A bridge too far: What is next for the National Broadband Plan?

5 Feb 2018

A bridge in the Gap of Dunloe near Kerry’s famous Black Valley. Image: Jane McIlroy/Shutterstock

There is no avoiding the fact that broadband is going to be a passionate election issue in Ireland, writes John Kennedy.

Perched on the corner where Molesworth Street meets Kildare Street, opposite Dáil Éirean, sits Buswells Hotel in Dublin. If the walls of the hotel could talk, they would speak volumes about alliances, friendships, betrayals, and pretty much the entire colourful and dramatic political palette of Irish life of the past 100 years.

They would speak in the same mysterious, hushed tones of many of the patrons who form part of Ireland’s political and business elite.

Inside, it feels more like a quiet little country hotel, or how hotels in Ireland used to feel before the Celtic Tiger doused everything in marble and saw more garish sites built than schools or hospitals.

Last Wednesday, it felt fitting that Buswells would be the stage for the next sorry chapter in Ireland’s enduring broadband saga. As I entered, I saw familiar faces of various telecoms executives staring furtively from the various nooks and crannies of the lounge area, wanting to know what was going on.

The big news was that incumbent operator Eir was exiting the National Broadband Plan (NBP), just months after the Vodafone-ESB joint venture Siro left the process.

In trooped NBP officials from the Department of Communications to informally brief the press and TDs about what was happening before Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, arrived to speak on the record and vow that the NBP was going ahead.

Their demeanour reminded me of a county football team that had been given a passionate pep talk by the coach ahead of the pivotal second half. However, I felt the fervent enthusiasm that once shone in their eyes in previous meetings was replaced by what I think was a haunted, 1,000-yard stare.

With Eir leaving the NBP, it leaves just the Enet-SSE consortium in the running for the deployment of connectivity to 540,000 premises, or 990,000 people, still awaiting crucial broadband infrastructure.

Metaphors about a “Plan B” or “the Plan B is that we don’t need a Plan B” or how it will be value for money for taxpayers but “not at all costs” were bandied about. These statements were treated incredulously by assembled press who seemed just as angry as an opposition TD who described the NBP as “fatally wounded”. I just felt lost for words.

The defeated air in the room dissipated for a moment when a journalist in the midst of asking a question was almost crushed by a TV camera that toppled sideways.

A metaphor if ever there was one.

The genie is out of the bottle

Much of the conversation that evening was around whether or not Enet-SSE will be able to deliver the plan and if it has the deep pockets needed to do so.

Officials pointed out that engineering contractors such as KN Group have built up the experience and expertise needed to deliver the infrastructure. They were confident that shovels would be in the ground within days of a contract being signed in September.

Officials also pointed out that Enet’s owner, David McCourt – a feisty US infrastructure tycoon who you can read about here – wants to make Ireland a kind of exemplar or shop window for similar infrastructure projects he wants to win elsewhere in Europe. He has to make it work.

Clearly, the NBP has caught the imagination of other countries and regions in Europe, most notably Scotland, because the struggle to deploy fibre and broadband infrastructure is a truly international problem. Ireland is not unique.

Like Scotland, Ireland has a tiny population spread over a comparatively large land mass. The reality is, broadband is too expensive to deploy in sparsely populated places such as Kerry’s Black Valley, for example.

But, the thing is – the politicians know this, the telecoms executives know this – the genie is out of the bottle.

Since 2011, when people were first told that there was an NBP, they were made to believe that broadband was coming. And, having been told continuously that it is coming, they expect it.

Rest assured broadband will be an issue in the next general elections, and would-be lawmakers will need answers. Because close to 1m people are tired of waiting.

The elephant in the room

The officials talked about benchmarking models, best practices, yada, yada, yada, but one underlying reason that Eir – which answers to shareholders and bondholders – walked away from the process was that it was getting too complicated, too costly and may have required the establishment of a parallel wholesale division on top of its existing one.

If you ask me, the NBP was only complicated by the zeal of officials to avoid any legal wrangling.

The ironic thing is, that’s possibly what lies ahead.

The real rub of the issue will be ducts and poles. There are around 76,000 km of them, and at what price will Eir yield access to them?

Without access to this infrastructure, Enet-SSE will be unable to deliver the NBP.

And so, Eir – which is in the process of being acquired by French billionaire Xavier Niel’s NJJ – still holds the cards.

A deal signed last year with the Government guaranteed Eir about 300,000 premises in rural Ireland, and it is delivering on that deal. According to last week’s financial results, Eir has now passed 170,000 premises – including 130,000 of the 300,000 agreed with the State – with fibre-to-the-home broadband.

Eir is required under ComReg regulations to provide access to its pole and duct network at €20 per pole, according to the officials. The elephant in the room is whether Eir believes this rate will be sufficient.

Last week, there was talk of a contract of some kind being signed between the Government and Eir to guarantee access to this pole and duct network for the next 25 years.

Parallel to this, the Government is holding a special Cabinet meeting today (5 February) about the new National Planning Framework that will inform all planning, infrastructure and spatial strategies over the next 25 years.

Infrastructure is not a short-term thing. We need a vision because Ireland needs to accommodate 1m more people, including 600,000 new jobs, over this time period.

We can get lost in arguments as to whether broadband to every rural home was just a pipe dream.

The thing is, people have been sold this dream and they believe in it. They expect it. It has to happen.

It is now a political hot potato.

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