At a conference this week I saw a slide which provided a league table of countries according to some measure of broadband, and it showed Ireland as being some places ahead of the UK – albeit with both languishing in the lower ranks. Mmmm I thought – doesn’t really tally with my by experiences. When over in Dublin recently I managed to upset Eircom over a comment I made on Twitter – thankfully no super injunction in place so it went no further!
Eircom’s current adverts promote “next generation broadband” but when you look at the detail its “up to 8 Mbps” – Ireland’s next generation broadband is the same speed as the UK has had for quite a few years on the surface of it (except its a lot more expensive!). So how do Eircom justify the monika “next generation”?
Eircom have invested in their core network and to overcome congestion they’ve added traffic shaping and quality of service techniques – this is their “next generation”.
This got me thinking about how different people in different places and cultures view things. In Ireland Eircom is presenting a heavily shaped network as a bonus – as next generation – yet the same action in America would have called people onto the streets waving placards decrying the end of net neutrality and the imposition on their human rights.
I’ve not seen what regime they’ve employed to reduce congestion – given its a finite pipe, if something is protected, something else must be squeezed so somebodies traffic isn’t as good as it once was. Whether this matters, technically, is unclear – its perfectly possible to demote email and ftp traffic, where response times are measured in minutes, to provide a better browsing and real-time experience, where response times are measured in milliseconds. But if they’ve unilaterally demoted Skype and VoIP to protect voice revenues then its bad – very bad – or demoted P2P simply because they’ve made the sweeping assumption that all peer-to-peer traffic is illegal music downloading then its stupid and bad.
Whether this matters ethically is a different matter. That Americans come onto the streets and the British grumble into their cornflakes (in our own reserved way that’s quit a statement!) suggests that at a minimum its deeply questionable. Moves towards transparency in the UK would mean that Eircom would at least have to make it clear were they delivering services in Britain – a move in the right direction at least – and perhaps Eircom should consider putting a clear statement on their adverts and website about the precise nature of their shaping – what works well and what is being degraded.
The motive behind Eircom’s move is the lack of investment they’ve been able to make in recent years – Eircom’s really is a sad case study in a privatisation process gone wrong. Hopefully things will begin to improve as they restructure under new ownership but there is a question about whether its too late – the effort they will need to put in to catch-up will be immense.
During my trip I also saw lots of white vans working behalf of UPC, the main cable operator in Ireland. They were everywhere, ripping out old, low-grade coax and installing what looked to me to be some of the highest gauge coax I’ve ever seen being installed for domestic cable TV. After many years of mediocre cable services, Ireland is starting to see an investment which should put that behind them. Coax of that gauge means UPC appear to be taking few chances that any customer will experience anything other than the advertised broadband speed and over time I’d expect that to rise northwards of 100 Mbps – only a fibre to the home (not cabinet or curb) infrastructure could compete (if Eircom were investing).
The implications of these two snapshots is intriguing. Could we soon see an incumbent telephone company relegated to the position of lowest-common denominator, catch-all service while the cable operator snaffles the premium top-spot? For UPC that can be nothing but good news – lots of high-revenue, low cost customers in leafy Dublin 4 and beyond.
For Eircom that should be the warning they need – if the story is allowed to play out to its natural conclusion, they will be left with the high-cost, low revenue customers in the rural west of Ireland – the farms isolated at the far end of a grass-topped boreen. The loss of net neutrality isn’t a substitute for investment in the access network.