Next Generation Rural Broadband – When and How Much?

On the 11th May, WDC attended the official launch, by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny T.D. and Ministers for Communications and Rural Affairs, of eircom’s Fibre To The Home (FTTH) rural broadband trial in Belcarra, County Mayo. This trial offers broadband speeds of up to 1Gb/s (1,000Mb/s) to rural residents and businesses and demonstrates the value of a fibre to the premises solution.

This is a far cry from the very basic broadband service which was made available under the State supported National Broadband Scheme (NBS) which in theory delivered up to 10Mb/s, but for most users, much less than this.

For most rural residents still trying to survive with basic, intermittent and inadequate broadband speeds, the announcement of a service delivering 1,000Mb/s in a rural area, must seem both frustrating and promising at the same time.

The Government have committed to a basic minimum of 30 Mb/s to all citizens under the National Broadband Plan. However rollout under this state funded scheme has yet to start, with the competition to award the tender to the successful applicant(s) yet to take place. Rollout will not commence until 2016, and all citizens are to be served by 2020.

A few days later, an Taoiseach and Minister for Communications unveiled another fibre to the building project, this time through the joint venture between ESB and Vodafone, called Siro. Siro aims to be Ireland’s first 100% fibre-to-the-building broadband network. This will focus on delivering fibre to the home to fifty regional towns across Ireland.

While both eircom and ESB/Vodafone are making commercial investments in fibre based solutions to urban centres, they are both positioning themselves as the preferred bidder to deliver on the planned Government funded National Broadband Plan to rural areas which will deliver the minimum speed of 30 Mb/s.

These announcements raise interesting questions for the Government funded scheme. While 30 Mb/s is the minimum target for all users, the pilot demonstrates that technically 1,000 MB/s can be delivered to very rural communities. The fibre to the home rural pilot raises the bar as to what speeds might be possible in rural areas. However these will not be commercially funded services and will require state support. The cost of such a fibre based solution and how much will be borne by the state is not clear.

The WDC welcome the developments delivering fibre based solutions to regional and rural locations. However key questions for users have yet to be answered such as when exactly will it be delivered? What speeds are likely to be available in rural areas (it is recognised that 30Mb/s is the minimum) and how much will it cost to fund?

Until the new services are delivered, businesses and citizens will continue to work with inadequate broadband, frustrated in their capacity to communicate with clients and suppliers alike and hampered in their ability to access online services. The priority now is to start rollout under the state funded scheme as soon as possible.

Deirdre Frost