It is a complex plan. But as people wait, confusion reigns over when the National Broadband Plan will actually begin.
The signs are not looking good for the National Broadband Plan to actually commence with the awarding of contracts to operators in June 2017.
Reading between the lines, even though three operators – Eir, Siro and Enet – are shortlisted for the tender, consideration for the impact of the plan on local operators who will need to access the network on a wholesale basis may be adding to the complexity.
Two weeks ago, a terse reply to a question came from the office of Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, TD: “The Minister’s intention is to achieve the award of the contract(s) for the NBP in mid-2017.”
Yesterday, the Irish Independent reported that the plan may slip to 2018 but indicated Naughten believes that fibre to the home will be the main solution. We assumed the latter to be the case in the first place.
The National Broadband Plan is costed at anything up to €500m with EU support.
So why then did the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe, TD, say that only a fraction of this amount will go toward the National Broadband Plan in 2017?
Donohoe said: “We are committing €15m to progress the procurement of the National Broadband Plan, to provide high-speed broadband to areas of rural Ireland where commercial investment is not forthcoming.”
This signals that no significant work will begin in the next Budget year.
Ownership of the plan was designed to fall into the hands of the company (or companies) that would succeed in the tender due to be awarded in June 2017, rather than the State. This is because it would work out at 50pc to 70pc cheaper and would free up the Exchequer balance sheet for other causes such as the housing and homelessness crisis.
The key now is to commit to a revised date and stick to it.
How patient do people need to be?
It is indeed a complex plan with a lot of moving parts – it is no small task to provide fibre to 96pc of the country’s landmass, along 100,000km of road to serve 1.8m people in over 900,000 premises.
This catchment area takes in close to 214,000 white-collar workers, 139,000 farmers and 62,000 SMEs currently served with inadequate or no broadband at all.
There appears to be only one answer to the slipping deadline: complexity.
But the scary reality is the likelihood that over half of those addressed by the intervention won’t get their vital connection to the 21st century until after 2020, with the last people not not being hooked up until 2023.
By the time the plan is completed (after 25 years of it actually commencing), ownership of the network will shift to whatever consortium(s) are victorious in the tender.
People may be frustrated with the wait, but they would be even more frustrated if attention to detail is not applied and the whole thing ends up in a sorry and costly tribunal.
The minister and his officials are right to take the time to get it right. But better communication is needed.
The National Broadband Plan has the potential to put rural Ireland at the bleeding edge of connectivity and way ahead of countries in Europe and North America when it comes to fibre.
It is a worthy plan and patience is needed.
But the slipping deadline and mixed signals are only adding to the frustration of a rural Ireland languishing on the wrong side of the digital divide.