The Government's National Broadband Plan as presented through a series of maps published yesterday should be lauded for its ambition. It should also be greeted with scepticism, writes Niall Kitson.
Can the Department of Communications under Alex White oversee the successful creation of an inclusive broadband market or will the Digital Divide only widen during his tenure as fibre networks proliferate in densely populated areas at the expense of smaller townlands? Time and history are not on his side.
In 2008 Hutchison Whampoa (aka Three) was awarded a national contract to fill coverage blackspots using its wireless technology to deliver download speeds up to 10.4Mb/s at a cost of €20 a month. By 2008 standards this represented a good deal but by the time the project wrapped up in August this year it's enough to maintain consistent streaming media and VoIP calls in standard definition but isn't up to the standard demanded by gaming, 3D (when virtual reality takes it mainstream) and 4K.
In 2011, the Government vowed to go where Three couldn't, using a total of 29 companies in the Rural Broadband Scheme, delivered in association with the Department of Agriculture under the Rural Development Plan in 2011. Of the 5,000 applicants, only 2,011 offers of service were made, and of that only 509 were taken up. There could be plenty of reasons for this - emigration, lack of interest, the arrival private sector competition, for example - but the low uptake does not inspire.
Now we have a new plan for consumers and businesses (the education sector already has a plan to get every school in the country on 100Mb/s by the end of this year) to put Ireland on course to meet the EU Digital Agenda target of ensuring 50% of households have access to 100Mb/s broadband by 2020.
Unlike the 2008 plan rewarding a single operator or the limited geographical scale of 2011, this time the plan is to involve as many companies in as many parts of the country as possible. As expected, I had a few reaction e-mails.
UPC was first to my inbox. Having already invested over €1 billion in its 'fibre-power' network and the first to get to market with connections topping 100Mb/s it took a diplomatic line. "We are fully supportive of the Government's objective....." an official statement read.
"The National Broadband Plan and related development programmes provide the building blocks for further progress which will complement the multi-million euro investments that have been or are being made by the private sector," the statement added.
In other words: this doesn't change our plans one jot.
One development that may impact on UPC's operation is the €450 million joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB that will see the nation's powerline infrastructure used to deliver fibre connectivity to potentially any premises in Ireland.
A statement from Vodafone and the ESB said their venture would be "proud to play [a] role in delivering on the Minister's vision to help bridge the digital divide. By drawing on ESB and Vodafone's heritage of innovation, the joint venture company will provide a new type of connectivity to help deliver a broadband experience that will enable Irish businesses to create the products and services of the future, as well as attracting more FDI to Ireland."
In other words: this doesn't change our plans one jot but we're happy with the timing.
As for Eircom, the largest telco in the State which is spending €400 million on upgrading to fibre, it's a case of 'we told you so'. Its statement read: "Eircom believes that a fixed line fibre technology connected to every home and business should be the lead infrastructure to serve customers identified through this mapping exercise.
"This will ensure that the investment made by the Government will be future proofed, support the growth in data demands and ensure the best user experience for those customers within the intervention footprint... No operator is doing more than Eircom to provide access to superfast broadband."
In other words: we're doing this anyway, now let us get on with it.
There are plenty of other initiatives going on around the country worth a mention as well. Enet's 'fibre towns' initiative and fibre-to-the-business already offer speeds up to 250Mb/s in towns like Claremorris, Loughrea, Ardee and Kilkenny.
Three has been silent so far, despite its recent acquisition of O2 and 4G wireless offering claiming speeds up to 10 times faster than 3G. Wireless providers Imagine and Ripplecom have also stayed below the parapet and with good cause - their top offerings come in at 10Mb/s and 8Mb/s respectively.
The newest entrant to the fixed line broadband space, Sky has yet to issue an opinion, as well. Maybe the confidence in its TV offering trumps concerns about meeting the EU requirement - which its 24Mb/s offerings don't do.
It's nice that Government has a plan and a map to show it off with. As before, you should only believe it when you see it - preferably in 4K.
Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie