imagine

Wireless pioneer battling the State on national broadband plan

interview: Seán Bolger of Imagine claims the route to rural connectivity is wireless

Remember when telecommunications was just Telecom Éireann: a single entity, running a single infrastructure? Sure, it was bloated and uncompetitive, and yes, the market couldn’t have remained as it was with the advent of mobile and the internet, but are we really better served by the tangled mess of technologies and overlapping infrastructures that now prevail?

Today, the number of firms offering phone and broadband bundles across fixed-line, fixed-wireless and mobile platforms is heading towards 70, and we’re about to introduce another weave to the tapestry in the form of the National Broadband Plan.

In theory, Imagine boss Seán Bolger should view this as an existential threat. His company supplies fixed-wireless broadband to rural Ireland, a technology and customer base that’s likely to be cannibalised by the Government’s scheme.

But Bolger, who has made a career out of fighting monopolies, is unperturbed.

“The reality is, it’s completely impracticable . . . it won’t happen,” he says.

It’s a bold claim given the political clout behind the plan. There are now two Government departments and a task force in charge of overseeing its implementation.

Imagine’s Dublin headquarters, a rather nondescript office space located in a corner of Sandyford Business Centre, doesn’t feel like the staging post for a mass assault on Ireland’s telecommunications market, but the company has a reputation for being understated, despite its outspoken boss.

The bulk of our conversation is taken up with the National Broadband Plan and, as Bolger sees it, the Government’s misguided insistence on a fibre solution.

He says the cost of linking 937,000 homes – the proposed intervention area – to a high-speed, fibre-to-the-home network is prohibitive, and likely to cost way more than the €1 billion estimate currently pencilled in.

The Department of Communications has never specified the technology to be deployed, but Bolger claims it’s implicit. “Politicians have basically told everyone it’s going to be fibre to the home,” he says. Either way, the three shortlisted bidders – Eir, Siro and Enet – are basing their bids around a fibre solution.

With the potential to deliver download speeds of up to one gigabit – 1,000 megabits – per second (Mbps), proponents say fibre will guard against early obsolescence, a feature of former Irish broadband initiatives.

Logistical challenges

However, Bolger insists it will be too difficult to run fibre to households in remote areas without using wireless, principally because of the prevalence of one-off housing units and poor planning. Similar plans have been abandoned in the United States, Australia and Britain for the same logistical reasons.

“The problem with fibre is that it’s extremely expensive and not really viable on a commercial basis outside of densely populated areas,” he says.

But isn’t this just sour grapes? After all, Imagine was one of the two consortiums to be ejected from the process last year. “Our bid did not fail. We were excluded on a technicality,” he says.

The technicality, he claims, relates to its backer, Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, and the fact that the latter’s holding company wasn’t included as a member of the Imagine bid, which also included Australia’s MacQuarie Capital and infrastructural group Black & Veatch.

Bolger won’t elaborate on what he thinks went on behind the scenes, but it’s clear he believes the process was hung up on delivering a fibre solution to the exclusion of all others, including Imagine’s 4G wireless technology, which delivers high-speed internet access via radio signals rather than cables.

A recent survey of Irish broadband speeds by technology monitoring group Ookla, ranked Imagine second ahead of fibre rivals Eir, Vodafone and Sky, with an average speed of 77Mbps, and significantly ahead of the 30Mbps threshold specified in the NBP tender.

“Why we were excluded on a technicality is a matter for the national broadband team, but the result was that two effective competitors with major multinational backer funding were excluded from the process.”

This outcome favours market incumbent Eir, he claims, suggesting the former semi-State has pushed the department towards the most expensive technology option in order to delay the project and/or limit competition.

Eir has been accused of trying to disrupt the Government’s tender by several rivals, an accusation it denies.

“I’m not saying the process stinks. I’m saying we were excluded on a technicality. Do I think that was the right thing to do? No, I don’t. Do I think that’s in the best interest of the country in terms of competition? No, I don’t.”

“What started out as an extremely good plan has effectively been curtailed into a risky plan by the process.”

“The whole idea of the plan is to build a wholesale network, but if the wholesale cost of that network is so high so that it’s prohibitive, you’ll have very little competition, and who will pay for that? The consumer.”

Commercial operators

Either way, Bolger’s believes the plan in its current guise won’t deliver. That’s not to say rural Ireland won’t get high-speed broadband, only that it will be delivered through a combination of fibre to the regions – and, where it is viable, to the home – in combination with wireless technologies from private operators in more remote areas.

To be fair to Bolger, he’s putting his money where his mouth is. The company is spending more than €1 million a month on the national rollout of its 4G long-term evolution (LTE) network.

Currently it has 50 live sites across the State and about 11,500 customers, with approximately 2,500 joining each month. It plans to grow this to 400 sites and 160,000 customers within three years, courtesy of a €300 million war chest stumped up by existing shareholders and new investors, plus cashflow from the business.

The sale of its retail business division, comprising up to 5,500 customers, to rival telco Magnet last year was part of this strategic shift in focus.

“We’re fed up talking about this and people not understanding it, so we decided to just go out and do it.

“In less than five months, we’ve rolled out our technology to nearly 500,000 homes,” Bolger says, noting it has had an additional 87,000 requests from prospective customers registering on the site or via social media.

To accommodate this expansion, the company has hired an additional 100 staff in the past year, bringing its total workforce to 275. It expects staff numbers at its three offices, two in Dublin and one in Cork, to grow to 350 within the next 12 months.

“We’re the first company that has quit the bulls**t, and gone into rural Ireland and delivered,” Bolger says, highlighting the rollout is being done on purely commercial basis.

“We could have reduced the amount of State subsidy required to deliver high-speed broadband in Ireland if the Government had kept us in the NBP process,” he claims. “What we’ve proven is that there’s a global, industry-backed technology that can be used today in Ireland to deliver high-speed broadband on a commercial basis.”

Tenacious

Bolger is nothing if not tenacious, and his sense of injustice over the NBP bidding process seems to have strengthened his resolve to prove the company has a winning formula for the provision of broadband.

The Rathfarnham-born entrepreneur has spent much of his telecoms career in arm wrestles with monopolies and big multinationals. His first serious foray into telecoms arena came in 1993, when he founded ITL, an international calls firm – at the time Telecom Éireann’s first and only competitor.

After merging the business with Norway’s Netsource in 1997, and buying up 15 other firms across Europe, he went on to sell it for $300 million. He bought back the company’s Irish business in 2003, merging it with Imagine, which had been established in 1998.

Bolger fought a legal battle with Eircom’s then mobile arm Eircell over its right to provide competitive mobile services. The High Court found for Imagine on a number of contractual issues, but rejected its contention that there had been a breach of competition law by Eircell.

At the time, Imagine had around 20,000 subscribers: Bolger estimates that Eircell’s actions cost him 80,000 new customers.

Around 2008, seeing the growth in demand for broadband, the company reinvented itself as a fixed-wireless provider, subsequently buying Irish Broadband and Clearwire to boost its infrastructural platform.

However, the company’s new iteration nearly foundered after it fell out with US telecoms giant Motorola, the supplier of its Wimax product.

A six-year legal battle – a record for the Commercial Court – ensued. The Irish company claimed in 2011 in the High Court that Motorola was supposed to have provided 234 base stations for its wireless network by the end of the previous year, but had only installed 125. Imagine said the delay had significantly depleted its capital and forced it to restructure debt.

Bolger says the company went to hell and back in its battle with Motorola, at one stage having to downsize the workforce by 50 per cent.

“What kept us going was a fundamental belief in what’s right and what’s wrong, and we don’t like being bullied.” He also points to the backing of shareholders.

Under wraps

The €134 million lawsuit was only settled last year. Details of the settlement were kept under wraps, but Bolger says the company’s position was vindicated.

“We take on very big projects and by doing that we tend to take on vested interests,” he says.

These days Imagine is 54 per cent owned by Bolger, commercial director Brian O’Donohoe, and the company’s management and staff. Another 30 per cent is held the Balthus consortium of investors and 16 per cent by listed venture capital group DFJ Esprit.

“Everything we do is down to a team of people. Whatever that concept, idea, we look at; it comes down to opportunity, strategy, team and money.”

He says the biggest challenge for Irish entrepreneurs is finance, highlighting the fact that all of Imagine’s fundraising takes place abroad. “Access to funding for entrepreneurs and businesses is nonexistent in the Irish market,” he says.

Bolger was there at the beginning of Ireland’s tech boom and has had a front row seat for the opening up of the telecommunications industry here. He might yet prove a dark horse in the race to bring broadband to rural Ireland.

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Times.
Article By: Eoin Burke-Kennedy

wifi

Wireless broadband still rivalling fibre in rural areas

Study of download speeds ranks wireless firm Imagine second to fibre provider Virgin.

Government is likely to insist on use of fibre, which can deliver speeds of up to 1,000 Mbps, in its national broadband plan.  According to a sample survey of Irish broadband speeds by technology monitoring Ookla group, Virgin Media, a fibre broadband provider, was found to be delivering the fastest download speeds, equating to 276 Megabits per second (Mbps). Wireless technology firm Imagine was ranked second ahead of fibre rivals Eir, Vodafone and Sky, with an average speed of 77Mbps.

“The results show that advanced fixed wireless internet, which transmits high-speed internet signals through the air, is a powerful and more effective alternative to fibre-to-the-home broadband in rural Ireland,” Imagine’s commercial director Brian O’Donohoe said.

“ Overall, Imagine is delivering faster speeds to the countryside than providers like Eir are delivering to cities and towns, and without using wires or cables,” he said.

Wireless broadband providers risk being driven out of many parts of the market by the arrival of the Government’s national broadband plan. This is because the three shortlisted bidders for the project – Eir, Siro and E-net – are planning to submit bids based on fibre-to-the-home (FTTH)technologies, considered the gold standard internationally.

Shortcoming

However, the final 5 per cent of homes in rural Ireland, located in the hardest-to-reach areas, may still need to be connected using wireless technologies on cost grounds.

Despite the rollout of the FTTH products – Eir and Siro claim to have passed about 40,000 homes each – the take-up by consumers has been low.

Comreg’s latest broadband penetration data shows only a fraction of homes have actually opted to buy FTTH bundles, despite the clamour for better quality connectivity in rural areas.

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Times.
Article By: Eoin Burke-Kennedy

pr

Broadband Rollout in Rural Areas ‘A PR STUNT’

The roll-out of rural broadband has been a “PR stunt” to date, according to Fianna Fáil Councillor Bob Ryan.

Speaking at a meeting of Cork County Council, Mr Ryan said that broadband providers were only doing the bare minimum and that this was being sold as progress by the Government.

“They are running fibre-optic infrastructure up rural roads so far — maybe two or three hundred metres off the main highways, and going no further.”

“It appears to me very clearly that it is a PR stunt. I’m sure there will be reports from the relevant departments dealing with broadband rollout, and they will be coming out saying they have reached so many thousands of homes in rural Ireland, but it is nothing more than a scam.”

“They are going two or three hundred metres up the road and stopping, and the people living further up the road have no chance of getting rural broadband for a long, long time. The way they are approaching it is unfair, and it is very, very much unworkable,” he said.

Independent councillor John Paul O’Shea said that he had seen similar examples in the north Cork area.

“Eir and a number of other private organisations are investing in broadband, but the fact of the matter is, Cllr Ryan is right. One area in Bweeng, they are going so far up a road, just after one house, but there are five houses further up the road that would be viable for them, but they decide to stop wherever they like.”

“It will be like this until post-2020 when the national broadband plan comes along and subsidises Eir, or whatever organisation might win the contract to do it. This county can’t wait three years for broadband services,” he said.

Fianna Fáil councillor Frank O’Flynn said that the issue was like a “sore boil” that wouldn’t go away.

Catch the full article here on the Evening Echo.

mslinkedin

Microsoft Closes $26.2 Billion LinkedIn Acquisition

It has been a few months since Microsoft announced its intention to acquire LinkedIn for $26.2 billion.

Deals as big as this require a lot of time to through the various legal and regulatory hurdles that stand in the way. All of that is now over for this particular deal as it has now been confirmed that Microsoft’s $26.2 billion acquisition of LinkedIn has been closed. The professional social network is officially a part of Microsoft now.

It has taken Microsoft six months to formally close its deal with LinkedIn. The European Commission put up one of the last regulatory hurdles that the company had to clear before it could officially close the deal.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has outlined some of the steps that will be taken to integrate LinkedIn with the company’s services. These include the integration of LinkedIn identity and network in Microsoft’s Office and Outlook suite, enabling LinkedIn notifications inside Windows action center, expanding Sponsored Content reach to other Microsoft properties and more.

LinkedIn members drafting resumes in Word will be able to update their profiles, search for and apply to jobs via LinkedIn. Microsoft will also develop a business news desk across its content ecosystem and MSN.com. LinkedIn Learning will become available across the Office 365 and Windows ecosystem.

imagine

Imagine sets target of 1m homes passed with wireless broadband by 2018

Imagine sets target of 1m homes passed with wireless broadband by 2018.

Irish altnet Imagine Communications, which is led by the entrepreneur Sean Bolger, has marked the settlement of its long-running EUR138 million (USD148.1 million) court case against Motorola, by announcing that – having wiped out its legacy debt – it now plans to roll out broadband services to one million Irish premises by 2018. The Irish Independent quotes Mr. Bolger as saying that the company spent about EUR20 million in 2015 and 2016 deploying its wireless LTE broadband technology service, adding that the rollout is still underway and Imagine has carried out a soft launch in areas where the network is present. According to Bolger, the company is now ramping up its sales drive and promises to deliver peak typical speeds of up to 70Mbps – suggesting peaks of up to 100Mbps – noting that it already has a footprint covering approximately 500,000 homes and businesses.

Imagine Communications, which is also backed by the likes of NTR and Kilsaran Concrete, cut its losses by more than half from EUR10.4 million to EUR4.7 million in FY2015, and also became profitable on an EBITDAbasis. Mr. Bolger confirmed that the firm’s FY2015 losses were largely due to non-cash write-downs and impairments associated with its previous WiMAX plan. Imagine sued Motorola in 2010 alleging breach of contract and negligence arising from the rollout of a WiMAX network. Motorola had countersued, denying the claims. Last month, the pair settled out of court in a confidential agreement, although it is likely Imagine received a significant sum under the arrangement.

eir

Eir warns broadband customers of modem security breach

Eir is warning customers that its modems have been compromised in a security breach. It is understood at least 2,000 have been breached by a computer virus.

Eir is warning customers that its modems have been compromised in a security breach.

It is understood at least 2,000 have been breached by a computer virus.

Customers are being advised to reset their devices after a security vulnerability identified on a “limited number” of Zyxel D100 and Zyxel P-660HN-T1A broadband modems.

“We strongly recommend that customers with these modems change both their modem administration password as well as their WiFi password as soon as possible,” the company stated.

The company is contacting those affected by letter and email to inform them of the situation.

Full details of eir’s advice to its customers can be found here.

Catch the full article here on Breaking News

security

Ireland falls behind in cybersecurity war

The government agency tasked with safeguarding the state and critical national infrastructure from cyberattacks is significantly under-resourced and has limited capacity to respond to such events, The Times can reveal.

Internal documents show that the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) needs a significant increase in investment to adopt EU security requirements and thwart attacks on government infrastructure and multinational technology companies.

The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has repeatedly expressed concern over the task facing the centre and its ability to meet EU standards. The NCSC was set up this year but has yet to be put on a statutory basis.

Catch the full article here in the The Times
– Copyright Peter O’Dwyer

slow

Broadband speed in slow lane

New data demonstrates parts of the country experience broadband speeds up to 36 times slower than others and reveals the country’s broadband hot and not spots.

The data suggests that as few as a quarter of households could be receiving speeds of 30Mbps or more, the minimum target set out in the National Broadband Plan:

2016-11-22_wex_26406959_i1

While there are some exceptions with much higher speeds, in County Wexford, we receive an average 14.20Mbps, less than half the minimum target, but compared to somewhere like Legan in Longford, with an average download speed of 1.98Mbps, we’re flying it, with Wexford town achieving 16.2Mbps. By comparison with its country cousins, the fastest area is Drimnagh in Dublin, with an average of 72.15Mbps.

The hot spot: county-by-county data shows Dublin is the county with the fastest average broadband speed, at 44.85Mbps.

Longford is the slowest county, with an average broadband speed of 7.25Mbps, while of the 20 slowest areas, of which Wexford is one, four are in Cork, three are in Cavan, and there are two in Galway; 37 per cent of the total tests collected showed download speeds of less than 5Mbps, and the average speed across all speed tests taken in the period was 23.75Mbps. The speed test data collected by Switcher.ie, the independent price comparison website and switching service, is based on almost 27,000 consumer speed tests run by broadband users between 1 August 2015 and 31 July 2016.

In terms of county-by-county results, unsurprisingly Dublin has the highest average speed, followed by Waterford, Kildare, Meath and Westmeath. The National Broadband Plan sets out that, at a minimum, broadband with speeds of 30Mbps should be available to all.

Catch the full article here in the Wexford People
– Copyright David Tucker

virgine-media

Virgin Media records full-year loss as revenues dip

Subscriber numbers slip for the group, which reported €3.87m pre-tax loss last year.

Virgin Media Ireland fell into the red in 2015, recording a €3.87 million pre-tax loss as against a €26 million profit a year earlier as customer numbers fell..

The company, which has invested heavily in its network in recent years, reported earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation (ebitda) fell 22 per cent to €122 million, compared to €153 million in 2014.

Revenues totalled €350 million versus €351 million in the previous year.

A breakdown of turnover shows the company recorded €284 million in sales from analogue, digital television and broadband services with a further €65.8 million coming from telephony services.

Operating profit dropped to €58.6 million from €91million as operating expenses climbed to €216 million from €188 million.

The accounts show customer numbers fell to 490,310 versus 512,952 in 2014 .

Rural areas

Virgin attributed the drop in subscribers to the phasing out of its MMDS (Multichannel Multipoint Distribution System)platform, which was used by customers in rural areas who could not access the company’s cable network.

Recent figures from the company show the number of customers has declined further this year however, falling to 457,700 in the third quarter. These include 363,800 broadband subscribers, 312,200 television subscribers and 352,200 home phone customers.

Owned by Liberty Global, the group claims to have invested over €1 billion in Ireland over the past decade.

The group employed 734 people last year, down from 806 a year earlier. Staff-related costs, including wages and salaries, totalled €63.7 million, versus €52.3 million in 2014.

Virgin, which rebranded from UPC Ireland last October, recently announced it is putting its prices up in January for the second time in less than a year for many of its subscribers.

Catch the full article here in the Irish Times
– Copyright Charlie Taylor

virgin

Virgin Media customers told their bills will increase from January

Customers of Virgin Media have been told that their bills will increase from January.

The new changes will see the average customer paying an extra €1.50 per month, the company claims. But one irate customer told Independent.ie that his bill will increase by €4 – an extra €48 per year. Customers were informed of the changes via email in the last two weeks.

In the correspondence top one customer, seen by Independent.ie, the broadband and TV company wrote: “We’re making some changes in January and we wanted to let you know that the amount you pay for your Virgin Media package will go up.

“This change will take effect from your first bill after January 1st 2017. Nobody likes a price rise, and we understand this. We’re always looking at how we can bring you an even better TV package and add value to your Virgin Media experience wherever possible.”

A spokesperson for the company said the price changes vary depending on the services that customers use, and they average 3.35% across the customer base.

The company told customers that they have until December 23 to cancel their package and can do so by calling 1908 and selecting option 1.

On customer said: “This is outrageous. I have lost count of the number of price increases we have experienced in the last number of years.”

In a statement to Independent.ie, a spokesperson for Virgin Media said: “Nobody likes price changes and we only ever increase prices when we need to. We do everything we can to keep prices competitive while also continuing to make necessary investments in the services that our customers want.

“The price change is necessary due to increased operating costs and, most notably, a near trebling of rates payable across our network.

Catch the full article here in the Irish Independent
– Copyright Online Editors | Newsdesk