Strong competition has increased speeds and brought down prices - if you’re in the right place
The home broadband market has received a competitive jolt with Smart Telecom recently launching a 24Mbps broadband package for €29.95 per month.
It is a direct challenge to UPC, which has dominated the urban broadband market through a combination of well-priced products and savvy advertising.
Smart Telecom’s no-frills broadband product is available over standard phone lines and includes the cost of line rental. However, it’s mainly only available urban centres, with the company operating from just 37 of Ireland’s 1,300 phone exchanges.
Even so, there is still plenty of competition for the households Smart Telecom and UPC cannot reach. Phone and broadband bundles are available for about €40 a month from fixed-line providers such as UPC, Digiweb, Vodafone and Eircom. Wireless providers such as Imagine and Ripplecom offer similar packages. And as a further benefit to consumers, free equipment, installation and introductory discounts are now becoming the norm.
There is also good news for many households that have fallen outside the wired broadband network before now. Eircom, which has the widest reach of any provider, has been improving the Irish broadband experience since launching its Next Generation Broadband service in 2010. The new technology has removed congestion and improved speeds and prices for many customers. Initially launched in Dublin, Eircom’s NGB service is now available in most urban areas and through some rural exchanges, as the company continues to upgrade.
However Eircom is still limited by its network. Despite upgrades, many rural households are simply too far from their local exchanges for broadband to work effectively. The further a broadband signal has to travel over a phone line, the more it degrades until it drops off altogether.
Eircom says that broadband service will work up to 8 kilometres from an exchange on a good quality line. However, customers that are more than 8 kilometres away from an exchange are effectively shut out from wired broadband service altogether. In addition, many rural exchanges either have no broadband equipment, or have not yet been upgraded, leaving customers with costlier legacy plans or no wired service whatsoever.
Eircom’s limitations are shared with its resellers. Companies like Digiweb and Vodafone can only provide service where Eircom broadband is available. And although they offer competitive plans and prices, they are unable to bring DSL broadband to households outside of Eircom’s reach.
Eircom, which exited examinership this week, is currently working its way through a massive €100 million network upgrade. Plans are for 1,000,000 premises to be connected to a new fibre network which could bring UPC-like high-speed internet and communications services to homes where they were previously unavailable.
But for now, it’s still UPC that leads the market in terms of broadband connection speed. Driven by a €500 million network investment over the last six years, UPC’s entry level deals now start at 25Mb, which is slightly faster than the best products currently available over phone lines. UPC also launched 100Mb broadband in 2011, which is available in some areas on their fibre network and start from €50 per month. Only Digiweb comes close in the speed stakes with their wireless Metro product reaching 30Mb.
UPC’s new products and network investment are paying off. Their broadband subscriptions rose by over 56,000 in the last year to 273,000 customers. An increase of 26%.
However UPC, which can provide television service to much of the country through cable and MMDS broadcast, is currently licensed only to provide broadband over its cable network, which is concentrated in urban areas. Even then, some cabled households cannot yet receive UPC broadband or phone products as network upgrades are ongoing.
It’s a theme familiar to customers across the country. Broadband in Ireland has typically been limited by location. Urban centres are well served with a range of suppliers and products, while rural customers often left with little choice.
However, a number of companies across the country have taken advantage of opportunities to provide broadband where phone line and cable based services are not available. Wireless broadband providers like Nova Networks, Kerry Broadband and Ripplecom service areas that may otherwise be without commercial broadband providers.
Ripplecom, which is based out of Limerick, has the largest footprint of the wireless providers. John Regan, head of sales at Ripplecom says that the company now has 70% coverage across the country and has tripled subscriber numbers over the last three years. “Ripplecom focuses on rural areas where DSL underperforms and mobile dongles don’t work well,” he said. “Our growth has been helped by the Irish Farmers Association which is a shareholder in the company and who’s members have not been well served by traditional broadband.”
For households that fall outside the wired, wireless and mobile broadband networks, there are still options available. Satellite broadband, which has traditionally had very low data allowances and high prices has also benefited from competition. Plans are becoming cheaper, speeds are improving and data allowances have increased. Digiweb Tooway and Onwave now both offer 6Mb speeds with a data allowance of 8GB for around €40 per month.
Five tips to help you get the best broadband deal
1. Find out what’s available to you
Check for the availability of cable broadband. Check with a DSL provider to see is phone line based broadband is available, and if so, whether the exchange has Next Generation equipment. Where wired services are unavailable, check for wireless service. The National Broadband Scheme, which is run by 3 Ireland, also operates in many rural areas and provides subsidised broadband at a monthly cost of €20.32. They can advise whether you are in a National Broadband Scheme area.
2. Bundles can be cheaper than taking services separately or on their own
25Mb broadband with home phone service from UPC costs €40.50 per month. Broadband on its own from UPC costs €43.45. From Vodafone, 8Mb broadband with home phone costs €40 per month. Broadband on its own costs also costs the same at €40.
3. Check the speed
Even if you don’t have an active phone line, service providers like Eircom and Digiweb should be able to tell you what speed your line can achieve and whether you can access Next Generation Broadband products through your local exchange. This “top speed” will remain the same regardless of supplier. If the speed is very low (around 1Mb), it could be worth checking with wireless providers, who can offer speeds of up to 30Mb – with 8Mb now as standard.
4. Watch out for usage limits
Most broadband deals put a cap on usage and these caps vary enormously. Consider what you use the internet for and make sure to go with a plan that meets your needs. Exceeding a usage limit is usually much more costly than paying for more data up front. With more multi-media applications and content online than ever, and streaming video becoming the norm, it’s important to budget for usage as well as speed.
5. Check with your provider for a better deal
If your contract has expired, it can be worth checking with your current suppler for a better deal. They may have introduced new bundles and better prices but it’s usually up to you to request them.
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 17th June 2012