Time to come clean on the future of the National Broadband Plan

1 Apr 2019

Image: © ivanmollov/Stock.adobe.com

Rip the Band-Aid on the cost and delivery schedule for the National Broadband Plan and just get on with it, urges John Kennedy.

“Sometimes I feel like a doctor giving the patient the bad news,” was how a mechanic once described telling customers the cost of fixing their car. That recollection rolled through my mind as I watched the stream of tweets emerge from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) as the secretary general at the Department of Communications, Mark Griffin, was grilled about the likely cost of the National Broadband Plan (NBP).

First, let’s be clear: the NBP will cost money, but it needs to happen. So just get to the point, draw up a new or revised plan, and get moving – and this time, be honest and realistic about the timelines that will be involved.

Any mention of cost overruns in Ireland is a political hot potato right now as the country still tries to digest the cost debacle surrounding the National Children’s Hospital.

Second, I’m glad to live in a country that has a PAC and I often wish we’d had one of these many years ago when mealy-mouthed politicians swaggered with impunity across the land telling anyone who would listen to tighten their belts.

The NBP goes back to 2012 and was meant to be a silver bullet for the country’s lackadaisical embrace of the digital economy. Seven years later and nothing has happened. The plan has had many stops and not one start, and even descended into a farce last year regarding who a Communications Minister dined with and why.

Following the inquiry that exonerated former Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, from any wrongdoing or tainting the NBP by meeting with David C McCourt from Granahan McCourt, his successor Minister Richard Bruton, TD, vowed in November that the intervention plan to bring broadband to 542,000 premises would go ahead.

With politicians perhaps distracted by Brexit, and other pressing issues such as homelessness and health correctly taking precedence, it is obvious why the NBP may have taken a back seat. But we cannot take our eyes of it either.

The price of the plan was always a bit vague, starting at €500m and then potentially exceeding €1bn or more. A year ago the NBP was approved for €500m in funding by the European Investment Bank. At the time it was said that the €500m could also be leveraged by a €275m approval in State Aid to 2020.

There is only one final bidder left and that is National Broadband Ireland, which is led by Granahan McCourt. Firms supplying this consortium include Enet, Actavo, Nokia, Kelly Group and KN Group.

Start as we mean to go on

So, what’s holding everything up? Last week at the PAC, Griffin said that having one final bidder is not ideal but also not unusual, and he cited the example of the UK’s equivalent, which had BT as the last and only bidder after Fujitsu pulled out.

Griffin acknowledged that the NBP is likely to cost multiples of the initial €500m estimate. He also pointed out that the difference between the NBP and the National Children’s Hospital is that the latter’s costs escalated after the project had begun.

An interesting titbit to emerge is that the basic speeds have moved from the original 30Mbps to a very generous 150Mbps for every household and business in the 542,000-premises-strong intervention area. That alone is a seriously good reason for hoping the plan goes ahead.

Judging by the language and these revelations, the NBP is far from dead but, as usual, the devil will be in the detail.

The problem with the plan all along was the sheer scale of it, and mapping exercise after mapping exercise revealed new clues and problems – but also solutions. Eir’s current fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) roll-out would have not have achieved its current velocity if an opportunity had not presented itself for the operator to sign a deal with the Government to take 300,000 premises out of the intervention area, as Eir CEO Carolan Lennon pointed out in a recent interview with Siliconrepublic.com. She said the learnings from that project inspired its engineers to realise that FTTH, rather than fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), was much more feasible than originally believed. This has helped to set in motion the major €500m investment in FTTH broadband that will cover 1.4m premises across Ireland.

In recent weeks I pointed to 5G as a potential solution to bringing broadband to rural areas and it was clear from the reaction we got that people believe fibre will still be overwhelmingly critical to any solution. Or, as Ray O’Connor from Limerick telecoms engineering firm 4Site pointed out recently, 5G needs fibre, but fibre doesn’t need 5G. What he means that even where you try to employ 5G, the base station needs fibre.

There is a lot of momentum happening in fibre in urban areas, with Siro, Eir and Virgin Media all progressing with ambitious roll-out plans. Remember, this is chiefly occurring in urban areas, not rural areas. So, once again, the digital divide could widen. There is also a danger of being lulled into a false state of belief that 5G alone will cut it for rural Ireland as operators from Eir to Vodafone, Three and Imagine get ready to begin their 5G roll-outs. That is dangerous and incorrect.

A senior telecoms industry executive who I met last week said that 5G, even with fibre, will have limitations when you add environmental factors such as range, distance, and even vegetation and the seasons to the equation. Another target the Irish Government may be keeping its eye on is a looming EU requirement to have 1Gbps broadband available to 50pc of EU countries’ populations by 2025.

Having attended meeting after meeting with various Communications Ministers and their staff since 2012, I simply recommend that if the winning bid is confirmed or a new plan presented, clearly restate the objectives of the NBP with costs and timelines disclosed. Full disclosure, a timetable people can follow and an estimate of the materials needed.

My industry source was adamant that the engineering resources exist to make the NBP happen once the plan is given the go-ahead.

My gut feeling is that the NBP will happen. It will be mostly fibre-based and there will be parts that will need to be wireless. But if it is going to take five years or 10 years to deliver, then say so. Say what it is going to cost and show what money has been set aside or requested for the project to happen. Hold the winner to a strict timetable and accountability rules, and let it happen. The NPB is meant to be a ‘plan’ after all.

If it is clearly explained why it is going to be worth every penny to the taxpayer in terms of theirs and their children’s future livelihoods and wellbeing for decades to come, people will wait.

What is it they don’t like waiting for? The next disappointment.

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