30 Aug 2017 | 10.29 am
National Broadband Plan Needs Wireless Solutions
Airfibre boss John Earley analyses NBP shortcomings
30 Aug 2017 | 10.29 am
Wireless internet can solve the objectives of the National Broadband Plan if government and businesses are prepared to pay, writes John Earley (pictured)
An eclectic mix of interests – politics, media and legacy network operators – combine to ensure that there is confusion with regard to what can and will be achieved with the National Broadband Plan (NBP). For years the government has promised that every business and domestic premises in the country will be provided with Next Generation Access broadband, which is defined at present as 30MB per second download and 6MB per second upload speeds.
For many homes and businesses outside the main urban centres, such performance would be considered relative utopia, but whether we’ll ever get there is another matter. To understand the enormity of the challenge it is necessary to examine the various options for internet delivery.
Construction of Ireland’s telephone network started in 1880 with a service for five subscribers being delivered from a commercial building in Dame Court in Dublin. Today there are close to 1,150 exchanges throughout Ireland and for many the distance from the exchange to the premises is too far to support viable broadband data, as digital signals fade over distance.
Broadband over these copper phone lines is called DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) or ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line). The distance over which the objectives of the NBP can be achieved is 900 metres, which makes telephone line based delivery of NBP compliant broadband impractical.
Fibre To The Cabinet
Often incorrectly marketed as ‘Fibre to the Home’, Fibre To The Cabinet (FTTC) services are based upon fibre being connected to a street-based cabinet from which onward services are provided over traditional copper phone lines. Whilst significantly improving the situation for many, the encumbrances of copper remain.
Nevertheless, FTTC investment has resulted in domestic broadband users in urban areas enjoying a significant uplift in broadband services, with incumbent telcos advertising data rates of ‘up to’ 200 and 300Mbps. Up to means that these advertised speeds are only very occasionally reached.
Where this is achieved, revenues in excess of €2,400 per month are likely to be achieved per fibre, which makes financial sense for the telco. The investment case for FTTC is stronger in residential areas than in industrial estates and business parks, and the majority of people in rural communities are unlikely to benefit in the medium term from the roll-out of FTTC.
In any event, beware the caveat emptor. FTTC services are based upon achieving a contention ratio typically up to 48:1 i.e. 48 users sharing the 200/300MB on offer which may see actual speeds fall as low as 6.2MB for downloaded data and 0.6MB upload speeds. In domestic environs this might be considered a nuisance. In a business context this would translate to lost productivity. The NBP speaks about 30MB/6MB asymmetrical services, but we are yet to learn of envisaged contention ratios.
Fibre To All Premises
As a National Broadband Plan solution, fibre to all premises (FTTP) would be ideal, but is probably utopian. Estimates suggest that 100,000 kilometres of fibre would have to be dug into the ground or run on poles to achieve universal fibre delivery to all premises. The estimated cost for this runs from €1.8bn to €7.5bn.
According to Comreg, the telco regulator, there are currently 1,180,000 residential broadband subscriptions.
Two thirds of these already enjoy the speeds targeted by the NBP. Assuming the additional revenues stimulated by the NBP would amount to one-third of premises migrating from incumbent local wireless ISPs and legacy xDSL phone line services, the investment in a national fibre network might yield additional annual revenues c. €120m. That of course assumes that the bid-winner is not the incumbent supplier of xDSL services.
That €120m is the number NBP bidders and the government will be focused on as they negotiate the terms of NBP participation and the level of state subventions required.
Down On Wireless
When unveiling the NBP aspirations, the view from the Department of Communications was that a ‘radio’ solution would not be appropriate. Wireless is often perceived as the poor relation to fibre, though this solution was used in the National Broadband Scheme 2008.
Three Ireland was awarded a contract to deliver broadband services using its 3G technology, which achieved 2.3Mbps download speeds with a 1.4Mbps upload capability. Whilst leaving a great deal to be desired in a modern context, the service did reach 234,000 residential and commercial premises.
Subsequent roll out of 4G services marked a significant improvement in performance but retained the inhibiting factor of contention ratios: users could not be assured of consistent performance in a shared network environment.
Another reason for the bad press around wireless are the scores of wireless Internet Service Providers who deliver broadband to communities in rural areas. Most of these ISPs need to drive down delivery costs in order to match the price of services in urban areas. As a result, cheap radio solutions are employed, which are unreliable and not capable of supporting carrier grade communications services.
However, wireless is well capable of delivering internet services in excess of 100MB, and mobile telephone networks are universally dependent upon this type wireless back-haul to support telephony and data applications.
Airfibre has pioneered the use of reassuringly expensive carrier-grade wireless solutions to deliver against these criteria for more than twelve years in the UK and Ireland. It is not rocket science: it simply requires investment in appropriate equipment and skills and detailed quality management of the service after installation.
Wireless solutions that cost a minimum of seven times the amount of those employed by regional WISPs will accommodate the requirements of every business. However when a business is asked to pay €250 a month for such a service, it becomes a bitter pill to swallow in light of the residential pricing that is so widely publicised.
The rationale for state and taxpayer investment in the National Broadband Plan is not to enable farmers to have a seamless Netflix connection. The underlying rationale must be to facilitate business activity. In this regard, what matters is that businesses receive the bandwidth they sign up for with zero contention.
They need to be able to upload data just as fast as downloading it in order to operate through the cloud, support remote access and time sensitive business applications The quality of the connection is also paramount for businesses seeking to modernise telephony and video applications.
• John Earley pioneered the rollout of the Metronet network in the UK and has been developing the Airfibre business in Ireland since 2012.