The Government is already looking beyond the 19-towns and to the next phase of rolling out broadband to communities around the country, according to Dermot Ahern TD, Minister for Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources (pictured). “The 19 metropolitan area networks [MAN] will be complete between now and the middle of the year, on time and under budget, and we are already looking at where we go from here,” he told siliconrepublic.com.
“In the latest estimates we received a multi-annual envelope from the Minister for Finance in which he gave indicative amounts for three years onwards. For 2005 he has indicated €35m per year top spend on broadband so that allows us to plan beyond the 19 towns in phase one.”
According to Ahern, the decision was made to rollout broadband in three phases, the first of which was the original 19 MANs. In the second phase, the Government will choose 90 towns which, according to the Central Statistics Office, have a population greater than 1,500. Each year, 30 towns will be broadband-enabled by a variety of technologies.
The minister explained that this could include wireless or satellite technology depending on the size of the community. “In any event, instead of picking the top 30 and doing them first we will divide the 90 communities into segments — large, medium and small — and do 10 from each per year. So we will connect up as many smaller communities as larger ones.”
The second phase will include the MAN project for the north-east region. “The north east [region] was not really covered in the first phase,” he says. “Because of a difficulty with the application, Louth, Cavan and Monaghan were not included in the original 19 towns of the first phase.” The metropolitan areas of the north east MAN project will include Dundalk, Drogheda, Navan, Kingscourt and Cavan.
It is estimated that the second phase will bring broadband communications within reach of 350,000 people who have no possibility of access at the present time.
The third phase, which will cost €25m, will be a group broadband scheme for towns with less than 1,500 inhabitants. “This will be similar to the group water schemes that are already used around the country,” explains Ahern. “If some group such as a Chamber of Commerce or even a residents’ association comes forward with a service provider with a proposal we will provide grant aid to a certain level.” Such schemes will be available in the border, midlands and western and south and eastern regions.
The Group Data Scheme was first announced in December of last year but the details of the scheme were announced by the minister as part of his speech to the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis this month. Under the scheme, the Government will provide 55pc of required capital funding, half of which will be paid upon commercial launch of the service to local businesses and the other half when it reaches minimum target that will be tailored for each scheme.
The first call for proposals was made on 8 March and additional calls will be made every six months. In the meantime, the department has launched a website, www.broadband.gov.ie where citizens can register their interest in acquiring broadband.
According to the minister all of these projects including the group schemes will be run by the management services entity (MSE), which will be established shortly. While the State will retain ownership of the MANs through the local authority, their day-to-day management will fall under the remit of the MSE, which will market, manage and maintain the infrastructure, but will also provide access to the networks on a carrier neutral and open-access basis.
While no official announcement has been made regarding the appointment of MSE there have been reports that a preferred bidder in the form of a consortium has emerged. Led by eNet, a subsidiary of Limerick-based property development company Tiernan Properties, the consortium also includes Swedish firm Swedia and Eircom spin-off TE Services.
Minister Ahern is determined that the Government’s broadband scheme will succeed. “I am adamant we cannot have digital divide,” he says. “We can see it clearly in all sorts of areas. I have come across companies that have moved out of rural areas to urban ones to get the benefit of DSL. If that were to continue the whole issue of pushing development into peripheral areas would be impossible. Broadband, in my view, is in some ways more important to rural areas than roadways.”
He notes that the takeup of broadband in Ireland is reaching European average levels but that is not enough. “The EU is really not the benchmark that’s required. Korea, in particular and Asia in general are the regions we should be aspiring to match. They are light years ahead of us but we can and should aim to achieve those levels.”
To further encourage broadband takeup the Government has committed itself to bringing broadband to the nation’s schools. “Originally, we were proposing to introduce a levy on telecommunications companies and to use the money to drive broadband into all schools in Ireland, that’s some 4,500 schools and educational institutions. As a result of us announcing government approval to draft the appropriate legislation, the telecommunications companies became somewhat worried about. However, they sat down with us and we got an agreement that they would pay 80pc of the cost of putting broadband into schools,” the minister explains.
The telcos will put up €15m between them with the State putting up the remaining €5m and that will bring the “wire to the school,” as the minister puts it. “What happens inside the school will be the responsibility of the Department of Education. This is one of the goals the EU should be aiming for that: there should be broadband in all schools in Europe.”
By David Stewart