Thursday, July 06, 2006

Broadband In Ireland: Case Study

I recently entered the modern era and got a broadband connection at home. This is something of a feat in Ireland, a country pretty well ruled by Eircom, the national telephone provider. This article will discuss the process I went through, which I hope will help others in the same situation.

It may surprise those in other countries to realise just how undeveloped internet connectivity is in Ireland. Hailed for years as the Celtic Tiger and a major player in the technology sector, it is only recently that most places have had dependable access. My last flat was a stone's throw from a major hotel, right in downtown Limerick, an area with many businesses. Residential broadband was made available there in fall of 2005.

To repeat that shocker: smack dab in the middle of the third-largest city in Ireland, broadband was only made available in some high density areas a few months ago! And some residents still do not have access.

Instead of broadband I was paying for the most extensive dial-up access I could. For €30 a month I got 150 hours, an amount I often went over. It was then my pleasure to pay high per-minute rates. This on top of my regular phone bills of course.

Recently I moved and needed a new telephone account. I figured the time was right for broadband and started my research. Apparently there are more than 50 companies offering high-speed internet access in Ireland. Even though many of these are Dublin-only, that number of competitors is a sure sign of an immature market. The portal getbroadband has a service provider locator which returned seven hits for home accounts and six (many the same companies) for business accounts in Limerick.

But I would instead recommend a service provided by The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, who on this occasion have gone out of their way to be helpful. They too have a page where you can determine if broadband is available in your area. For Limerick this returned 27 services, segmented by connection technology (so some companies appear more than once).

I went through all of these and compared packages, looked for online reports, and tried to determined the best options. My priorities were dependability, up-time, support and (only then) price. I was not so focussed on getting the fastest possible connection. This varies so much with contention that any promises made in advertising are near worthless. I also don't need the largest possible download limit since I will not be sifting through pirated movies and other large files. Instead, I will be using broadband for server work, web development, my blogs, low-impact surfing, some music downloads and sometimes streaming radio.

So, if you are more sensitive to price, want a ton of bandwidth, and don't care if you are down for hours or more, you may reach a different conclusion.

A few key facts emerged from my research.

First, if you're looking for DSL providers to give you broadband through your telephone line, you should know that they all have to go through Eircom, since Eircom owns the lines. This means that any service request will take longer, and you will never be quite sure where the holdup is -- with Eircom, with your provider, or lost somewhere inbetween.

Second, though some packages look good at first glance, if you compare apples to apples (matching bandwidth, download limits, installation costs, terms of service) then many of the providers who look cheap at first drop out of the picture.

Third, there are major tales of incompetence to be found on the web and (surprise!) these do not focus on Eircom. ESAT BT is the main culprit. All you have to do is spend some time on, or read BT Ireland Sucks to have second and third thoughts.

Fourth, if you live in a flat you will likely not be able to avail of satellite systems. Landlords are rarely happy to give you roof access or let you mount your own hardware. That's unfortunate, since there are some good options, especially for people who live in areas not serviced by DSL.

After all of that research it is rather anti-climactic to say I went for an Eircom account. They have reduced their rates and were offering free installation and a free WI-FI gateway/router/modem/firewall when I signed up. Such an object would cost me €150 so the short-term savings are good.

Their Broadband Home Plus account offers 2MB downstream / 256k upstream with a limit of 20 GB download but unlimited upload. That's likely good enough for me. Tech support is an extortionate 30 cents per minute, but they include a calling card worth €10. The cost is €40 a month. This is easy to beat elsewhere, but once again the reliability of going with the company who own the lines trumped my other concerns.

I also recommend you check out DigiWeb, who have a whole slew of options, most of which including free phone lines. They would be a cheaper option, and reports on their service are positive.

My experience with Eircom has so far been fine. I expected a two-week waiting time for the line to be set up. This would be considered an eternity in many countries but in Ireland is actually quite fast. As it turned out the kit arrived early as did the connection.

I had some difficulties with the setup since my network settings were not exactly plain vanilla. This stumped the tech support person but he asked around the office and found someone who could help. My experience with their support system itself was poor. I had to call various phone numbers and use several voice mail access codes before I got one that worked. It seemed to me that their PBX was dropping the line for no reason.

The modem provided is a Netopia 3347NWG which has four LAN ports plus wireless. It came with all needed cables, software, etc. What it didn't come with is a manual, and that precise model is not to be found on the Netopia site. The Netopia 3347NWG-VGx? Yes. The Netopia 3347NWG-006? Yes. But downloading the manuals for these was no help at all.

Apparently Eircom sources some variant of the model not available to the general public. They are assuming that home users have no real needs when it comes to networking and so will not ever have any configuration questions.

Otherwise I am so far pleased. I think the Irish broadband scene may finally be exiting the dark ages. But Eircom, can you do two things for me? Fix your broken tech support system and make it cheaper. And give me a proper technical manual for all provided hardware. Thanks!



Anonymous said...

Hey Robin - good writeup on your BB experiences , v useful for me in the near future ;) Hope the trip home is going well for you...

Anonymous said...

Pretty good write up.I have had a similiar experience on the road to broadband with the exception of digiweb who came to connect me via a wireless connection, spent an hour setting up the hardware only to realise that there was no signal!!The techs were very apologetic and civil though for a change.
I went for the same eircom package as you did But despite the claim of 2mbs download it has never really exceded 1mbs. And I am a computer tech. so no advise on various sites to check this out.
In the end I am quite happy with eircom but the fact remains that I am with eircom as they are the only company able to connect me to broadband at the moment and as such I have no choice in the matter.
My computer is self made, I also run a 16pc cluster and use a multi Os network system so it stings a bit that I have no real choice in who I can get broadband access from.
Welcome to Ireland.

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