Eir broadband deal leaves rural customers facing rollout lottery

Did the government achieve a major milestone in rural broadband rollout this week? Or has it caved to pressure from Eir, putting the wider project at risk?

There are considered views on both sides of the argument.

For those who missed it, the Government agreed a ‘contract’ with Eir to remove 300,000 rural homes and businesses from the list of 840,000 targeted for the state-subsidised National Broadband Plan. Instead of getting broadband from the State-subsidised process, these 300,000 homes are now to get it on a normal commercial basis. The agreement between the Government and Eir requires Eir to have this completed by the end of next year. If it isn’t, the government says that it reserves the right to re-enter the districts concerned into the National Broadband Plan footprint and make Eir pay any costs.

Communications Minister Denis Naughten is presenting this as a milestone reached in its wider rural broadband goal. Some critics, though, are sceptical of Eir’s ability to deliver such an ambitious target, citing the company’s mixed record to date.

The big unanswered question, though, is what this means for the remaining 540,000 rural homes and business left in the National Broadband Plan map. What is the timetable for that rollout? When will construction on the network begin? Is there a date by which the Government hopes to award a contract for it?

Unfortunately, the Minister now has no answer for these basic questions. The Eir deal may have skewed the whole process.

Mr Naughten’s problem is that taking 300,000 homes out of the intervention area footprint leaves bidders for the scheme with the more difficult, harder-to-reach rump of 540,000 homes. That means they’re a lot less attractive to bid for, even if there is a subsidy involved. And that means that the Government may face further delays in teeing up the tender contract as the three bidders (Eir, Siro and eNet) reassess how they would go about connecting these premises, the cost and complexity.

Indeed, this is exactly what they are now saying.

“We will now take time to review whether this changed scope impacts the viability of Siro’s participation,” said a spokesman for Siro, the joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone which is one of two rival short-listed bidders.

Mr Naughten believes that Siro and eNet will stay in the bidding race and he is probably right. But to keep them involved, the Government may now have to increase the effective subsidy on offer for each rural home. This may even result in a larger overall taxpayer bill than serving a greater number of homes, as bidders may have been willing to risk more themselves for access to scale.

It looks increasingly unlikely that a winning bidder will now be announced this year. That would mean construction is delayed until next year and connections put off until late 2018.

So it looks like we’re in for another bout of delays and another wave of disillusionment.

It is, of course, possible that the Government didn’t have much of a choice but to do its deal with Eir. If the telecoms company really was about to start building its broadband rollout into a third of the Government’s stated intervention area, the Government would risk breaking EU state aid rules. That could have halted the entire initiative which, ironically, would not have hurt Eir anywhere near as much as other telecoms firms or the Government’s credibility.

To be fair, this deal with Eir may indeed mean that there are 300,000 rural homes which will now get broadband on an accelerated time frame. Indeed, a cynic might pick Eir over the Government’s rollout timetable at this point.

One of the criticisms of the contract the Government has signed with Eir is that it has been taken on by an entity with a poor track record of delivery. While there is some justification for that view, the company can be fairly said to have responded to market and industry pressure in rolling out a much larger broadband network now than its fiercest critics would have allowed for, and most evidence points to it being somewhat serious about rolling out fibre, too. It is undoubtedly true that much of its motivation for doing so has been drawn by a combination of initiatives from UPC (now Virgin Media), Siro (Vodafone and the ESB) and Government intervention plans. But it does now have a genuine broadband footprint, even if a large portion still falls short of fibre-era standards. In this context, it may be unduly harsh to charge that the Government has been sold a bag of magic beans.

One can’t blame Minister Naughten for spinning the Eir announcement of 300,000 homes as a sort of adjunct to the National Broadband Plan. In a fog of delays and ongoing contract “complications”, it’s a sizeable chunk of rural Ireland that otherwise might have been mired for years waiting for a tender to be issued.

But it’s the remainder of the homes and businesses to be connected – 540,000 of them – that now face an even more uncertain future.

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Independent

Vodafone admits and apologises for overcharging Irish customers

Vodafone has admitted that the company has overcharged a number of customers in Ireland.

“We are aware of an issue with duplicate credit and debit card payments for some customers caused by a processing error. Customers will be fully refunded over the next few days,” Vodafone said in a statement.

“All impacted customers will also receive an SMS with confirmation of their refund. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

The company has had issues with overcharging in the past: in 2015, the telecom giant was fined €10,000 at Dublin District Court for charging customers too much.

In October of last year, UK regulator Ofcom fined Vodafone a record £4.6m (€5.5m) “for serious and sustained breaches of consumer protection rules”.

Vodafone said that under 4pc of its Irish bill pay customers have been overcharged.

The company has around 2.3 million Irish customers across its mobile, broadband and TV offerings.

However, Vodafone said it could not specifically comment on the number of counts that had been affected for “commercial reasons”. The company said the overcharging was identified over one monthly billing period and that the money would be repaid in the coming days.

Irish Independent

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Independent

Enforced digital detox turns rural dream into nightmare

Lack of landline or internet connections and ‘apathetic’ Eir ruin move to new Offaly home

After years of renting, saving and dreaming, my partner and I finally moved into our dream home with our two children on St Patrick’s Day.

We were finally free of the rental trap, our kids could play out in the garden without fear of passing cars and there would be space to grow vegetables and tend to a garden.

The house is a one-off new build. It is located around six kilometres from the centre of Tullamore and about 3km from the house we previously rented on the outskirts of the Co Offaly town. Although close to the town, it is located down a boreen off the main road and is free from both light and noise pollution.

All of this seemed idyllic to me and in my naivety I did not anticipate any major difficulties. This was before I had the misfortune of dealing with Eir. They were contacted prior to the move for a landline and internet connection but on inspection their engineer said a pole was needed so we cancelled the order and made a fresh request. Eir had supplied eFibre to the old house and credit where credit is due, the service was perfect, too good perhaps.

Even though the new house is near our old address we may as well be in a different galaxy. On two occasions Eir couldn’t find the house and they even cited data protection as the reason they couldn’t ask locally for directions (so much for your Eircode Alex White), presumably because God forbid someone might discover we wanted a phoneline.

When their engineer eventually arrived, it was the same man from before with the same message – we need a pole and there must be a pole request. This was infuriating as we had informed Eir of this on countless occasions. When informed that my livelihood was on the line, the engineer was sympathetic and said he would contact his manager, outline the urgency of the case and put in a pole request. Eir say we might now have a line at the end of April.

Modern-day retreat

Eir cannot be held responsible for the location’s mobile phone signal. It is almost non-existent on both major networks. I imagine years from now there will be people seeking out the exact conditions that prevail at my new home. It is a digital-free oasis impervious it would appear, even to radio waves. The enforced digital detox might actually one day become a viable business model, a modern-day retreat, impenetrable to potentially harmful radiation from the modern world outside – if only there was a way of letting people know about it.

After the move the full implications of digital-free living became all too apparent as my income dried up. Even my radio conspired against me in a fiendish way. It permits radio stations to be tuned in but the moment you walk away from the device the signal dies.

As a freelance reporter it is difficult to think of a more challenging environment to operate from. In the past I have had days of frantically driving up and down country roads in search of a mobile signal all the while knowing that there was an irate editor waiting impatiently in some far away newsroom. That is challenging but at least mobility offered the prospect of a solution.

The sheer frustration of dealing with Eir is something entirely different. The irony of trying to force customers to communicate through online chats appears lost on the company. The apathetic call-takers on Eir’s community forum seem incapable of grasping the reality of someone having no mobile phone coverage.

Recently I acquired an internet dongle from Vodafone. The service works intermittently. I am informed that should I get landline broadband I could get a device that would boost the mobile phone signal in the house. At the moment one windowsill offers two bars of 3G phone reception. My phone is in constant need of charging as it is exhausting itself trying to find a signal. It has also developed a worrying habit of falling from the windowsill when the odd call does come through.

I am acutely aware that my problems fall squarely into the first-world category. I know citizens are being massacred in Syria, children are dying of starvation in Yemen and there is a very real homelessness crisis here in Ireland. I know too that many people feel that if you choose to live in the countryside then you should accept the consequences.

Incapable

While I take this on board, I wonder what hope have the people of rural Ireland in starting up any business in this digital age. As for Eir acquiring 300,000 new rural broadband contracts at the behest of the Minister for Communications, frankly I despair. They seem incapable of dealing with the customers they have.

Having been told by Eir that I could now expect to wait a further three weeks for a landline or internet connection, I drove to my old address and in a state of complete exasperation and frustration emailed both the Denis Naughten and the chief executive of Eir. A lot of what I said is outlined above, but there was one more point that I believe is probably most relevant. What will I do if my partner or either of my young children require an ambulance or urgent medical attention? As expected neither the Minister nor the chief executive responded.

In jest, I informed the news editor that he could expect this piece in the post. It was only after the phone call ended I remembered what is happening to our rural post office network.

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Times

Seven things we learned at Mobile World Congress 2017

Barcelona hosted the biggest mobile tech show on the planet this week.

Tech editor Adrian Weckler has been immersed in the sector’s latest phones, mobile gadgets and new technology. Here he reveals why 5G really will be the next big thing (as Samsung and VR struggle); why, as phone cameras take giant leaps, Nokia’s classic €50 phone was a surprise hit; and while Irish delegates are up, the number of women most definitely isn’t

1. A lot more is going to depend on 5G than we think.

One of the big themes at Mobile World Congress was 5G. But unlike 3G or 4G, 5G is about way more than mobile phone speeds or internet access from handsets.

It’s starting to become clear that almost everything we do in a few years may depend on solid, unbroken access to a mobile network.

Self-driving cars, for instance, will probably only work if they have guaranteed, unfettered connections to a wider network – and 4G doesn’t cut it.

Right now, you can watch a video in your car or get sat nav access.

But for precision timing, the latency has to be down to a few milliseconds, something that isn’t possible over current networks. At Mobile World Congress, several of the car companies were there, making this point, with the two biggest display areas in the whole event taken up by Ericsson and Huawei, which are vying to be the main 5G network providers around the world.

2. The hype around virtual reality has abated.

The last two years were dominated by the promise of a new era in virtual reality. But in 2017, there is a lot less being said about it at the main tech shows.

“There just aren’t that many people buying them,” one senior Google executive told me at Mobile World Conference.

As a result, generic mobile and tech companies aren’t showcasing virtual reality modules as future add-ons to whatever service they sell in the same way they might have last year.

There is still massive investment going into the genre, mainly because of bets placed by Facebook (which owns Oculus), Sony, HTC and – to a lesser extent – Google. But virtual reality is starting to be talked about more in niche terms than ubiquitous, mass-market parlance.

3. Phone cameras are taking the next step up.

Given the laws of physics, can cameras in phones get any better? Actually, yes. We saw some significant upgrades at Mobile World Congress to the lenses sitting in your pocket. Sony and Huawei, in particular, showcased beefed-up cameraphone tech that will result in significantly better photos and videos turning up on our Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat feeds.

Sony’s new Xperia XZ Premium, for example, has an unprecedented ability to shoot very slow motion video in high definition.

Huawei, meanwhile, has upped its Leica lenses to give pretty jaw-dropping portrait photo ability.

They weren’t the only phone companies improving on their camera tech. Oppo may not be a widely known phone outfit in Ireland, but it’s now one of the biggest handset brands in China.

It also debuted a dual-lens cameraphone at Mobile World Congress.

Undoubtedly, Apple and Samsung will respond with the S8, due out shortly, and the iPhone 8, expected in September.

But the bottom line is that the gap between cameraphones and €1,000-plus standalone cameras will continue to narrow this year.

To be clear, the two will never be equal: camera sensors and standalone lenses will always have a significant edge over necessarily small phone sensors and flat micro-lenses. But the scale of the superiority that once existed continues to decline.

4. People are still looking for quirky things.

The hit of Mobile World Congress came from an unlikely source: Nokia. Its revived  classic 3310 model caught the imagination of the public, taking experts and analysts by surprise.

For €50, the dinky little phone comes with a two-inch colour screen, basic camera and an even more basic web browser. Its battery will last a month on standby and it has a new version of ‘Snake’, said to be the most-played video game of all time.

But is it a gimmick or a product with real legs? Are people really about to give up their powerful smartphones for a gadget that would have been fairly basic even ten years ago?

Analysts say that it will appeal to a mixture of older people, festival-goers, travellers and those who want to reduce their addiction to social media all throughout the day.

There are even suggestions that people sensitive to their data privacy might use the pared-down phone when entering the US, to limit border guards’ exploration of their social information when asked for such data at customs.

5. Samsung continues to have a terrible time of it.

Can things get much worse for Samsung? In the middle of Mobile World Congress, news came through that its chief executive is to be investigated for corruption.

Not that things were going well for the company at the event before that bombshell dropped. Its keynote presentation, which is usually an anchor event at Mobile World Congress, was a decidedly awkward affair with more hand-wringing from the stage over its Note 7 overheating phone fiasco. It didn’t even have any significant product to launch, with no Galaxy S8 model ready yet.

That left it with nothing more than an Android tablet and two touchscreen Windows laptops as its main pitch to the thousands gathered and watching. In previous years, Samsung has utterly dominated Mobile World Congress, just as it has dominated the mobile industry. So far, 2017 is proving to be as challenging as the end of 2016.

6. The Irish presence is getting bigger and bigger.

A couple of years ago, Irish influence at Mobile World Congress was largely restricted to a state-subsidised stand with 14 plucky little companies selected to present on the big stage. Now, some Irish companies are starting to come into their own as legitimate, large-scale competition to big international players. Dublin-based telecoms software firm Openet had arguably the biggest stand of any of the Irish firms on hand, a very large corner edifice with public and private spaces within. Asavie, a Dublin-based ‘internet of things’ firm, also has a sizeable stand at the event and announced a pretty significant deal.

In all, there were well over 30 Irish companies officially on display, with dozens (perhaps hundreds) more on location for business meetings and pitches.

7. The telecoms industry is still run by middle-aged men in suits.

Think web-tech companies have a gender balance problem? A walk around Mobile World Congress shows you an industry that makes the digital tech business look like a model of progressive gender-balance.

Hardly any keynote speeches were by women and, from what I saw walking around the place for two days, very few of the senior executives on the floor were women.

In relative terms, Ireland actually does reasonably well on this score. Ericsson’s most senior Irish executive at the event was Zelia Madigan, country manager for the company which has over 1,000 people working between Athlone and Dublin. At home, Irish telcos have pretty visible female senior executives too, including Vodafone’s Irish boss Anne O’Leary and Eir’s head of networks, Carolann Lennon.

However, not a single one of the 14 up-and-coming companies showcased at by Enterprise Ireland on the state agency’s subsidised stand at Mobile World Congress was led by a woman.

This probably wasn’t for want of looking on EI’s part. But telecoms still appears to be a very, very male-dominated business.

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Independent

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