The dangers of a watered-down National Broadband Plan

3 Apr 2018

A rainbow at at the Gap of Dunloe, Co Kerry. Image: Tony Brindley/Shutterstock

Fibre will need to remain at the heart of any National Broadband Plan so it can be future-proofed for generations to come, argues John Kennedy.

It has been six years since the National Broadband Plan (NBP) was first unveiled by former Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte to build a communications system for Ireland that would be fit-for-purpose for generations to come.

Subsequent ministers, including Alex White and the current Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, TD, said the project would be epic in scale and equal to the rural electrification of Ireland in the 1950s, in terms of what it would do for people’s lives and livelihoods.

‘If we do try to return to a wireless-only solution, it would be like proposing to replace our existing water infrastructure by handing out bottled water. It’s not going to work’

And now, the plan is down to one last final bidder – the Enet-SSE consortium – after both Siro and Eir withdrew from the bidding process. The next few months will determine if the plan – in its present scope to deliver a minimum of 30Mbps to approximately 550,000 premises – will actually occur.

The plan, for some, may have seemed ambitious in the first place. It aimed to bring a minimum of 30Mbps broadband to 750,000 postal addresses, 1.8m citizens, 96pc of the nation’s land mass and along 100,000km of road. An initial stimulus package of €275m was approved by Government up to 2020 to make it happen.

Through a deal between Eir and the Government, the plan was reduced to an intervention area of around 542,000 premises, but it still was potent.

We recently reported how Minister Naughten – despite Eir and Siro’s respective withdrawals – was bullish that a contract could be awarded by autumn 2018, with shovels due to go into the ground within days of the contract being awarded.

But there are still many variables between now and then. The Enet-SSE consortium was rocked recently by the departure of Conal Henry as CEO of Enet.  That said, the involvement of SSE could turn out to be a game-changer due to its prowess at infrastructure and resources as one of the ‘Big Six’ companies that dominate the energy market in the UK.

Wireless on its own is not the answer to Ireland’s broadband ills

In recent days, rumours reached my ears that officials at the Department of Finance as well as rural and urban TDs are being lobbied to consider a different NBP that, instead of fibre, will rely on 5G or LTE technologies to deliver connectivity to rural Ireland.

After writing about broadband for close to 20 years, I find this route to be an act of folly and one that will once again bring us back to the ‘Start/Do Not Pass Go’ position on the game of broadband monopoly in Ireland.

Sniffing blood, no doubt commercial interests are doing their job and lobbying for a new plan with wireless at its core. That’s just business.

The folly in this, however, is that you cannot have even a proper wireless broadband network without fibre to every base station. In a country of hills, valleys and boreens, this will turn out to only vex rural dwellers and hold back their economy, resulting in the need for a new plan in just a few more years.

Not only that, but upcoming 5G technologies don’t even have a standard agreed by the IEEE yet. And if there is one thing that is clear about 5G is that it will require multiple base stations in built-up areas to deliver the gigabit-plus speeds that have been promised. How is that going to serve rural areas?

My sister and her family recently tried to sign up for one of these wireless services. Houses on both sides of her could receive a signal but hers could not because apparently a tree blocked the ‘line of sight’ required to deliver a signal.

My fear is that if the lobbying is successful, we could have a rerun of the National Broadband Scheme whereby the Government backed a plan that was ultimately based on 3G only.

No one talks about the National Broadband Scheme any more, just like no one talks about the Rural Broadband Scheme, another ill-fated plan that was based on the Rural Water Scheme of the 1950s.

If we do try to return to a wireless-only solution, it would be like proposing to replace our existing water infrastructure by handing out bottled water. It’s not going to work.

Maybe the plan just needs refinement?

Let’s look at the cards we still have to play with.

The NBP has been costed and approved by the Government to the tune of €275m, with EU support that could leverage it further up to €1bn.

SSE, if it goes ahead, has stated goals and objectives to explore major investments in ultrafast broadband infrastructure in the UK, and Ireland could be a worthwhile proving ground.

Nationally, Siro, Eir and Virgin Media are continuing with their plans to roll out fibre in major towns; if there is a redrawn plan, it should examine ways of tying in with these roll-outs.

Late last year, a majority stake of Eir was acquired by French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel’s NJJ-led consortium at an enterprise value of €3.5bn. Niel’s expertise is in urban-based, broadband infrastructure, which suggests his interests are in retail, not rural or wholesale connectivity.

What will this mean for the Open Eir wholesale division? Will Niel and Eir continue as usual or look at a different future for the wholesale network? Remember, Eir’s incoming CEO is none other than Carolan Lennon, who was MD of the Open Eir wholesale division up until now and she has valuable insights on what could be possible.

Another ace card that Ireland holds is the ESB’s international expertise and the pulling together of financing for infrastructure projects. Last week, we reported how it bought a stake in a wind farm off the coast of England that will no doubt give it the expertise to build offshore wind farms off the Irish and UK coasts.

Surely there are visionary minds in ESB who can figure out what we need to do to deliver a costed, viable and valuable network that will serve generations of Irish people and businesses for decades to come?

Short-term thinking on short-term technologies predicated on short-term financial gain will not serve Ireland.

Unproven wireless technologies are not the answer either. 5G does not yet have a standard. Three years from now, we will be talking 6G and then 7G and so on. All of these will need fibre, too.

Even if the NBP does come to fruition as currently drawn up, the reality is that it will also depend on wireless elements to deliver fibre speeds to some or many premises where it is just not possible to deliver fibre directly to.

Those solutions could well be 5G, 4G, 3G or satellite or fibre-like wireless services. But they will in turn depend on fibre to every base station. And that should be the linchpin of any plan.

A plan for national broadband in Ireland will still require fibre, lots of it.

Opting for a seemingly easier route will not deliver the long-term plan that the EU is willing to back and replicate. Remember that. Fibre will be core.

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