Government’s MAN strategy reaches phase three

2 Dec 2004

Communications Minister Noel Dempsey TD is expected to announce proposals for the roll out of the third phase of the Government’s Broadband Action Plan within a fortnight.

This means a further 50 towns will receive metropolitan area networks (MANs) involving more than 100,000km of fibre-optic cabling. has learned, however, that the department is understood to be “disappointed” with a poor response by telcos to the Group Broadband Scheme (GBS).

Niall O’Donnchu, principal officer at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, was speaking at a seminar on internet protocol networks organised by NextiraOne when he shed light on the rollout of broadband from the Government’s perspective.

“Broadband is one of the Taoiseach’s top five priorities for this country,” he said. “We view it as the fundamental feedstock for the future of the economy. It is non-negotiable; the country has to have it. We are not prepared to sit back and take a chance on the private sector risking it. The Government’s objective is to place Ireland within the top half of OECD countries with broadband by 2005.”

O’Donnchu said that by mid-2005 the Government aims to increase broadband penetration from its current 104,000 customers to 280,000 users as well as have 60 MANs and over 50 GBSs live and have broadband rolled out in more than 4,800 schools. He said that by 2007, the Government expects to have more than 500,000 broadband customers in the Irish market, with some 120 MANs and 150 GBSs live and an additional 4,100 schools with state-of-the-art broadband connectivity.

“We are looking at getting state-sponsored bodies with fibre networks — including ESB, Bord Gáis and the National Roads Authority — to link up all of Ireland’s major centres,” O’Donnchu added.

O’Donnchu explained how the Government is also looking beyond DSL as the primary broadband technology to other technologies, which could provide more than 2Mbps to homes and businesses. “DSL is a good introductory technology and we had to start somewhere but our real prerogative is the 2Mbps-plus technologies such as VDSL and Wimax. Our real objective is to have 5Mbps broadband available nationwide by 2007.”

O’Donnchu pointed out that in addition to 104,000 DSL subscribers, there are 81,000 flat-rate internet users in Ireland and: “the real challenge and opportunity for telcos is to convert these users to the broadband experience.” He also said that he sees traditional voice telephony disappearing into overall bundled data products. “This presents a huge wake-up call to traditional telcos,” he warned.

Acknowledging that cable broadband — which represents 66pc of connectivity in the US — has been a major disappointment in Ireland, O’Donnchu said that factors such as NTL’s €100m investment plan for broadband and subsequent agreements with ESB to link up regional centres such Galway and Waterford represent rays of hope. “Now that Chorus has emerged from examinership we hope to see it engage in broadband activity,” he said.

In terms of MANs, O’Donnchu said the first phase of the Government’s Broadband Action Plan, involving some €65m and covering 25 major towns and cities across Ireland including Cork, Limerick, Galway and Letterkenny has been completed “on time and under budget”. A major factor in this success, he said, was his department’s insistence on fixed prices. “If there was a slide, the contractors paid for it. Already we are seeing commercial traffic taking place on at least seven of the MANs so far.” His department signed a 15-year contract with E-net to manage the first phase MANs, which will sell broadband services to businesses on a wholesale basis through telcos such as Esat BT and Eircom.

O’Donnchu stated that phase two of the plan involving a further €55m and connecting 41 towns with populations of over 1,500 people — including Athenry, Kinsale, Longford, Navan, Skerries and Youghal — on over 50,000km of fibre rings was well under way.

He explained that the minister will announce an additional 45 towns as part of phase three of the action plan involving a further unspecified multi-million euro investment tranche within a fortnight. “These MANs will be managed on the same basis as the first phase MANs. We are taking a 15- to 20-year view on this and we expect to derive genuine economic return from our investment,” he continued.

O’Donnchu said the €18m Broadband for Schools programme in partnership with IBEC’s Telecommunications and Internet Federation was also proceeding to plan and that successful bidders for the tender process have been decided on and the funding authorised. Furthermore, he added: “We are currently looking at a way of pivoting broadband out of those schools and into the local community as a means of spreading broadband even further.”

It was on the issue of local communities, however, that O’Donnchu hinted at a stumbling block to progress. Under the GBS, which empowers local communities to draw up and implement their own broadband plans on their own or in partnership with broadband service providers, the Government has committed to funding 55pc of the cost of the broadband rollout and has set aside €25m for this purpose. So far, he said, more than 52 applications have been submitted by interested communities.

“We are delighted with the response from the communities, however, responses from the telecoms sector have been disappointing, despite lavish investment from Government. We will be reviewing this to ensure that those communities are served. If our plans succeed, we expect to see a larger national broadband footprint”, O’Donnchu concluded.

By John Kennedy