and rural broadband schemes together ensuring that a basic level of broadband is available throughout the country. We thought it would be creating an unnecessary burden to repeat all of that in the name of universal services. So we've left things at the safety net level."

But is that 'safety net level' enough? If you run a business outside a city, a low-megabit service is sometimes your lot. This is the equivalent of a crackling telephone line, which is not allowed under current laws. So why is it different for broadband?

"A properly regulated market with the right pricing and targeted government interventions into areas the market is unlikely to go – this is the plan," he said. "It has in the past delivered ubiquitous basic broadband and I think it will deliver high speed broadband in coming years."

Mr O'Brien comes across as a careful, thoughtful man open to new ideas. But he sees his role, and that of Comreg, as a quiet enforcer rather than a trailblazer. That means that he sees the job of bringing rural Ireland up to high-speed broadband levels as one for government and industry, rather than a telecoms regulator.

"It's been a decision of Comreg not to go there because that problem is being solved through other means," he said.

Some might doubt this. To be fair, progress is rolling along for the majority of broadband users. Eircom is extending its fibre-connected network to 1.4m (out of 2m) premises around the country: this will reach into large parts of rural Ireland.

It will also complement smaller, faster networks from UPC (700,000 premises) and the ESB (450,000 premises). Then there are the expanding mobile 4G networks, which already reach around 40pc of the country.

DISPERSED

But the trouble has always resided with the last 20pc of the population. Right now, that dispersed portion of the population – and the businesses therein – stumble along on 1Mbs, 2Mbs or 3Mbs. If this is a safety net, it may be high time to redefine the parameters of what a safety net should be.

And herein lies the irony: such a situation would never be allowed to develop for the country's landline telephone network, which still has a legal universal service obligation.

"We've always found that there's a continuous justification for this [telephone landline] safety net," said Mr O'Brien. "I would agree that if you took a long term view, it's inevitable that as technology changes and broadband becomes ubiquitous that people will move away from the need to have that guarantee. But the story to date has been that when you analyse it that that guarantee is required."

Is it too late for the government to make a difference? 18 months ago, it nobly attempted to outline a new direction, defining 30Mbs as a minimum broadband connection speed for every home and business in the country.

This was to be the new 'basic'. This was to be the new 'safety net'. And it was to be backed up by €175m of government money and €175m of private operator money. Alas, without a firm legislative timetable or legal obligations on specific operators, the whole thing has become bogged down in a difficult mapping exercise with rising cost estimates that make its deadline in 10 months look unattainable.

In other words, it looks unlikely that the 20pc currently bobbling along on slow broadband speeds will see much improvement in the near future.

If this includes you, the idea of a universal service obligation for broadband may not sound so bad.

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