A fork in the road to the National Broadband Plan

22 Oct 2018

West Cork. Image: tamsindove/Depositphotos

Whatever happens, the mission to connect more than 540,000 rural premises must not be abandoned, urges John Kennedy.

To me, the saddest irony of the whole kerfuffle that led to the resignation of former Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, was just how complex the National Broadband Plan’s (NBP) tender process was designed to be precisely in order to avoid any vague hint of danger of returning to the costly tribunals of the past.

From the moment that Pat Rabbitte, the Minister of Communications in 2012, briefed journalists about what he had in mind, numerous briefings with civil servants spearheading the plan impressed me with the attention to detail and the determination to just get it right.

Future Human

But, at a press briefing in January when it was confirmed that Eir was walking away from the process, just months after Siro, I simply felt numb about the whole thing. Despite all the fighting talk by Naughten and his officials, something just felt wrong. Maybe it was a premonition.

What I do know about the whole saga is that Naughten was working furiously to get the plan over the line and wanted to have it signed off by now. Like Rabbitte and Alex White before him, he wanted to deliver the plan on his watch.

Now, the matter is in the hands of auditor Peter Smyth, appointed to investigate whether the process was contaminated by the meetings Naughten had with David McCourt, CEO of Granahan McCourt, the firm that was spearheading the final bid in the process along with Enet.

It could take weeks for Smyth to reach his conclusions and what then? Will the NBP go ahead? Will the plan be abandoned and a new one drawn up? After all, it is costed with €500m of European Investment Bank funding as well as €275m of taxpayers’ money. What of the amount of work and money spent on it so far? Could anything be salvaged so we can get to work on delivering the 21st century to those who need it?

Light up, light up

Let’s remember that things are happening because of the plan. As we know, the Government and Eir hammered out a deal last year that took 300,000 premises off the intervention area, leaving us with a current number of about 540,000 premises that need to get connected. Eir is going even further and estimates it could take 330,000 rural premises online with fibre broadband by June next year. It is worth considering whether Eir would have done this without the NBP.

It is fair to say that Eir embraced the fibre opportunity and, with a new owner, is currently working towards a target of 1.9m premises passed by fibre by the end of 2018. Last week, it revealed plans to bring customer service back in-house with the creation of 750 jobs in Sligo, Cork and Limerick.

Siro, the joint venture between ESB and Vodafone, revealed in August that it had passed 175,000 premises and aimed to pass an additional 50,000 premises before the end of the year, bringing its network size to 225,000 homes and businesses.

Virgin Media’s Project Lightning plan is making stealthy progress, and the company recently revealed it surpassed 900,000 premises across Ireland with fibre, capable of receiving 1Gbps speeds, and expects that it will surpass 1m premises over the next two years.

ComReg’s recent quarterly analysis for Q2 2018 showed that almost half of Irish mobile users are accessing 4G services and that almost three-quarters of fixed broadband connections in Ireland are equal to or greater than 30Mbps.

But this is happening in our towns and cities, not in rural areas where so many people live.

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At the recent Mobile and Broadband Taskforce meeting in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, I gave the example of Aoibheann Mangan, who at the age of 11 last year was named EU’s joint Digital Girl of the Year (11 to 14 age category). A student of Cloghans Hill National School in Mayo, she stunned Inspirefest this summer when she pointed out that, despite her success, she struggles with broadband. Apparently, she gets a signal from a treehouse at the end of her garden. How does she manage? When she is doing a school project, her parents drive her to the nearest Tesco car park and she uploads her work from there.

Another example I gave was Inis Meáin Knitting Co, a global brand based on the Aran Islands. The company was established in 1976 to provide work for islanders and stem emigration. Generations-old knitting skills gradually grew to accommodate software programming and digital skills to make complex weaves for goods that would be stocked alongside premium designer brands on New York’s Fifth Avenue and be seen in designer boutiques in Milan, Paris and Tokyo. The company decided recently it could no longer wait for the NBP and contracted Viatel to deliver 100Mbps connectivity over a wireless connection.

I also pointed out how regional Ireland is at a tipping point and how, because of the spread of broadband, people see what is possible and there is a movement for more people to work remotely. This can be done either from home or from the growing number of hubs that are sprouting up to encourage and support start-ups and entrepreneurs, or people who work for multinationals but who don’t wish to join the hell of commuting.

It is estimated that there are 216,000 people working remotely in Ireland. A new movement called Grow Remote has emerged, and it held a conference last month in Tralee. It is estimated that close to 1,000 remote working jobs are available in companies such as Shopify or Scrapinghub. If a multinational announced 1,000 jobs today, it would be on the Six One news tonight.

As I observed the room at the taskforce meeting, I sensed a considerable amount of passion from broadband officers from all over Ireland who just want to get the job done. They pointed to impediments such as planning, signalling even more complexity if the NBP ever even begins.

But begin it must. Because 540,000 people must not be left behind. Why should your neighbour not be connected while you take fast digital speeds for granted?

The money is there. The will is there. We just need to start.

West Cork. Image: tamsindove/Depositphotos

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years