Before the pandemic, only 14% of people worked from home either sometimes or usually, according to a study by the Economic & Social Research Institute. Over the course of the last 11 months, this number has jumped to 47% – an EU survey found that Ireland has one of the highest rates of remote working in Europe. The Government has announced new legislation to give employees the right to request remote working even beyond the pandemic, which proves the shift to remote working is here and here to stay.
The availability of good, reliable broadband is the biggest enabler in this seismic shift. The good news is the evolution of broadband infrastructure and connectivity in Ireland has accelerated massively over the past 5 years and will continue to do so in the coming years, transforming the country both socially & economically.
Broadband in Ireland Before 2015
Before 2015, conditions in the broadband infrastructure market were very different. There was virtually no infrastructure competition in Ireland and no investment in full fibre solutions. Broadband speeds were low – speeds of 1Gbps were unheard of, and customers were getting below 30Mbps as standard. The National Broadband Plan set this as the minimum threshold for speed. In many cases, telecom insiders (seeking the status quo to remain) argued that this may be too high.
Incumbent broadband carriers across Ireland and Europe were largely continuing the rollout of copper solutions with speeds up to 100Mbps. Some Telcos even flirted with the idea of rolling out enhanced copper services like G-Fast to extend the life of the copper telecoms infrastructure. None of these solutions would transform or future-proof Ireland but merely extend the life of the increasingly frail copper network.
What Actions Were Being Taken?
Current and previous governments have been criticized for not doing enough to support the rollout of fast broadband. In many ways the pace of change is too slow, and the perceived slow pace is little comfort to those people who do not have adequate broadband right now. However, the reality is that major infrastructure investments take time. And in the fullness of time, I believe it will be noted that the government made two critical strategic interventions that have provided the platform for change in the market and delivering significant progress for Ireland.
Supporting The Establishment of SIRO
ESB began a tender process in September 2012 to find a partner in a joint venture company to deploy a fibre-to-the-building network using ESB Networks’ overhead and underground infrastructure as part of its innovation strategy. Vodafone emerged as the preferred bidder for the project in September 2013, when both companies entered exclusive negotiations. The agreement to form the new joint venture company was signed by the two organisations on 2nd July 2014 with EU regulatory approval secured in November 2014. The name and brand of the joint venture company was formally unveiled as SIRO on 14th May 2015.
Commenting at the launch of SIRO, An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD, said: “This Government is serious about broadband. High speed broadband is a necessity for all Irish homes and businesses as we connect Ireland to the world and create new jobs. This is why the Government supported the joint venture between ESB and Vodafone to create SIRO”.
Creating a National Broadband Plan Tender to Address Market Failure of Poor Broadband Zones for 545,000 Premises
The government’s ambitious plan to deliver fibre broadband to rural Ireland through a national tender is now operational and seeking to deliver the first full fibre homes by the end of 2021.
The initial NBP tender had 925,000 homes. Prior to completion of this tender, the competitive nature of the tender drove Eir to make the decision to commercially build 300,000 premises from the intervention area, which they have successfully concluded.
Simply, the creation of competition in the market did not happen by accident. When competition is encouraged, the market can flourish, for which society, the economy, and the consumer reap the benefits.
Where We Are Now?
Since SIRO launched, existing Telcos have ditched copper and started moving to FTTP solutions. In 2015, SIRO started building Ireland’s first 100% fibre network, which prompted the incumbent Open Eir to roll out their own. This is the most advanced future-proof technology, which will support industry, education, health, agriculture & household requirements for the next 40-50 years. The pace of rollout has also dramatically improved as both key infrastructure players seek to “get there first”.
By the end of 2020, SIRO and Eir have made fibre available to over 1,100,000 premises– equating to more than 47% of the premises in Ireland. Minimum speed of 30Mbps is a thing of the past. The standard fibre speed being rolled out now is 500Mbps, a dramatic improvement compared to 5 years ago.
Under the Remote Working proposal, the Government also plans to accelerate the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan – currently designed to cover 544,000 premises across Ireland within the next 6 years. The ultimate objective is to have 100% fibre coverage in the country – that’s Ireland going from zero to full fibre by 2025.
What Are The Benefits of 100% Fibre Broadband?
Consumers benefit from far greater speeds and a more reliable, seamless broadband service – the beauty of 100% fibre technology. The cost of this service to consumers can be secured at €30/€60 and pricing at a retail level has been extremely competitive, allowing consumers to avail of dramatically faster speeds for equivalent or similar charges.
Any technology is only as good as its benefits to the end users. In this regard, the benefits of full fibre technology extend far beyond fast and reliable broadband – it will reshape ways of living and working, and in turn transform Ireland’s social and economic landscape. Reduced commute time, better work-life balance, improved productivity, and lower transport emissions are some of the key benefits pointed out by the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Leo Varadkar. As the remote worker can work from anywhere, they can now live outside crowded cities and have been relocating to scenic regional areas for cleaner air and cheaper housing. This, in turn, can have the potential to reduce the burden on big cities and transform regional Ireland in the long run.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, and the strong possibility of remote/blended working arrangements becoming the norm beyond COVID, the stars have aligned for Ireland when it comes to facilitating flexible working arrangements with high-speed broadband. This would not have happened without the competitive dynamics being created by Government, facilitated by the incredible business foresight and ambitions of the SIRO creators in Vodafone (Anne O’leary) and ESB (Pat Doherty/Jerry O’Sullivan & Denis O’Leary).
Ireland will now stand among the best countries in the world for access to high-speed fibre broadband, and therefore favourably positioned to ride out the unique challenges of Covid-19 and beyond.