National Broadband Plan: At least 10 firms bid to end Ireland’s digital divide

19 Feb 2016

At least 10 firms are understood to have bid for Ireland's long overdue National Broadband Plan, which will bring 1.8m people into the broadband revolution

The Irish Government’s long overdue intervention to bring 750,000 postal addresses into the 21st century is gaining impetus after it emerged that at least 10 players have bid for two State broadband contracts valued at between €300m and €500m.

The plan – supported by EU state aid – will fund operators to compete to deliver a guaranteed minimum of 30Mbps download speeds and 6Mbps upload speeds with 99.95pc uptime.

However, there are indications that bidding firms, which include Eir, Enet and the ESB/Vodafone joint venture SIRO, intend to go way beyond this to 1Gbps fibre-to-the-home services, potentially creating a scenario where rural dwellers could, in time, have better broadband than their urban counterparts.

‘We expect the initial homes to be connected in late 2016, with 85pc of premises in Ireland to have access to high-speed broadband by 2018, with an ambition of 100pc by the end of 2020’

This could also mean that by 2020, if all goes to plan, Ireland could potentially have a broadband network the envy of Europe – a far cry from today, where around 40pc of premises in the country are without broadband.

So far, some €275m worth of state aid has been approved by the Irish Government.

According to The Irish Times, more than 10 potential bidders have registered an interest in winning the contract to build the network for the Irish Government.

The plan to end Ireland’s broadband travesty once and for all?

The National Broadband Plan will connect more than 750,000 postal addresses and 1.8m people to high-speed broadband. It covers 96pc of Ireland’s national land mass and 100,000km of road networks

The procurement process began just before Christmas. Formal dialogue will take place between March and April and final contracts will be awarded in Q4 2016, with a view to seeing the first broadband-deprived homes connected before the end of the year.

“We expect the initial homes to be connected in late 2016, with 85pc of premises in Ireland to have access to high-speed broadband by 2018, with an ambition of 100pc by the end of 2020,” a Government spokesperson told before Christmas.

“The Government is determined to ensure that the network is built out as soon as possible and engagement with industry stakeholders has indicated that this could be achieved within three-to-five years of the contract award.

The updated plan divides the country into two areas – north and south, with the same population geographical reach challenges – so that one or potentially two bidders may successfully win the contract.

There are two models to consider: a gap-funded/commercial-stimulus model whereby the company that builds and runs the network retains ownership; or a full concessionaire model where the assets revert back to state ownership after 25 years.

Communications Minister Alex White said that a final decision has to be made over ownership of the final network or networks after 25 years as they could by that stage have developed into a valuable economic asset.

Companies that have expressed a potential interest in building the network include: Eir, Virgin Media, SIRO (the ESB/Vodafone joint venture), BT, Enet, Gigabit Fibre, Three, Imagine and Axione, a French company that has won 16 similar projects in France and is a subsidiary of French energy giant Bouygues.

Rural Donegal road image via Shutterstock

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