I wrote the below for the Irish Farmers Journal. It was published last week.
For the country that created the Celtic Tiger and now has every major technology company operating here, Irelandâ€™s lack of action with broadband is starting to alarm the EU, the OECD and major ICT investors in this country including Google, Microsoft, HP and Dell. However, eircom, Irish telecoms regulator ComReg and the Department of Communications have the ability to completely turn this situation around but why have they not?
When they were sold off by the Government, eircom inherited a network which was built with taxpayer money. Eircom are no longer Government owned and feel under no social obligation to provide broadband to everyone. They have upgraded about 450 out of their 1100 exchanges and state it is uneconomical to upgrade the rest. Instead they have asked the Irish taxpayer to give them money to upgrade the remaining 600 exchanges. Most of these exchanges are outside the main urban centres meaning a lot of rural dwellers may never get broadband over their phone line.
While eircom cannot be forced to upgrade all of their exchanges, under EU rules they are obligated to allow other telecom companies to have access to their exchanges so that these companies can offer voice and broadband services to consumers and businesses. This access process is known as local loop unbundling (LLU) and there are serious differences in what the access seekers want and what Eircom are willing to give despite eircom receiving some of the highest access fees in the EU.
There has been an on-going debate between the access seekers, eircom and the telecoms regulator for the past 3-4 years about what level of access there should be. On the 25th of April BT Ireland withdrew from these discussions stating that no progress had yet to be made. If Eircom followed the lead of BT in the UK and fully opened up their network then the resulting broadband competition would decrease prices and encourage upgrading of more exchanges, allowing more people in rural locations to get broadband on their phone line.
ComReg regulates the telecoms industry and one of their aims is help foster competition but under their watch Irish consumers pay the highest mobile bills in the EU, pay the highest line rental costs in the developed world and the average household landline bills are the second highest in the EU.
With increasing pressure from telecoms operators about LLU, ComReg, in February 2005 directed eircom to open up their network using an LLU process ComReg formulated. Eircom appealed the ComReg directives and before the appeals process started, ComReg changed their mind and withdrew their directives, restoring the status quo. Another year of negotiations and we are now back to the regulator saying they are going to send directives to Eircom to make it happen. How do we know ComReg really mean business this time when they really meant business in 2005, 2004 and 2003?
If Eircom donâ€™t want to give full access to their network and ComReg do not appear to have the fortitude to force them to do it then it is up to the Minister of Communications to intervene in this matter and direct ComReg to make LLU workable. The Minister by law is entitled to do this. So far in his tenure, Minister Dempsey has not sent any directives to ComReg despite constant pleas from consumer groups and telecom lobby groups. Opening up eircomâ€™s network is a crucial piece in the overall broadband puzzle and has been a key recommendation in reports from the Information Society Commission, Forfas, the Oireachtas Committee on Communications and the EU.
Another piece of the puzzle is to use wireless technology to fill in the gaps where broadband via a phoneline is not available. Currently there are wireless licences for the main urban centres and they are given to Digiweb, Clearwire, Irish Broadband and a few other operators. There is just one National Broadband Licence which could supply wireless broadband to most of the significant rural population of Ireland.
ComReg awarded this licence to Eircom and for the past number of years this exclusive national licence has not been used to its full potential. According to the Oireachtas broadband report as little as 500 customers use this Eircom system. It is also quite hard to sign up to this service when you contact Eircom. Despite numerous representations to ComReg to review this licence and provide it to other suppliers who could use it, ComReg have not taken any action on this.
With the two most important means of bridging the digital divide between the urban and rural populations being overlooked by a regulator failing miserably to get a control of every area of telecoms, it is now up to the Minister for Communications â€“ Noel Dempsey to intervene. Noel Dempsey is the last hope to bridge the digital divide and to make sure the urban and rural populations are treated as broadband equals.