Saturday 24 February 2018

ESB broadband won't improve rural experience much


Rural broadband rollout
Rural broadband rollout
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Run a rural business? If you were getting hopeful about the ESB rescuing your community with new fibre broadband services, I bear bad tidings.

Contrary to all the recent coverage indicating such an eventuality, there is a very slim chance of rural businesses receiving ESB-based fibre broadband any time soon.

Why? Because the ESB and its partner telecoms network (a multi-platform telecoms firm yet to be announced) aren't planning it. In fact, it's highly unlikely that the new network will get anywhere near the countryside: it is being geared up for "selected urban areas" and "will be utilised where it is practical to do so".

This isn't the whisper of any insider: it's what the ESB has written down in black and white on its tender contract.

"The core activity will be the deployment of Fibre-To-The-Building to individual homes or premises in Ireland, in selected urban areas, using the ESB electricity overhead and underground infrastructure," says the ESB broadband document.

"Phase 1 is expected to ... focus on urban and semi-urban conurbations outside of Dublin city. It is anticipated that in the deployment of the network, this electricity infrastructure will be utilised where and to the extent it is practical to do so."

In other words, any ESB-related fibre broadband will most likely simply be in areas that already have – or are scheduled for – high-speed broadband deployment already.

While competition is always welcome, this reality is very different to the narrative that rural communities which missed the broadband boat might somehow get a much-needed upgrade.

To be fair, the spin is not coming from the ESB or its partner network. But taking a closer look at what exactly is envisaged provides clarity.

According to the ESB itself, the initial network rollout is planned to reach around 450,000 buildings. That's around a quarter of the country's homes and businesses. Why so limited? Partly because the ESB has about 1,300km of fibre-optic cable in Ireland, compared to around 12,000km held by Eircom. In these terms alone, it's easy to see the geographical limits of any ESB-based network.

To reach into rural networks would require far, far more cable: many rural areas are defined by their spaced-out housing, with no more than a handful of buildings per kilometre. In telecoms circles, this is regarded as simply uneconomic. (Or, in the words of the ESB tender, it is not "practical".)

This is probably why the ESB has indicated that it will only look at towns of at least 4,000 buildings for new broadband services.

Geographically, this metric rules out most of Munster and Connacht. It also means that Eircom will probably already be offering a service of at least 30Mbs in whatever town the ESB network arrives in.

Why? Because Eircom has committed to extending its 'eFibre' service (which is based on telephone lines connecting to fibre lines relatively close by) to 1.4m premises over the next two years.

That's almost certainly every town in Ireland with over 4,000 buildings.

Certainly, those on the ESB's network map will have renewed, high-end broadband choice. Because it is based on fibre, the ESB is confidently talking about broadband speeds of around 150Mbs, easily matching UPC.

But this may actually increase the digital divide rather than narrow it. Now, businesses and residents stuck on 2Mbs or 3Mbs will watch as their town-based neighbours go from 25Mbs to 125Mbs.

All of this comes against the backdrop of an impending broadband deadline that the Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte set some time ago. The deadline, 11 months away, is to have every home and business in the country, irrespective of location, connected to fibre-speed broadband.

Initially, that speed was formally set for at least 30Mbs. Last summer, the Government eased back on the headline speed, indicating that if "quality" broadband was available, the speed was not quite as important.

Realistically, there is increasingly little likelihood of the deadline being met. So it is understandable why some in government circles may be keen to paint a new ESB-based network as a big step forward for rural broadband access.

However, this would be to mislead those running businesses in rural locations. It would also mislead those who live in country areas. The reality is that ESB- based fibre broadband is almost certainly not coming to rural locations.

If it proceeds, it will be on the basis of being a competitor in areas already served by high-speed broadband.

Irish Independent

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