A nation still divided

Fibre optic cable
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Fibre broadband successes are masking the ongoing problem of poor connectivity in rural areas

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15 November 2016 | 0

Niall Kitson portraitTwo stories emerged over the past few days highlighting the state of broadband in Ireland and just how far the nation has to go before reaching the EU target of ensuring everyone has access to a connection of at least 30Mb/s.

Released during National Digital Week at the Ludgate Digital Hub, a report by Vodafone found that nearly half (44.5%) of rural SMEs believe their Internet connection is inadequate for their business requirements.

Furthermore, nearly seven in 10 (69%) said slow and unreliable speeds prevent them from working efficiently and hold back their potential for growth.

The bad news doesn’t end there. More than a third (37%) of respondents said poor connectivity would force them to relocate to one of the cities.

Commenting on the report, CEO of Vodafone Ireland Anne O’Leary said: “Insufficient broadband access is one of the critical issues facing Irish businesses and consumers today, particularly for those in rural locations. High speed broadband Internet connectivity will mean that businesses can base themselves in any location and compete on a level playing field with some of the biggest organisations in the world.”

Of course, no business releases bad news without plan to deal with it, and Vodafone was no different. At Ludgate, the telco announced a plan to offer support to businesses and learning hubs using Siro’s 1Gb/s fibre-to-the-home network.

The initiative could potentially support over 150 businesses over the next two years. We’ll know more about the details next year.

Siro – a partnership between Vodafone and ESB to deliver broadband using power line infrastructure – has had a busy year, signing up four retail partners and continuing the rollout of its network to 50 towns around the country.

I like the Siro model and it seems to have found purchase with other network operators. The logic seems to be that Dublin is dead and that the real opportunities lie in towns with weak infrastrcture and just enough of a customer base to make expansion worthwile. This is why Drogheda is the new Dartry, Dundalk the new Dun Laoghaire and Sligo… you get the idea.

Switched off
Before we get too excited, price comparison website Switcher.ie today released a survey with a county-by-county breakdown of the haves and have-nots of Ireland’s digital landscape.

Based on data from almost 27,000 consumer speed tests, the Switcher.ie report showed that only 25% of users were meeting the 30Mb/s+ mark. The national average of 23.75Mb/s might sound impressive but bear in mind the disparity of packages on offer – Virgin offers packages up to 340Mb/s and eir start around 100Mb/s. In theory the national target should have been smashed long ago.

If you want a picture of the extent of the crisis: Legan in Co Longford reported the slowest speeds (1.98Mb/s), 36 times slower than Drimnagh in Dublin 12 – the fastest area (72.15Mb/s).

There are some surprises to be had in the Switcher data. Dublin, uncertandable, came top but the top five was rounded out by Waterford, Kildare, Meath and Westmeath. Longford was joined at the end of the chart by Leitrim, Roscommon, Monaghan and Mayo.

As for the other urban centes, Waterford’s second place showing (27.9Mb/s) was followed by Galway in sixth (20.24Mb/s), Limerick came in 10th (19.12Mb/s), Cork in 14th position (17.08Mb/s) and Kilkenny a measly 21st position (12.88Mb/s).

Eoin Clarke, managing director, Switcher.ie, said: “The results from the speed test data highlight the digital divide in Ireland. We’re seeing lightning speeds in certain areas, largely where there has already been investment made in fibre to the home networks. However, in many areas we are still a long way off these kinds of speeds and slow broadband is a frustration that thousands of people in these places have to deal with every day.

“In practical terms, it would take someone living in Legan in Longford over three and a half hours to download a two-hour HD movie, while people in Drimnagh in Dublin 12 can do this in just under six minutes. This is a stark difference that could have a real impact on quality of life for people in areas with sluggish speeds. And it can have an impact on house prices, education and local business, too.”

So where to now? As usual with the Digital Divide the solution rests with the State. Network operators have been working their way through to niche markets but the fact remains that without intervention some places will not be able to make the EU target as they are too remote or not profitable enough to reach. Private actors are standing off until the government starts investing in broadband again. The long-awaited €275 million National Broadband Plan is on-hold until next year, I despair that could be put further back in the face of increased pressure on the exchequer over public sector pay deals. 2020 is starting to look like an optmistic target.

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