How one Donegal island is taking control of its broadband future
With the National Broadband Plan delayed, how can rural areas stop depopulation for a lack of services? Donegal's Arranmore Island has taken things into its own hands, as Adrian Weckler found out
"This is the first year on the island where we won't have any first communions." Jerry Early is one of 450 residents of Donegal's Arranmore Island. His family has owned a pub there for decades. But he's worried about the island's future.
Measuring about 6km by 4km in size, the beautiful, rugged landmass is 15 minutes from the mainland by the local small ferry. It is the country's sixth largest island, roughly comparable to Cork's Bere Island or Mayo's Clare Island.
Like those places, basic infrastructure is present: roads, shops, two schools, a church, even a nightclub. It has a small fishing industry.
But as with most islands in Ireland, the population is gradually falling. More than half the island's inhabitants are over 60, like Jerry. And there are few, if any, babies being born.
The future of the community is now in the balance. If it wants to avoid the fate of other islands, some of which are now abandoned, it has to do something.
"Young people want to go and work in IT and other jobs," says Early. "They leave the island. I don't blame them. But we're supposed to be custodians here. It's our responsibility to make this a place they won't want to leave. And also a place that those who have left might want to come back to."
This month, Arranmore has taken what it believes is a big leap. Through a combination of campaigning, scraping, cajoling and negotiating, it has brought modern broadband onto the island.
Specifically, the islanders have struck a deal with the mobile operator Three, which has set up a high-speed wireless connection from the mainland. Three has also invested in a brand new co-working space on the island called 'Modam' with 13 new computer workstations and a Cisco video conferencing facility.
The upshot is that the people of Arranmore now believe they have a fighting chance of getting people to work from the island in the same way they might from Letterkenny, Sligo, Galway or even Dublin.
"One of the things we heard a lot from people was 'I can't work there, there's no proper facility or broadband'," says Adrian Begley, one of the island's residents and a member of Arranmore's Business Council.
"This digital hub is one of the best ways of showing them now that they can not just survive, but thrive."
Is this a template for other islands? Three has invested its own money in the Arranmore broadband project as a way of demonstrating what an island - or other remote rural community - can achieve.
But it isn't getting into the business of investing in islands all over the country. The Arranmore infrastructure is seen as a joint venture to highlight the technology as opposed to a purely commercial exercise that washes its own face. "We treated the island as if it was any big enterprise that had lots of big problems to solve," says Elaine Carey, Three's chief commercial officer. "They needed connectivity and, through that, access to education and medical services such as telemedicine. For Arranmore it's very much about the future sustainability of the island. For us it's a demonstration of what we do. It just so happens to be an island."
That said, Three has paid for a lot of the Modam digital hub's equipment. The facility wouldn't be there if it wasn't for the operator's interest.
Is this a solution for other islands?
At present, the Government's National Broadband Plan promise is that every rural home and business in the country will be hooked up to high-speed broadband. Under its current proposal, the majority of this will be fibre-to-the-home, which is the fastest standard at present.
However, the Government has repeatedly said that a number of remote homes and businesses in the 540,000-premise intervention area will get a wireless service because it's just too hard or impractical to deliver fibre.
It's possible that this will include most of Ireland's islands. So Three's setup in Arranmore may prove to be an example of a likely solution for other islands.
Whatever the future, the infusion of decent broadband seems already to be working. Within days of being set up, the Modam digital hub facility is receiving enquiries. "We have people in IT, finance and law who have shown interest," says Adrian Begley. "We have a guy working in HR who has enquired about using one of the desks for a full year."
One London-based tech company, Cape Koala, is an early user. The company, founded by Neil Gallagher and Conor Murphy, develops educational apps for kids. Gallagher is a former resident of Arranmore. This, he says, is the moment that his company has been waiting for. "We'd love to see people on the island trained up to work with us," says Gallagher. "There's huge potential there, in my opinion. Having this kind of a facility in place could make a big difference. For me personally, the connectivity on the island will allow me to spend a lot more time there."
One of Cape Koala's developers, Matthew Loughnane, has already been working through the new facilities. Although he lives in London, Loughnane is spending a week on Arranmore working and using the new digital hub. He says that he expects to be back to work there again. "My mum grew up here and I still have a lot of cousins on the island," says Loughnane. "I used to come here a lot personally but now I can come back for longer and still work."
The 'Modam' digital hub facility on Arranmore will officially open in May and will have daily, weekly, monthly and annual rates for those who want to use the facilities. This will come in at "around the average of what coworking spaces cost around the country", says Adrian Begley.
One of the questions islanders have about their new broadband service is whether it can ebb and flow with bad weather. Three's enterprise technology boss, Stephen Mulligan, says that it won't.
"This is a microwave line-of-sight connection," he says. "It doesn't depend on good weather. The only thing that could disrupt it might be a wave rose high enough. But that would have to be freakishly big, the site is quite high on the mainland."
It's also a separate connection to Three's cellular mobile service, Mulligan says, so there are no 'contention' (or service-sharing) issues. 'Contention' frequently plagues fixed wireless and mobile broadband services, slowing the service down when lots of people use it at the same time.
Unfortunately, when it comes to rolling out broadband, islands are particularly hard to connect. To match the sort of service that a fibre service offers, an operator needs to lay a cable under the sea. This not only means that the distance of the island from the shore is crucial, but it's also important that the bit of the mainland closest to the island has high speed broadband infrastructure to begin with. No Irish island has a fibre-to-the-home service at present.
In Arranmore's case, Three's solution is a service that delivers a guaranteed 100Mbs download (and upload) speed from a dish on the shore that connects to a receptor on the hub building. This is a single service to a single building. While it's not as fast or as scalable as a fibre-to-the-premises connection (which is typically immediately able to deliver 1,000Mbs), it's much better than anything the island has had before. It's also far more reliable than a cellular mobile service, because it doesn't depend on good weather or others on the island weakening the signal because of 'contention'. And it can be 'dialled up' to two or three times its current speed if the islanders need that (and are willing to pay for it).
But if fibre isn't available and services like Three's microwave line-of-sight are narrowly targeted, where is the future fast broadband for islands? "5G is a big opportunity for that," says Three's Elaine Carey. "5G is going to provide fixed wireless access which is the big opportunity that everybody talks about. So 5G for us is our future-proof technology. Our aim is that we'll have our first trial in the next few months and then we'll roll out our first 5G towards the latter part of the year. With a clear goal to provide fixed wireless access as a solution over 5G."
Carey says that the operator will be switching its 5G service on by the end of 2019, as opposed to simply building the network.
But there is no rollout requirement for 5G from the State: operators can pick and choose where they want to provide the service. Where does that leave a rural area like Arranmore? "From this unique specific partnership we have in Arranmore, I think we'd definitely look at rolling it out here because it's a long-term partnership," says Carey. "And it would be a great demonstration on an island of what 5G could do."
This may be a proof point for rural 5G. Right now, operators don't really know what type of customers will want it, beyond those looking for faster mobile broadband. But several, including Vodafone, Eir and Imagine are lining up trial services in rural areas to see what demand is like.
Is this an answer for other remote areas? Rural broadband in Ireland is slightly better than it was a few years ago, but is still generally poor. According to the Government, around a quarter of the population do not have access to what is considered decent broadband. Officially, the State counts 540,000 households and business premises as being in locations without proper service.
The definition of a sub-standard service, according to the Government, is one that is measured at below 30 megabits per second at the point it reaches the house. (The actual speed that a resident gets from a 30Mbs connection is usually between 10Mbs and 20Mbs because there's a significant drop off as soon as the router converts the incoming broadband signal into usable wifi around the home.)
But this bar is rising all the time. The European Commission is moving what it regards as being a decent service from 30Mbs to 100Mbs. Using this as a guide, the proportion of Irish premises considered below par would be close to half.
However, there has been progress. While Eir was criticised for splitting the state's National Broadband Plan intervention area, removing 300,000 from the State's target zone of 845,000, almost all of those 300,000 homes and businesses have now been connected to superfast fibre-to-the-home broadband. Those were rural premises that previously had little or nothing by way of broadband.
Similarly, Siro (the ESB and Vodafone joint venture) has been building out fibre-to-the-home broadband in and around large towns, although not in remote rural areas.
Meanwhile, there is some evidence that 4G mobile reception has improved in rural areas, although there's no definitive map that the operators or ComReg can provide on this score. (ComReg has a useful guide, but it's largely based on operator figures and engineering calculations rather than actual field tests.)
A decent 4G signal can act as a stopgap for broadband, with speeds that often reach over 30Mbs. However, it is much less reliable than fixed broadband and varies significantly according to factors such as the weather and the number of others using the service at the same time. What's more, mobile operators have much smaller monthly caps than fixed broadband operators, with most operators offering no more than 20GB or 30GB per month, a fraction of the 170GB that an average urban household uses in the same period.
What Three's partnership brings to Arranmore is hope, say locals. Telemedicine is now possible. Distance learning will be a potential activity too.
"We're custodians at the moment," says Jerry Early. "But I'd like there to be something to pass on to the next generation. I really think that this can be a turning point for us."