Aiming to take Ireland into the age of next-gen connectivity, SIRO is a joint venture between Vodafone Ireland and the nation’s state-owned electric utility, ESB. The JV is investing €450 million in Ireland’s first 100 percent fiber-to-the-building (FTTB) broadband network, offering speeds of 1 Gbps and connecting 500,000 premises in 50 Irish towns.
Ireland, the Emerald Isle, has a population of more than 4.7 million, over 2 million households, and a digital economy worth an estimated €12 billion per annum. The Irish government wants to bring high-speed communications to everyone under its National Broadband Plan, with a commitment to delivering at least 30 Mbps to all citizens, including those in rural and remote areas.
However the latest statistics from the nation’s regulator, ComReg, shows that copper is still the dominant technology in the fixed broadband market, accounting for nearly 70 percent of total subscriptions. Despite recent investment, Ireland’s copper networks are unable to meet the demands of emerging new services, especially bandwidth-hungry applications like cloud computing and video conferencing. According to ComReg, 20 percent of people in Ireland have broadband access with a contracted speed of less than 10 Mbps. The 2016 consumer report by Switcher paints a bleaker picture, particularly outside Dublin, reporting that one-third of Irish connections are less than 5 Mbps.
SIRO was established in May 2015 to improve this situation, and began with rolling out a 100 percent fiber optic network, which has improved services in towns and forced other operators to start doing fiber as well.
“SIRO has changed the conversation in Ireland as to what a ‘true’ fiber network is,” says SIRO CEO Sean Atkinson, “We mean 100 percent FTTB, so that consumers get proper broadband connectivity that meets their needs for decades to come.” As an open network, six operators currently offer services, which according to Atkinson, means that people get more choice and value.
Fixed network deployment involves heavy up-front investment and slow ROI, which is an obvious challenge for most operators. When an operator builds a fiber network from scratch without access to an existing infrastructure, it has to dig a trench and lay down the fiber, which is very costly and time-consuming.
According to Atkinson, SIRO uses the local electricity network to deliver FTTB, because of course every building in Ireland is connected to an electricity supply. When SIRO builds in a town, it runs fiber optic cables underground in the existing ducts of the electricity company, then up onto the power lines, and finally to people’s homes. Both underground and overhead, SIRO has a unique way of deploying fiber optic cables along electricity pathways, which saves time and minimizes cost and gives the JV a competitive advantage.
SIRO’s initial business plan is to connect 500,000 premises in 50 towns, which is about 25 percent of the Irish market. “We plan to connect over 100,000 premises by the third quarter of 2017,” says Atkinson, commenting on an ambitious plan that needs partners. SIRO works closely with a community of vendors, contractors, suppliers, retailers, and of course its parent companies, ESB and Vodafone.
SIRO teamed up with Huawei when the initial technical trials were conducted in Cavan Town in March 2015. Since then, the relationship has gone from strength to strength, with Huawei now the exclusive provider of active equipment for SIRO for its first phase build and its build partner in Athlone.
Atkinson believes that it’s important to educate the public on the benefits of true gigabit connectivity. SIRO aims to change the way people communicate and do business in regional Irish towns. People no longer need to move to major cities for broadband access, with Gigabit connectivity bridging the rural-urban digital divide in Ireland, allowing people to work from home and set up businesses in their home town.
“When we go into a new town, we try to find an initiative to showcase Gigabit connectivity, for example, a digital hub,” states Atkinson, mentioning that the people in the town find a building and turn it into a digital hub. “We’ve partnered with Vodafone as a retailer where we provide free gigabit connectivity for two years, so small businesses can establish themselves in the town. This makes people aware of the new services that SIRO brings and of the benefits of having gigabit connectivity.”
Thanks to SIRO, the concept of a Gigabit society is developing in Ireland. With proper connectivity, small businesses and entrepreneurs can establish in regional Ireland and compete globally.
Atkinson concludes that in the next three years, SIRO will add a further 400,000 homes to its existing footprint of 100,000 homes, thus ensuring that 50 of Ireland’s regional towns are future-proofed with world-class connectivity.