One of the most significant commitments for regional and rural areas in the Capital Investment Plan (Building on Recovery, Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021) was the allocation of €275 million for the National Broadband Plan. This is the Government Plan which aims to rollout high speed broadband to every resident in the country. The €275 million is ‘an initial stimulus’ and the Government plan is also to benefit from the private sector funding as well as some EU funding.
The WDC welcomes this investment allocation and the steady (if belated) progress towards the rollout of the National Broadband Plan.
Recently, the Department of Communications issued a Consultation seeking views on the planned rollout. One of the most positive aspects is the second principle of the proposed Strategy (p12) ‘to conclusively address connectivity deficits across Ireland’.
For those of us in rural and regional Ireland, the prospect of ‘conclusively’ addressing our broadband needs, rather than constantly playing ‘catch-up’ with inadequate services is to be welcomed.
Conclusively addressing our broadband needs is to be achieved ‘by setting down minimum speeds and delivering an infrastructure that is capable of meeting current and future demands for bandwidth’. Setting down a minimum speed is a marked improvement on the previous practice of using ‘up to’ headline speeds, which in many cases were not achievable, as the speeds are compromised by the number of users (contention) at any one time.
So far, so good. The minimum download speed is set at 30Mbps download which currently or maybe even in five years’ time seems more than adequate. But the contract for delivery of high speed services will be for twenty years and the infrastructure being deployed is set to deliver broadband services for potentially 30 to 50 years! The broadband rollout is often compared to rural electrification and this infrastructure is still serving its original purpose over 60 years later!
If we are to have learned anything from the development of Information and Communications Technology and the expansion of the Internet, it should be that the minimum acceptable speed is changing all the time and the demand for bandwidth is growing all the time. Therefore to choose a minimum speed which would apply now and also in 20 years’ time seems like a big mistake.
What was deemed a minimum standard ten years ago would not be considered acceptable now. There is a general trend of raising the threshold of the broadband definition as higher data rate services become available, so for example in 2002 the communications regulator defined the minimum threshold for broadband as 512kbit/s (ODTR Report 02/79). In 2010 the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defined ‘Basic Broadband’ as data transmission speeds of at least 4Mbps downstream. The issue of multiple users in the same premises and unforeseen applications compounds this issue even more.
With this in mind the WDC considers that 6Mbps upload and 30 Mbps download seems low as a minimum standard to apply for the next 20 years. Of course it is not reasonable to define a minimum acceptable speed which would apply now and in 20 years’ time (though this is planned as part of the Strategy).
We should build in a mechanism in the contract that the minimum standard be reviewed and revised as necessary. In order to ensure that minimum speeds are acceptable, there needs to be a recognition that the minimum acceptable speed will change over the contract period.
The WDC in its Submission to the Consultation suggests that one option would be to review the basic minimum standard, for both up and download speeds, every 5 years (or more frequently depending on technological change and demand requirements) and raise the minimum standard accordingly. How this would be done and by whom is another question. However if we can benchmark prices to ensure that broadband services in rural areas are affordable, it should be possible to benchmark minimum acceptable speeds.
‘Delivering an infrastructure that is capable of meeting current and future demands for bandwidth’ is one element which can help ensure ‘that we conclusively address our broadband needs’. The other key element required is having ongoing acceptable minimum speeds. While minimum speeds will rarely be a concern for the urban user or in areas served by several operators, previous experience of broadband service delivery in rural areas, especially where there is limited competition, suggests that operators need to be obliged to deliver services to a certain standard. Therefore an acceptable minimum standard is hugely critical and will remain so for rural citizens living in areas with limited competition.