Broadband scheme to target 150 regional groups

7 Mar 2005

The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources is soon to embark on the second phase of the Group Broadband Scheme targeting some 150 regional groups.

It is understood that the department has ruled that some 500MB of fibre capacity is to be reserved by metropolitan area network (MAN) entity E-Net for the schemes.

Last year, the then Communications Minister Dermot Ahern TD unveiled the €25m scheme aimed at bridging the urban-rural digital divide. The scheme is run along the lines of the Group Water Scheme with the Government paying up to 55pc of the cost of bringing broadband to towns of less than 1,500 people.

Ahern’s successor Noel Dempsey TD is determined to press ahead with the scheme. So far some 31 broadband projects representing a total investment of €1.1m have been approved. It is estimated that these projects alone will provide broadband services to a population base of around 20,000 people. In the weeks ahead a further nine projects are likely to be approved and in the next phase some 150 projects are being targeted. The schemes are to employ a variety of methods ranging from satellite and DSL to fixed wireless access to access broadband.

Principal officer at the department Niall O’Donnacha told the department anticipates a greater level of interest in the second phase than the first phase. To cope with demand, the department has been conducting various roadshows around the country and has appointed eight regional administrators to manage the various group schemes.

O’Donnacha acknowledged that both the minister and the department were disappointed with the level of participation by various telcos in the first phase of the scheme. “I have to admit to being disappointed at the level of support from established telecoms firms in the country. The minister said publicly that he was disappointed with the response. In fairness, Eircom has really rowed in, but other companies such as Esat BT, Smart Telecom, Vodafone or O2 didn’t respond as expected.” Of the existing 31 broadband projects currently under way, Eircom, Ildana Teoranta, Digiweb, Broughton ITS and Last Mile Wireless participated.

He said it was for this reason that the department instructed managed services entity E-Net, which is responsible for managing the 25 existing MANs, to set aside some 500MB worth of fibre capacity, for the 150 group schemes.

Questioned about the obvious lack of a wholesale market in Ireland O’Donnachu said: “We know there is an issue and we need to see faster unbundling of the local loop.”

However, he argued, it was not only the local loop that was at stake. “We also need to make sure that the significant fibre capacity that stretches across the country is unlocked. If you unbundled the fibre it makes it easier for wireless operators to put wireless into the local loop and use the fibre as backhaul.

“There are lots of alternatives out there – ESB, Bord Gáis, Eircom, Aurora, Esat BT and Chorus all have fibre capacity reaching across the country. Both RTÉ and ESB also have significant tower infrastructure that no one is looking at. As well as this E-Net has reserved some 500MB of capacity on the MAN network suitable for up to 150 group schemes.

“Another development to watch is the mandatory infrastructure sharing on wireless masts that was recently mandated by the Commission for Communications Regulation. That’s going to be very important to the development of wholesale services in the future,” O’Donnachu said.

He added that deadline for proposals for the second phase of the scheme has been moved back by a month to 28 April “due to phenomenal demand”.

By John Kennedy