CIO Folder: National Broadband Poverty

(Image: Stockfresh)

20 March 2018


The Mediterranean city of Montpellier has had its LUAS tram system since 2000, visited on several occasions by the engineers planning Dublin’s Green line that opened in 2004 followed by the Red line in 2006. There are two major points of comparison: Montpellier city has a population of 276,000 with an urban area total of nearly 600,000. It now has five tramway lines and has been the fastest growing urban centre of population in France for the last 25 years. Dublin has just finished its Green line extension to the north inner city.

Comparisons are odious, and in any event historic Montpellier (settled in the 10th century) is surrounded by flat land, sparsely populated at the turn of the millennium. But its Blue line, which was the first, was constructed from the outset to pass through and past patchy industrial areas to the new Odysseum, a civic-led commercial centre which included a shopping centre and multiplex and municipal sports centre including 50 metre swimming pool, ice rink, gym, aquarium, restaurants, sports fields and much else. The journey is 19 minutes and some of the rural stations were so deserted they had not a two-storey building in sight when they were first constructed.

“Rurality is the bane of broadband and the cause of inevitable digital poverty. Outlying farms and cottages, and even tourist facilities, are technically difficult and expensive to serve with a broadband network”

This far-sighted development stimulated suburban housing (largely apartment complexes), light industry and distribution and multi-storey offices. The projected traffic was 75,000 daily at full operation. It is now double that and still growing.

Major lessons
There are two major lessons for this country, which has been cowardly in long term planning and capital expenditure. First, is that the transit system was a key part of civic planning for expansion and the needs of the people, enterprise and Montpellier’s three universities. ‘Build it and they will come’ was and is the philosophy. The other factor was the French do long term planning like few other nations: the capital costs are amortised over 30, 40 and indeed 50 years. We Irish and our politicians think long range planning is just the length of a Dáil term.

Readers will not be surprised that this beginning of a rant is triggered by recent announcements of the withdrawal of eir from the National Broadband Plan — still at tender stage — and the aspirational but vague National Development Plan 2018-2027. The NDP is framed in the context of Project Ireland 2040, an even vaguer programme but understandably so in an Irish context. It is reminiscent of the UK government’s speeches about Brexit — laudable sentiments but not a lot of practical detail.

The broadband plans have effectively been scuppered by the withdrawal of three major companies: Vodafone and ESB (the SIRO consortium) and now eir. Enet is the sole remaining contender. An admirable and technically capable enterprise, but its expertise is in constructing and running Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs), not rural telecoms or wireless capabilities. It has a partnership with SSE, the Scottish energy company which operates in Ireland as Airtricity and has a UK business in telecoms. However much the Minister and the Department defend the current state of play, everyone in business understands what happens when a public or private tender competition has only one proposal.

Ireland is now at a critical juncture for public access to broadband. Dublin is well catered for with most inner districts having speeds of 100mbps plus. There are, of course, pockets of inexplicable (apart from the absence of cable TV) Internet darkness. Other cities and urban areas have the same pattern. MANs and cable TV infrastructure are finite. It is possible, indeed common, to have fast broadband 100 metres from mere copper wires or no signal at all.

Digital poverty
Rurality is the bane of broadband and the cause of inevitable digital poverty. Outlying farms and cottages, and even tourist facilities, are technically difficult and expensive to serve with a broadband network. All along the Wild Atlantic Way the solution is a combination of mobile service and local fixed wireless providers. Laying cable (fibre because it is the long-term viable option) is the expensive way of providing broadband infrastructure. But it is the definitive technology now and for the foreseeable future.

Wireless, including mobile, is a complementary technology because speeds are more limited, and the services are not quite as reliable. The base stations need to be connected by fibre. The ideal solution is to distribute the fibre as far as practicable (physically or economically) and add a wireless mast at the extremity. For isolated structures, it is the most cost-effective solution even if it is uneconomic in the longer term. The democratic and public service concept is that the profitable subscribers cross-subsidise the loss makers and if that does not pan, out a state subsidy is necessary.

Public and politicians seem to be ignorant of the differences between EU curbs on state aid to commercial enterprises, which may be anti-competitive and distort markets, and state aid to public services which is perfectly acceptable even when they are income generating. Ireland’s 68 MANs, for example, are publicly owned and the charges are state-controlled.

We need a similar structure for the National Broadband Plan, delivering access to citizens as well as businesses, education, healthcare and the growing development of the Internet of Things.

‘Fast’ requirement
There is another large gripe about the stalled NBP: it is mandated to deliver ‘fast’ broadband. Politicians, including relevant Ministers, and committees and civil servants are addicted to the use of the terms “fast broadband” or even “high-speed broadband”. They are essentially meaningless, misleading and, at this stage, downright deceptive.

The few references to actual speeds are based on the NBP document “Delivering a Connected Society” of 2012, updated on the Web in 2014. It referred to the NBP as follows: “Specifically, it will facilitate broadband download speeds of 70Mbps with a minimum of 40Mbps generally available and 30Mbps available in harder to reach rural areas. A great deal of the acceleration will happen in the early years of the Plan through the commercial delivery of minimum speeds of 70Mbps to 50% of the population by 2015, with the expectation that speeds of up to 100Mbps will be available to the majority of premises in this category.”

 That is out of date on two major counts:

  • the NBP has not even started yet
  • the aspirational speeds are already behind the market

In October last, we pointed out in CIO Folder that the US Federal Communications Commission raised the minimum standard for broadband downloads to 25mbps in 2015. We have a current average available speed of just under 14mbps, 21st out of the 28 EU countries. But as we insisted previously, the average speed is meaningless — it should be the mean speed to be useful as an indicator of our national digital progress. With averages, a few areas with 330mbps (now possible in Belfast and common in Singapore) will raise the national ratings so that the politicians can boast.

We should instead, like the national homelessness crisis, concentrate on digital poverty. The National Development Plan covers infrastructure, healthcare, urban and regional development, sustainable employment and other important areas. The NDP and the National Planning Framework push broadband to one side — delegating it to the stalled NBP — and talk of ‘connectivity’ as meaning roads and transport, including air travel.

Future development
Broadband is as important for our social and economic future as any of these development areas. The sole remaining tender for the NBP contract will not be accepted/finalised until at least the summer and network implementation will take a minimum of two years. By 2020 the projected speeds will be further out of date. In fairness, Enet will almost certainly opt for state of the art technology to ensure its market appeal and future profitability. Assuming the whole process goes ahead.

But our digital poverty, like our housing crisis, will certainly continue into the next decade. Will we learn better forward planning from the examples of Montpellier, Singapore and many others? Or will we totter on, talking the talk but not walking the walk?


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