CIO Folder: Skinnyband is dead… or deadly

Broadband fibre
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20 October 2017 | 0


Warning: this is a rant.

A few previous CIO Folders have given out about various things, been critical or dubious about others. But this is a direct anti-paean of blame on successive governments, politicians in general with very few exceptions, the senior civil servants in the Department of Communications (with its variations as different lines of responsibility have been clumsily yoked together over the years) and business and civic leaders. In some respects it is also directed at our loyal TechPro readers, because they—and we—share some blame for not shouting often enough or loud enough.

“Globally, we are ranked 36th for broadband, which is superficially not too bad at all—except that it is economically uncompetitive and a drag on our national growth ambitions”

We are talking about broadband in Ireland: broadband availability is now the second most critical problem in Irish society after homelessness/housing in our view. We simply do not have anything like the speeds or geographical distribution that a modern country needs for economic and government services, education and social development. Put it this way: two years ago the US Federal Communications Commission raised the minimum standard for broadband to 25mbps download.

Big goals
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at the time: “We invented the Internet. We can do audacious things if we set big goals, and I think our new threshold, frankly, should be 100Mbps. I think anything short of that shortchanges our children, our future, and our new digital economy.”

Hear, hear.

Time to play with statistics. Ireland had an average download speed of 13.92mbps in the first months of this year according to data collected by M-Lab, a partnership between Google Open Source Research, Princeton’s PlanetLab, the US Open Technology Institute and other top level partners. We rank 21st of the 28 EU states.

Mind you the UK is not far ahead at 16.5mbps although our peers on the island of Ireland are in one of the best connected areas in Europe. In Belfast and other places fibre connections can deliver up to 330mbps, a speed that even Singapore would be proud of as the country with the fastest average speed in the world at just over 55mbps. Globally, we are ranked 36th, which is superficially not too bad at all—except that it is economically uncompetitive and a drag on our national growth ambitions.

But actually what counts is neither the headline advances in the fastest speeds nor the national or regional averages worth boasting about. It is the inequality.

The west
If you are stuck in the West of Ireland in a village that does not have fibre, or on a farm or factory or a craft or service business that is outside of a village, you are back at least a decade in ADSL territory. You might be lucky. Mobile signals are more widely available and the penetration of 4G is accelerating faster than terrestrial connections. But even so, you lack the data traffic potential of landline technology.

What seems to be happening is that the roll-out of fibre cabinets to smaller villages is progressing, but if you are more than a few hundred metres away the last leg of the signal journey will be over a pair of copper wires. The operators will offer you speeds of “up to 18mbps”. But they cannot actually even measure the speeds until the connection is made and you are signed up to a contract. There is no minimum speed guaranteed or even promised, so you are stuck.

Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) have, in all fairness, been laid down in most towns around the country, even quite small ones, depending on where they are. The impetus of commercial competition has in fact seen multiple MANs in many towns and we now have a total of over 90. But if your business premises are outside the ring, even by 50 metres or so, you will have to pay for the fibre connection up front before you have a service. The minimum charge is €270, increasing by distance. It is not like our now ubiquitous cloud computing model on a monthly basis. You have to raise the capital cost upfront.

But that is, in one sense, nit-picking. There are thousands of digitally isolated businesses and individual professionals who would be glad to raise several thousand euros by any means possible to get a reliable broadband connection with decent speeds.

Average services
What sort of speed would that be? The Irish average of nearly 14mbps would bring a smile (and profit) to any SME or individual trying to earn a crust outside of an urban location. But we all know that average is a distortion of reality. Statistically, to be meaningful it should be a median, not an average. When a multimedia cable connection in Dublin city can deliver 130—150mbps, that totally distorts the true national picture. Let us do the maths: one Dublin household can raise the average of say 10 others with an ADSL level of say 6—8mbps, however connected, to an average of 17 to 21 mbps. So much for headline statistics, beloved of politicians and red tops.

The National Broadband Plan talks loftily—and it is all too frequently parroted by our Ministers and other politicians—about “high speed broadband”. On its publication as Delivering a Connected Society in 2012 there are specific speeds mentioned, including “A minimum of 30Mbps for every remaining home and business in the country—no matter how rural or remote.”

That was five years ago. Are we even close? The Department of Communications [plus Climate Action & Environment] under Latest News on its web site with a July date says under a Procurement Process heading “…following detailed engagement with bidders through a competitive dialogue process, bidders were recently invited to submit their Detailed Solutions in September.” 

That sounds like failure, not progress. We in IT are all too familiar with project overruns, in money and time. Heads sometimes roll, sometimes not. But the following sentence on the Department web site beggars belief: “This represents a major milestone in the procurement process.”

All of a sudden the boastful slogans of our political leaders sound like the tired echoes of marketing jargon: Innovation. Connected Society. High Speed Broadband. 21st Century Technology. Ireland of the Future.

Unfair, uneven
We are an unevenly and unfairly connected society and the pace of broadband development and distribution means that we are perceptibly dropping behind other more competitive economies. Successive governments have been preoccupied with Foreign Direct Investment, particularly in the IT sector. But electronics manufacturing or indeed assembly has emigrated Eastward and the FDI multinationals are predominantly Internet service businesses.

Yes, we are full of brilliant young people, many of them entrepreneurs, and tech and other start-ups are flourishing. A high proportion are in web services and new ideas, software and apps, advanced medical devices, sensors and in fact world leading smarts. Which is why the Collison brothers took Stripe to California.

But what the politicians cannot see behind the occasional flashlights of success is the swathes of the country that are dark. If a young person with tech or entrepreneurial ambitions is to succeed she or he will have to go where the resources are, in employment or tech hubs or over-shared flats with at least a decent broadband speed. At enormous residential expense. Married couples have to stay where their children go to school.

Our ‘Connected Society’ is tied up in the bondage of local geography, where all too often 150mbps and 2—4mbps are just a few metres apart. Broadband and skinnyband are neighbours, just like the homeless in the doorways of elegant offices and shops. But in today’s world skinnyband is a threat to national economic health—potentially a deadly one.



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