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General Broadband FAQ

What is broadband?

Simply put in this context broadband is high speed, always on, unmetered internet access, as opposed to the narrowband of dial-up access which is both slow and typically charged by the minute.  In gathering its statistics the OECD defines[link 4] any connection with a download speed of at least 256 Kb/s as broadband, however there is no single authoritative consensus on what specification an internet connection has to meet to be called broadband. It’s a relative term dependent upon user needs as much as technology, and as both develop so too does the minimum speed a connection needs to be capable of to be considered broadband. Indeed in some parts of Europe and Asia what we consider and pay for as broadband would be dismissed as outdated and acutely slow.

Why is broadband important?

Beyond the vague rally cry of “Bridging the digital divide” and buzzwords such as “the knowledge economy”, broadband has become increasingly central to our lives. While telecommuting is yet to be a reality for the vast majority, reliable high speed communications are increasingly key to the economy, be it small local businesses taking advantage of the internet to project themselves onto the national and indeed international market to large companies bringing jobs to underdeveloped areas as they know they can rely upon good communications to bridge distant offices. Broadband opens up democracy and local government to its citizens, be it enabling people to access the services of local government to keeping an eye upon their representatives. And just as broadband enhances business communications, good communications enable both local and distributed national government to work more efficiently. Broadband is a source of entertainment and communication, from online games to keeping in touch with distant friends and relatives with social networking sites. The importance of broadband to education is increasingly apparent, be it helping a student prepare for their Leaving Cert to allowing an adult to study online in the evenings for a degree.

How can I get it?

Broadband isn’t a box you can purchase or a service you rent but rather a general umbrella term for a range of competing technologies.  If you live relatively close to your local telephone exchange its possible to get broadband via your phone line in the form of aDSL.  Alternatively if you have access to cable TV you may find your supplier offers broadband via the same service. Wireless broadband (e.g. Wifi or WiMax) is an increasingly significant means of getting broadband in urban but more importantly in rural areas far beyond the range of aDSL or cable. Mobile broadband uses the mobile phone network to provide internet access wherever suitable hardware is available in the mobile phone towers, be it urban or rural. Finally satellite broadband allows access anywhere in places where other systems are unavailable.

What are the differences between the different ways of getting it?

Each of the competing ways of getting broadband has its advantages and disadvantages. While specific information on each is available in the appropriate faq there are some generalisations that can be made. Both aDSL and cable are excellent ways of getting broadband, but thanks to historic underinvestment in infrastructure in Ireland practical access to these systems is limited, e.g. to get aDSL you need to live within a couple of km of your local telephone exchange and the phone wiring needs to be in good condition between it and where you want aDSL. This lack of provision has enabled breathing room for Wireless ISPs (WISPs) to develop, who can offer broadband irregardless of existing telecoms hardware, however to get it you must have direct line of sight between you and one of the WISP’s masts, which can be both a problem in virtual concrete canyons of urban areas and in the rolling and mountainous rural countryside. While Mobile broadband operators can typically afford to pay for better sited masts, they are still subject to line of sight restrictions. Moreover the performance of the service can be heavily affected by the number of users attempting to make use of it via the same mobile phone mast, and data transfer limits are typically more restrictive than the previously mentioned systems, counting both up and downloaded data towards the limit. Satellite broadband offers almost universal coverage however it is very expensive to install; has high subscription costs; typically has tight constraints on the total amount of data a user can transfer a month; and thanks to the large distance the signal has to travel it has a high latency (ping) making it unsuitable for most gaming.

Who can I get broadband from?

Your first port of call should be http://www.broadband.gov.ie/

With so many different ways of getting it why is there a problem?

Broadband in access in Ireland is in shameful state, while industry and government bandy about the term “Celtic tiger”, Ireland languishes well below the global average for broadband penetration and performs very poorly against its European neighbours. In parts of the country the only option for Broadband is via satellite which is both highly expensive and limited, and thanks to poor regulation and investment even in urban areas access can be problematic. Broadband is too important an issue to leave to sound bites from lacklustre politicians and for corporations to manipulate the market, it is key to both economic and social development and indeed one of the key factors in its measurement. In a global market place for services and investment, jobs will quickly migrate to areas that with the necessary resources, be it fast communications or a highly IT literate workforce.  IrelandOffline exists to hold industry and government to account for their actions, to cut through the spin and jargon, to encourage the continued expansion of access to broadband for the public and business.

Where can I find out more information and get help?

For general advice and information please see our faqs. For specific support please use the appropriate forum on Boards.ie.[link 3]

What is “contention”?

Unless you wish to pay for an expensive dedicated “leased line”, you’ll find that all broadband packages specify something called a contention ratio e.g. 30:1, 40:1 etc. Multiple subscribers to an ISP’s service essentially share a common pool of available bandwidth, thus the lower the contention ratio the better. By way of an analogy consider a bathroom with a number of sinks, water is supplied from a main pipe at a fixed limited pressure. While the pressure is enough for normal use with a few faucets opened, were one or more faucets to be fully opened other people trying to wash their hands would only get a trickle of water. To avoid this you can limit the number of sinks (choose a package with a lower contention), increase the mains supply pressure (subscribe to a service with a higher bandwidth) or the management can install flow restrictors (the ISP imposing network traffic management systems and Acceptable Use Policies etc).

Links

1 http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/forumdisplay.php?forumid=259
2 http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/forumdisplay.php?forumid=60
3 http://www.boards.ie/index.php?filter=tech
4 http://www.oecd.org/document/46/0,3343,en_2649_33703_39575598_1_1_1_1,00.html