National Broadband Plan: €3bn is more palatable spread over 25 years

17 Apr 2019596 Views

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The semblance of a National Broadband Plan is beginning to emerge. But honest communication and clear goals are key to win the public over.

Drip, drip, drip … that’s the sound of relevant information emerging around the future of Ireland’s seven-year-old National Broadband Plan (NBP).

Yesterday (16 April) An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, in responding to Sinn Féin TD Mary Lou McDonald’s questions, confirmed that rather than the plan – if it is passed by cabinet – costing €3bn in one fell swoop, it will be spread out over 25 years.

‘Again, bear in mind the benefits – 540,000 homes, farms and businesses, over a million people. A huge project, a huge scale’
– LEO VARADKAR

The plan was meant to go before cabinet yesterday but, possibly due to the tragicomedy that is the state of Irish soccer and other pressing matters such as the freak show that is Brexit, it might not be rubber-stamped this month as Ireland’s legislators like to enjoy a generous two-week break.

The 25-year timeline, the fact that Department of Communications secretary general Mark Griffin told a public accounts committee that the scope of the project is increasing from 30Mbps to 150Mbps per premises – it all indicates that whatever happens, there will be a plan. Whether it is Plan A, B, C or whatever, it will not be the original plan envisaged in 2012.

“Again, bear in mind the benefits – 540,000 homes, farms and businesses, over a million people. A huge project, a huge scale,” the Taoiseach said.

So far, the optics (sans the fibre) indicate it is going to happen.

The vans are lined up on the lawn

There is one bidder left: the consortium of National Broadband Ireland.

A learned and well-informed telecoms industry source is adamant that once the project gets the green light, it will be all systems go in terms of contractors who have their diggers and vans lined up on the lawn.

The NBP represents seven long years of disappointment, frustration, restructuring and redrawing. It nearly died last year in a farce around a former minister’s questionable choice of dinner date. In November, following the publication of Peter Smyth’s report exonerating Denis Naughten, TD, and David McCourt of any impropriety, the new Communications Minister Richard Bruton, TD, said that the plan will be going ahead.

The problem the Government faces is that €3bn is a heck of a lot more than the €500m originally tabled seven years ago and an eye-watering sum in light of the cost overruns to the National Children’s Hospital. The silver lining is that spread out over 25 years it is a different kettle of fish compared to the more near-term €1.7bn that the new hospital will cost.

Over 25 years, and for something with incalculable potential benefits when it comes to job and business creation, it is nothing compared to the €20bn a year Ireland spends on its badly managed health system.

What that means in real terms is roughly €120m a year, which you could translate as an adequate enough revenue for a telecoms firm serving 542,000 premises with fibre.

But it won’t be that simple. Nothing is that clear-cut because economics change and construction takes time and money.

There are also matters such as Eir allowing the winning consortium to access its pole network, and of course county councils not strangling the NBP at birth through over-zealous red tape.

What the Government needs to do if it goes ahead with the current plan or draws up a new one is answer such questions as:

  • How much will it cost in the early stages to acquire the fibre and do the construction work?
  • How much of the technology will be fibre, or how much will require 5G and other wireless technologies?
  • Will the new network be future-proofed or could it be overtaken by newer wireless technologies?
  • When will the first homes get connected and when can people reasonably expect to be connected?
  • As such, will there be a clear and accurate timetable that people can follow?
  • In what way will the winning consortium open the network up on a wholesale basis to other providers?
  • Will it be open on a wholesale basis to the countless wireless internet service providers – the unsung heroes of broadband in rural Ireland – while urban-based homes are the low-hanging fruit for the major operators and while politicians and civil servants dilly-dally?
  • Ultimately, can they really say that this plan represents value for money for the taxpayer?

The language from the Taoiseach and senior civil servants indicates that a plan – some kind of plan – is in the offing.

Even though an election year is looming and broadband will be an emotive issue on Ireland’s doorsteps, the present Government and future governments need to remember that this is about the next few decades of economic life on this island. It is about the future of society and the wellbeing and prosperity of the Irish people. If it believes this truly, then it will make an easily convincing argument to the public.

Short-termism and parish-pump politics cannot enter into it.

John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist who served as editor of Siliconrepublic.com for 17 years.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com