“High-speed fibre makes the rejuvenation of rural towns and villages tangible”

1 April 2021

The next step in Ireland’s digital transformation

Eavann Murphy, Managing Director, open eir Wholesale

As we move into the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, one thing we are all deeply aware of is the need for increased and reliable connectivity across our island. A recent survey by Eurofound revealed that in Ireland, approximately 40% of all employees were working from home at the height of the crisis, the fourth highest figure in the EU. High-speed broadband is now absolutely essential to support new ways of working, living and staying connected with our loved ones.

In Ireland, a large portion of our network’s current technology is transmitted over copper cables, which has a physical cap on the maximum download speeds of up to 100Mbps and much lower upload speeds. The requirement for faster broadband speeds is continuously growing as requirements increase and technology evolves. Networks must be robust and flexible enough to handle the additional demands, on-going network investment is required to ensure Ireland is best placed to meet the demands of this accelerated digital necessity.

Traditional copper networks have reached the ceiling of broadband speed. The copper network that served us so well will, in the next five to seven years, be replaced with modern, reliable, future-proofed and scalable high-capacity networks largely based on Fibre to the Premises(FTTP) technologies.

open eir embarked on a network modernisation programme some years ago, transforming our network through multi-annual investment programme. This enabled the roll out of open eir’s rural fibre network to 340,000 homes and businesses, completing that programme in 2019. We have since commenced the second phase of this commercial investment focused on urban locations. Today we have passed 749,000 premises on our way to a target of 1.8 million. Once completed, our fibre network will cover 84% of the premises in Ireland and 90% of that network will be served by FTTP. This investment is imperative to ensure Ireland remains competitive on the international stage.

To fully unlock Ireland’s potential for job creation, exports and investments we must transition from copper to fibre. The speed and success of this transition will depend on a number of factors such as government policy and regulatory support to enable the promotion of fibre ahead of copper, allowing customers to move to that new FTTP network when available, and ultimately leading to a withdrawal of copper services from the market.

The Irish landscape for fibre deployment will change dramatically over the next five years. We believe that the migration to fibre should initially be customer-led. In order to ensure that retailers and consumers can make informed decisions over time, a three-stage transition from copper to fibre services is required: Stage 1, customer-led migration, where fibre is available that should be the preferred product offered over copper. Stage 2, incentivising exchange area-led migration as localities become fibre dominant. Stage 3, will see the completion of the transition and copper switch-off. To complement this, a structured programme providing information to home and business owners on the availability of FTTP and the network changes in the area will be required. This will facilitate the migration to better modern networks and allow the switch-off and ultimate removal of copper lines.

Research on greater fibre broadband penetration and access to high internet speeds, consistent with copper switch-off, overwhelmingly show a substantial beneficial impact on business activity and future economic prosperity. This arises largely through easier access to markets, a more flexible workforce, and the development of business models that are digitally dependent and more flexible than those that rely solely on more traditional markets.

Through both commercial and State investment the availability of FTTP for every home and business in Ireland will soon become a reality. The speed at which Ireland can push to become a leader in Europe is reliant on a supportive regulatory regime to develop a framework that incentivises a timely and orderly migration from the legacy copper-based services to modern FTTP services. open eir has recently published a white paper that considers these aspects including access, committed voluntary wholesale prices, migration and copper switch-off.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a spotlight on Ireland’s rural-urban digital divide, highlighting the digital inequalities between the two. In line with the government’s Rural Development Policy 2021-2025 published this week, the switch-off of copper and the implementation of high-speed fibre broadband, makes the potential for the rejuvenation of Ireland’s rural town and villages tangible, as more people make the decision to return home or move out of cities in search of a greater quality of life. The influx of people will in turn result in the support of regional economies, while greater numbers of children in the region will support local schools, sport clubs and culture. Once the NBP rolls out through the remainder of the country on eir’s poles and ducts, Ireland could have a near ubiquitous fibre broadband network making it one of the most connected countries in the world for fixed broadband, one that enables rural living a possibility for many once again.

In addition to the rejuvenation of our rural towns, the migration of families and individuals away from cities will also ease pressure on our urban centres, reducing demand on schools, crèches and house prices while having a positive impact on traffic congestion issues. An assessment of data on fixed broadband subscribers in the EU has shown that deployment of fibre infrastructure could lead to environmental benefits resulting in 88% less greenhouse gas emissions per gigabit in Europe, relative to the mix of copper and cable technologies in use in 2008.

Collaboration is required to achieve the next stage of Ireland’s digital transformation. Working with the Regulator and our customers, open eir will agree a multi-stakeholder approach as we understand that the consequences of the modernisation of Ireland’s broadband services through the  switch-off of copper are far reaching and the benefits are many. Enabling people to live and work wherever they wish in the country, supporting a thriving rural Ireland and ensuring Ireland’s competitiveness on the global stage far into the future.