National Broadband Plan hits another speed bump

5 Mar 2018

Morning sunrise on rush-hour traffic, N40 in Cork, Ireland. Image: Gabriel12/Shutterstock

Conal Henry’s departure from Enet raises more questions than answers at this critical juncture. And the people need answers, writes John Kennedy.

The decision of Conal Henry to step down from Enet during what seemed to be the pinnacle of his success only serves to raise more questions than answers about the National Broadband Plan (NBP).

I heard about Henry’s departure from the helm of Enet as I was travelling back from Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, in a race against the weather and to avoid being stranded away from home for a week.

As the plane descended on Dublin amidst a blizzard, my own mind was a-blizzard about what this could potentially mean.

It is yet another strange twist in the yet-to-begin NBP, which has up until this point sown more confusion than actually given people what they really want: connectivity.

A plan such as the NBP ought to be clear-cut and decisive. Instead, it has become a tangled web of intrigue, promises and frustration.

The departure of Eir from the NBP in recent weeks – just months after the Vodafone-ESB joint venture Siro left – from the process was not encouraging.

Either way, Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, was bullish at the time that the NBP would go ahead and that Enet-SSE, as the last consortium standing, would be awarded its contract in September 2018, with shovels due to hit the turf days later.

It signified a key moment of success for Henry after 12 years of stewarding the company, in terms of winning the contract to manage the 94 metropolitan area networks, and growing it from nothing into a network that includes dark fibre backhaul infrastructure transiting the rail and gas network, and three proprietary metro networks, including a 100km fibre ring in Dublin. Enet also operates one of the largest licensed wireless networks in the country.

Last week, however, Enet announced Henry’s departure.

Henry said: “After 12 years working with the wonderful team at Enet, the time has come for me to hand over the reins. I am so exceptionally proud to have been associated with this great company.”

David C McCourt, Enet’s chair, said: “Conal’s departure does not impact on Enet’s participation in the National Broadband Plan procurement process. Peter Hendrick, who is continuing as managing director for all growth initiatives for Enet, will also continue to lead the Enet team and as bid director of the Enet-SSE consortium.”

Another twist in the road to full connectivity?

After so many twists and turns in the road to 100pc broadband in Ireland – remember, shovels are not yet in the ground – you could be forgiven for suspecting that there’s more to this than meets the eye.

Perhaps there is, perhaps there isn’t. Perhaps it is as clear-cut as the Enet management team suggests and that it’s all bonhomie as Henry rides off into the sunset after landing a major contract worth billions. For now, the matter seems closed.

I know Henry and have always found him to be frank and an astute observer of how the telecoms industry operates.

I have met McCourt and have to admit to being greatly impressed by his enthusiasm and vision, especially his attitude that no obstacle is too big.

I know the people involved in the NBP and I have met the succession of ministers that have been trying to make the plan a reality since 2012. More than anyone, they wanted the NBP to happen on their watch.

I know the people at Eir and Siro who worked hard on submissions for the plan and for whom walking away from the procurement process was not a decision that was made lightly.

The amount of work that has been happening in the background is tremendous and detailed.

But the thing is, for the Irish people and the communities for whom this infrastructure will mean economic life or death for the next 25 years, well, they need certainty.

They need to plan for the future. It is all well and good for amply pensioned civil servants, politicians and wealthy executives to play their respective parts, but the actual people who make up the rich tapestry of rural life on this island have been promised this infrastructure. Their lives, their welfare and their future livelihoods will depend on it.

The genie is out of the bottle. There is no turning back. Power games and musical chairs are not what they want to hear about right now.

It’s really all down to SSE now

As I said in recent weeks, most commentators and critics of the NBP are missing the blindingly obvious: the involvement of SSE – the seventh-biggest power firm in the UK, which already serves close to 1m people on this island with renewable electricity via Airtricity – is potentially a game-changer.

It is clearly something the strategists at both ESB and Eir have completely missed or are ignoring as they focus on the near term.

For the long term, it’s not about broadband or electricity; it’s about both. It’s about smart infrastructure.

And SSE could be the Trojan horse that could haunt the nightmares of ESB and Eir for some time to come. Potentially decades.

That all, of course, depends on the coming months and if Enet and SSE emerge as the ultimate winners.

This will depend on how due diligence is conducted, if any red flags are unearthed, and how negotiations between the business people and civil servants pan out.

The prize is 25 years of stewardship of what could turn out to be the most potent piece of infrastructure on this island.

But the winners – the ultimate winners – should always be the people.

And the people are tired of promises.

Want stories like this and more direct to your inbox? Sign up for Tech Trends, Silicon Republic’s weekly digest of need-to-know tech news.

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