The €3bn contract for the National Broadband Plan has been signed

19 Nov 2019648 Views

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The Government signed a €3bn contract for the National Broadband Plan today, at an event that referenced a Tesco carpark and Pokémon Go. Will this go down as an historical landmark or a mistake made in haste?

Today (19 November), the Irish Government finally signed the €3bn National Broadband Plan (NBP) contract. The news comes a week after the European Commission granted state aid approval for the plan.

The NBP has been significantly delayed by a number of factors, including the mounting cost of the plan, private sector interests, conflict of interest concerns, and the struggle to find a suitable provider.

Plans for the NBP have been on the table since 2015, but the deal has been updated, amended and edited countless times over the past four and a half years, with the expected cost rising from €500m to €3bn.

‘No part of the country will be left behind in securing the jobs and opportunities of the future’
– LEO VARADKAR

In May, the contract was finally awarded to National Broadband Ireland (NBI), a consortium led by US-based private investment firm Granahan McCourt and Irish-American businessman David McCourt. At the time, Granahan McCourt was the sole remaining bidder for the NBP.

When the contract ends in 25 years, NBI will retain ownership of the network. The Government has faced criticism for this aspect of the deal.

The plan, which will see the government roll out high-speed broadband to 1.1m people living and working in 540,000 homes, schools, businesses and farms where commercial operators will not deliver connectivity.

The Government made the announcement at an event in Wicklow this morning. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: “No part of the country will be left behind in securing the jobs and opportunities of the future.”

Richard Bruton, Leo Varadkar and David McCourt sitting at a table in a school with a group of children in uniforms behind them. On the table is a copy of the National Broadband Plan.

From left: Minister of Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton; Taoiseach Leo Varadkar; and David McCourt of NBI, with a group of children at St Kevins National School, Co Wicklow. Image: Julien Behal Photography

‘Everyone should have those opportunities’

While making the announcement, Varadkar reflected on an interaction he had at Inspirefest with 12-year-old coder Aoibheann Mangan.

At the sci-tech event, Mangan told the Taoiseach that she had to go to a local Tesco car park to access Wi-Fi. She said: “It’s not fair that people in Dublin get access to everything because they can get it on the internet. Everyone should have those opportunities.”

Varadkar recalled this interaction and acknowledged Mangan, who was present at the announcement. He said: “I was approached by a student from Mayo, a 12-year-old girl called Aoibheann who loves coding.

“Aoibheann is here today, thanks very much for accepting the invitation. I remember very well, because I was leaving the conference and she told me her story of having to sit outside a local Tesco carpark to get access to the internet and why that was so unfair.”

“I know that story isn’t unique. It’s not unique to any one part of Ireland. It’s something that’s experienced of every county in every part of Ireland. Indeed, it’s experienced in rural parts of Dublin.”

A landmark decision or a huge mistake?

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Richard Bruton, TD, said: “This is really a landmark decision. It’s about our vision of inclusion, a vision of empowerment and a vision of regional balance. Without this sort of investment, I cannot see how you could have rural prosperity.”

Minister for Business, Enterprise, and Innovation Heather Humphreys, TD, added: “The internet and digital technologies are transforming our world in every walk of life and in every line of business. If we are not fully prepared for this fourth industrial revolution, then we are going to be left behind.

“I’m going to share a few statistics with you. It took 75 years for the telephone to reach 50m people. It took 38 years for the radio to reach 50m people. It took 10 months for YouTube to reach 50m users. It took 19 days for Pokémon Go to reach 50m users.

“That goes to show you the huge power of the internet. Remember as we stand here today, this is as slow as it gets.”

However, airing the concerns of those who do not want to see the scheme fall into private ownership at the end of the 25-year contract, RTÉ business editor Will Goodbody said: “The Opposition has already described today as an historic mistake in terms of the amount of money that this is going to cost and the fact that the network will fall into the ownership of the consortium at the end of it and, I suppose, other criticisms as well.”

“How can you be sure that you’re not making an historic mistake that we will live to regret in two and a half decades?”

Varadkar remarked that opposition parties had five months to come up with an alternative plan that was faster and cheaper, but were unable to do so. “The truth is that if we didn’t go ahead with the National Broadband Plan and we didn’t sign the contract that we’re signing now, we would set this back another three to five years,” he said.

What’s next?

According to RTÉ, surveys of ducts, poles and other infrastructure will begin within the next two months, with a focus on the west and mid-west regions first. It could take up to seven years before every home or business is brought online under the plan.

NBI’s consortium will begin by connecting 300 community settings such as GAA clubs, community centres and public libraries to broadband connection points.

These hubs will offer free high-speed broadband to people living in rural areas until their homes and businesses are connected to the service.

It is expected that by the end of 2021, one-quarter (or 130,000) of the total premises in the NBP will be online, with 40pc to be connected by the end of 2022. After the fifth year of the initiative, it’s expected that 95pc of the population will be capable of receiving high-speed broadband.

Kelly Earley is a journalist with Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com