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

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

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.

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 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

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

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

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

National broadband plan will fail those in our country areas

High-speed internet access is more important than ever but getting fibre to all homes is not the way forward in rural Ireland.

The National Broadband Plan, the Government’s initiative to provide high-speed fibre internet connections to every home in the country, has been hit with setbacks, budget cuts and delays almost since its inception.

The latest Switcher.ie survey brought in to focus the huge variance of broadband speeds across Ireland and the real problems facing rural businesses and communities without high-speed internet access.

The National Broadband Plan, the Government’s initiative to provide high-speed fibre internet connections to every home in the country, has been hit with setbacks, budget cuts and delays almost since its inception. This problem seems destined to continue with no end in sight. What was supposed to be delivered in 2015 is now not even planned to start until mid-2018 and is unlikely to fully materialise until 2023 at the earliest. This will leave thousands of rural households and businesses with a prohibitively slow internet connection.

While it’s a difficult question to confront, we shouldn’t be afraid to ask it: is the National Broadband Plan in its present form actually feasible? Considering our geography and existing infrastructure, is it financially and logistically possible to deliver high-speed fibre-optic internet to every home in Ireland?

While more and more of us are gravitating towards major towns and cities, Ireland is still mostly rural. Laying fibre-optic cable isn’t easy, or cheap. Roads must be closed and footpaths dug up. These difficulties are multiplied significantly in the country, where kilometres of hi-tech cable need to be passed through private farmland, secondary roads and down boreens to reach solitary houses and isolated townlands.

There are still too many unanswered questions. If the Government puts down fibre- optic cable along a main road, will it be up to the household or the business to pay to have it connected the extra distance to their front door? This would cost thousands. Will this cost be subsidised or will the consumer have to pony up the money upfront? And how much of a monthly charge consumers will have to pay? We simply do not know.

What we do know is that similar commercial and government initiatives to get fibre to the home in other countries have proved too costly and expensive and are being replaced with more advanced, future-proofed wireless technologies.

The Australian government launched its own broadband initiative a number of years ago, and these very problems were encountered; it was not cost-effective or practical to deliver fibre-optic cable to remote areas. They turned to fixed wireless as a solution.

And it’s not only cost-conscious governments reassessing their plans: Google, arguably the world’s foremost tech company, with virtually unlimited funds, has made drastic revisions to its own broadband project in the United States, which was initially focused on delivering ultra-high-speed fibre-optic connections.

When consumers proved unwilling to pay the price of connecting their homes to a fibre-optic network and paying for a service they didn’t need, Google realised the impracticality and commercial reality and announced that a switch from fibre-to-the-home to fixed wireless.

Fixed wireless bypasses the difficulties of laying down kilometres of cable by transmitting a signal through the air which is then picked up by a receiver.

The National Broadband Plan is promising internet speeds of up to one gigabit per second (or a thousand megabits). Does the average household need that kind of speed? As the Switcher.ie survey shows, the average and perfectly sufficient broadband speed in Dublin is 45 megabits. Today, advanced fixed wireless can provide a connection speed of up to 200 megabits and is more than capable of servicing the average household and business. Indeed, this is way beyond what the average household uses, and even as internet consumption increases in the years ahead (and wireless speeds along with it), we’re still a very long way from requiring a full gigabit.

But even fixed wireless internet is under threat. An upcoming auction of the wireless “spectrum” – the available bandwidth that internet companies can use to provide advanced wireless services – could see mobile operators and larger telecoms companies with a vested interest in being subsidised to rollout fibre, snap up large sections of it, squeezing out wireless suppliers essential to the provision of rural broadband.

If this happens, compounded by further delays to the National Broadband Plan, accessing high-speed internet could become even more difficult for thousands of homes and businesses, and those who rely on fixed wireless internet already may actually lose their existing connections. As we stand, thousands of homes and businesses dependent on existing fixed wireless connections are about to be put into limbo by the communications minister.

Over the past two years, we have advised the Government, the Communications Regulator and Minister for Communications Denis Naughten of the global shift to fixed wireless as a solution to deliver high-speed broadband to rural areas urging them, in the national interest, to safeguard part of the spectrum for fixed wireless, thereby assuring internet access for thousands of people into the future. To date, this has been ignored.

There are undeniable problems with Ireland’s internet infrastructure and these need to be addressed as a matter of urgency; but that doesn’t mean that the National Broadband Plan is the all-curing panacea. Indeed, assuming the most optimistic rollout of fibre, our own estimates suggest that there will still be roughly 200,000 homes and businesses that will need a fixed-wireless solution. If the spectrum for fixed wireless is no longer available, in addition to hindering the provision of real, workable solutions in a much shorter time frame, these homes and businesses could be the collateral damage of the Government’s blinkered view of broadband provision.

Tech multinationals and other national governments are reconsidering fibre fundamentalism, and we should be doing the same. A refusal to rationally examine the National Broadband Plan and explore more economic alternatives will see us locked into a costly project for decades to come, especially if wireless providers are forced out of the market. Creating a new financial black hole, like Irish Water, is not desirable for either the public or the Government. By 2023, it’ll be too late to say we got it wrong.

Catch the full article here in the Irish Independent
– Copyright Brian O’Donohoe

Areas of Cork among slowest for broadband

New data this week revealed the Cork has some of the worst areas in the country for broadband speeds.

Of the20 slowest areas in the country, four are in Cork, with Dromahane is county Cork among the five worst in the country.

The speed test data collected by Switcher.ie, the independent price comparison website and switching service, found that parts of the country experience broadband speeds up to 36 times slower than others.

The data also 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.

The data, based on almost 27,000 consumer speed tests run by broadband users between 1 August 2015 and 31 July 2016, shows that Legan in Longford is officials the slowest area, with average speeds that are 36 times slower than Drimnagh in Dublin 12 – the fastest area- and almost 12 times slower than the national average.

In terms of county-by-county results, Dublin has the highest average speed, followed by Waterford, Kildare, Meath and Westmeath. The county with the slowest average speed is Longford, with Leitrim, Roscommon, Monaghan and Mayo making up the bottom five.

The National Broadband Plan sets out that, at a minimum, broadband with speeds of up to 30Mbps should be available to all. The data shows that, of all tests collected throughout the period, only 25 per cent of tests had speeds of 30Mbps or more.

Eoin Clarke, Managing Director of Switcher.ie, said: “The results from the speed test data highlight the digital divide in Ireland. We’re seeing lightning speeds in certain areas, largely where there has already been investment made in fibre to the home networks. However, in many areas we are still a long way off these kinds of speeds.

“In practical terms, it would have taken someone living in Legan in Longford over three and-a-half hours to download a two hour HD movie, while people in Drimnagh in Dublin 12 can do this in just under six minutes.

“This is a stark difference that could have a real impact on quality of life for people in areas with sluggish speeds. And it can have an impact on house prices, education and local businesses, too.

“Obviously, investment from commercial providers and rollout of the National Broadband Plan is needed in order to bring every premises onto a level playing field.”

The highest speed out of all the tests was 989.15Mbps, which was recorded in Ballon in Carlow.

Aside from the type of connection you have and where you live, there are a number of other factors that can affect the speeds you can achieve. For example, distance from the exchange, where the router is placed within your home and even the time of day you use the internet. Whether or not you’re connected directly to the router or using WiFi will also have an impact, as will the device you’re using.

Catch the full article in the Cork Independant

Article by Brian Hayes Curtin