Bridging the digital divide by bringing the regions up to speed
29 September 2015
Author: Sean Atkinson, CEO, SIRO, qualified as a mechanical engineer and holds a master’s degree in engineering from Cranfield University. He was formerly director of ESB’s fibre project
Access to critical infrastructure, such as transport and electricity, has long been regarded as a key driver in the development of towns and cities. Advances in communications and transport technologies in the 19th century made the world smaller and enabled the diffusion of ideas, and increased trade which, in turn, led to economic growth.
Access to the world and the spread of knowledge continue to be significant factors in economic development and the importance of access to future-proofed high speed broadband infrastructure is now recognised as vital to promote investment and growth.
In the Irish context, while high speed broadband is available in cities, regional towns have fallen behind and are currently poorly served. According to current data, 36 per cent of the 1.25 million fixed broadband connections in Ireland have less than 10Mbps download speeds.
Widespread provision of high speed broadband over the past decade has been held back by an inadequate national network, being over-reliant on copper, which bottlenecks performance at the final stretch.
Notwithstanding recent improvements in copper performance, where speeds of up to 70-100 Mbps (download only) can be delivered and the availability of coaxial cable networks which can provide speeds of 240Mbps (download only), only 100 percent fibre-to-the-building technology provides a future-proofed network capable of providing 1000Mbps (1Gb/s) both upload and download.
The ESB is constantly looking at ways to innovate across the group and develop new business opportunities from existing assets. Recently refurbished to the tune of €8 billion, ESB networks is internationally recognised as a world leader in smart networks.
More than 2,000 kilometres of fibre already deployed
Following a strategic review of business, the ESB identified the potential provided by its existing electrical network. With more than 2,000 kilometres of fibre already deployed on the high voltage transmission network and a distribution network with connections to every home and business in Ireland, there was an opportunity to fast-track the delivery of a fibre optic network, bringing fibre to the home across the country, utilising not only ESB assets, but also its considerable technical expertise.
The next step was to find a partner in the telecoms industry, with the capacity, expertise and ambition to undertake such a large infrastructural project. In 2012, the ESB initiated a procurement process, which culminated in the choice of Vodafone, a global leader in the industry and the largest provider of telecoms in Ireland. On May 14, 2015, the joint venture company, SIRO, was launched.
Over the next three to four years, SIRO will invest €450 million in building a 100 per cent fibre-to-the-building network, which will deliver speeds of 1Gbps. SIRO’s key differentiator is that it is a custom-built 100 per cent fibre optic service powered by light, making it different and better than any other broadband infrastructure in Ireland, with no copper connection at any point in the network. The first phase of the project will incorporate 50 regional towns across Ireland, passing 500,000 homes and businesses in the process.
The network is an open access wholesale network, open to any telecoms retail operator in Ireland which wishes to deliver high speed broadband to its end customers and, as such, it will transform the telecoms landscape in Ireland.
The utilisation of the electrical network to deploy fibre-to-the-building across the country on such a large scale is a first in Europe. This project also demonstrates how a commercial semi-state is making efficient and effective use of its assets, along with Vodafone’s fibre expertise, to deliver world-leading speeds to the Irish market.
All-Dielectric Sel Supporting (ADSS) fibre optic cable rolled out
SIRO began a technical trial connecting 300 homes with 1Gbps service in two estates in Cavan town in October 2014. 38kV stations are typically located on the periphery of towns and a point of interconnection was built directly adjacent to the Cavan station. From there, All-Dielectric Self Supporting (ADSS) fibre optic cable was rolled out along the medium and low voltage network, passing all the houses in the targeted estates.
The 300 trialists were connected to the network by bringing fibre optic cable from the fibre distribution point enclosure on the pavement, through the electrical meter cabinet and into the house, culminating in the optical network terminal.
As the deployment of the fibre optic cables utilises the existing overhead and underground infrastructure, such as polls and ducting, the level of disruption required by the build is minimal.
There has been a very positive reaction to the trial in Cavan, with more than 80 per cent of participants believing the service is superior to existing services. A total of 50 per cent of participants think that it will help to make Cavan more attractive as a location for Foreign Direct Investment and over 50 per cent of the trial participants also believe that it will encourage more people in Cavan to set up their own online business.
At the launch of SIRO, An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD and Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Alex White TD unveiled the first ten locations, dubbed Ireland’s first Gigabit towns or “fibrehoods”, to be included in SIRO’s roll-out – Cavan, Dundalk, Westport, Castlebar, Sligo, Carrigaline, Tralee, Navan, Letterkenny and Wexford.
Construction on the project has already commenced, with services to be available to customers by the end of the year. All of the Gigabit towns will be on a par for high speed connectivity with leading international hubs, such as Tokyo and Hong Kong.
Tendering for National Broadban Plan
SIRO’s ambition does not rest there, as SIRO is participating in the NBP process later this year in order to deliver the optimum solution for bringing high speed broadband to rural Ireland.
A potential second phase is also being considered which would bring fibre-to-the-building to a further 300 smaller towns, not covered by the Government’s National Broadband Plan, helping to bridge the digital divide.
Ultimately, as Ireland’s first fully open access network, SIRO is a transformative project which will finally provide the connectivity required to put Ireland on an equal footing with some of the most competitive economies across the globe.
This is the first project of its kind in Europe and will ensure a fast and cost efficient roll-out to every county in Ireland, reversing the digital divide between the capital and regional towns – a potential legacy that we can all be proud of.
Our 100 per cent fibre optic broadband service will help Ireland’s regional areas compete more effectively for investment and jobs, SMEs to work more efficiently and give consumers to unrivalled digital access.