Friday 20 September 2019

The whiz-bang technology that ended up dead in the ground

Damien Mulley

THEY burned, burned, burned, these rings of fibre.

And for the taxpayer, what was burned was a considerable amount of money.

The Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) project seemed like a good idea at the time and has resulted in more people getting faster and cheaper broadband.

But with tens of millions spent, are they value for money and will they be worth the investment?

MANs are fibre rings around a city or town, and allow broadband signals to be transported from one part to another at very high speeds.

It seemed a simple idea -- bring affordable broadband to smaller towns and cities to help entice businesses and multi-nationals to set up shop in the Ireland outside of Dublin.

In 2003, online auction house eBay said "no way" to an IDA package to set up in Athlone because the broadband network wasn't up to scratch.

If the network was in place, any town in the country could match Dublin, Cork and other well-connected cities and so the State went off to fix it.

But it's still not fixed.

While some towns had fibre rings already, as built by Eircom and BT Ireland, the speeds were either too slow or the costs too high to connect.

Puzzle

MANs would be just one part of the puzzle that would sort Ireland's broadband woes. But from the start they were hijacked for political gain.

The Government PR juggernaut made MANs out to be the panacea that got broadband for everyone. Press release after press release had local politicians and ministers announce that broadband was coming to every town.

But a report commissioned by the Department of Communications, which initiated the project, bluntly stated the MANs were badly done.

It recommended putting a halt to the whole project, and stated that "a number of inappropriate locations were selected". It seemed all that money was blown.

Now in times of bust, it's staggering to look at the amount spent on these fibre rings, five of them built for €5.2m and dead in the ground. Not a single connection going through them. Another five MANs had just a single customer.

E-Net, the company tasked with getting customers for the MANs, has a tough job -- the cost of connection is a major stumbling block. A business wishing to avail of a MAN has to contact a telecoms company to connect its premises with the network, with costs often running to five figures.

MANs are a good idea, and had they been commissioned in the right places, many more towns would have better broadband connections for businesses and home use.

Eircom is pushing Communications Minister Eamon Ryan for the creation of a Next Generation Network which would make use of the MANs around the country.

We're already seeing giants like Vodafone and O2 talk about sharing a network between them to keep costs down, so why not Eircom and the MANs working together?

Damien Mulley is a telecoms consultant and organiser of the Irish Web Awards

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