Delayed until 2017, the National Broadband Plan aims to solve Ireland’s broadband problems for the next 25 years. Here’s what we learned when we met with Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD.
The social and economic future of 1.8m citizens – including close to 688,000 members of the labour force, 80,000 farms and 62,000 SMEs – hangs in the balance as the much-needed intervention plan by the Irish Government waits to begin.
The plan is delayed until June 2017 due to a rigorous tendering process that will ensure that between 2017 and 2022 every premise in Ireland will have at least 30Mbps broadband and be futureproofed.
The winning contractor, or contractors, will have to be able to deliver a guaranteed minimum of 30Mbps download speeds and 6Mbps upload speeds with 99.95pc uptime. Failure to meet targets will result in tough financial penalties.
To ensure the success of the project, the Department of Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources under Minister Naughten will join forces with the Department of Rural Affairs under Minister Heather Humphreys.
Here’s what we learned from the Minister for Communications when we met on Wednesday, 1 June 2016.
1. More than 32 companies are involved in the bidding
Over five consortia consisting of 32 companies have bid for the National Broadband Plan, including Eir, SIRO (Vodafone/ESB), Enet, Imagine and Gigabit. Those that have been shortlisted will know this month.
2. The National Broadband Plan will send a power surge through the rural economy similar to the electrification of rural Ireland in the last century
The plan covers 750,000 postal addresses and some 1.8m citizens, including 1,522 primary schools, 80,266 farms, 64,440 non-farm businesses and, ultimately, 38pc of the working population. If oil was the fuel of the 20th century, then data will be the fuel of the 21st century and broadband represents the fuel pipes.
An initial stimulus package of €275m has been approved by Government to 2020, with further funding available where required.
3. It covers a lot of ground and people
The plan covers more than 96pc of national landmass and will send broadband down over 100,000km of the existing road network. In terms of people, this will benefit 688,000 members of the active labour force, including 214,000 white-collar workers, 139,000 farmers and some 62,226 SMEs.
4. Broadband could be key to the health of the nation
Minister Naughten said that broadband will enable the remote monitoring of the elderly and chronically ill without the need for them to go to hospital every time they need to be tested. He cited a project by North-East Doctor on Call (NEDOC) to enable paramedics to visit patients and facilitate a remote diagnosis by GPs and consultants, as well as the use of internet of things (IoT) sensors in the home to monitor patients’ welfare.
5. There is a team of 70 people working on the National Broadband Plan at the Department of Communications (and more might be needed)
“We have a team of 70 people in the department on this and more coming on stream,” Naughten said, adding that he and Rural Affairs Minister Heather Humphreys will be calling on the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe, TD, for resources they need to ensure the plan performs. “We cannot afford to get this wrong, it is important we make the right decisions and can’t delay,” Naughten said.
6. There are eight steps to the procurement process, and we are only at step two
There are at least six more steps to the procurement process before the final contracts are awarded. The first step was the pre-qualification questionnaire, the second was the invitation to submit draft tenders. The next step involves an initial shortlist of the consortia deemed likely to deliver. They will be given a hefty document of all addresses in the intervention area and will have to come back with a final tender bid. The plan is that by June 2017 the final contracts will be awarded to the winner or winners and the National Broadband Plan will begin.
7. The intervention area address book is 5.5in thick
Each operator that is shortlisted for the National Broadband Plan will be given a document that amounts to a list of Eircodes for every address in the intervention area. The document contains 750,000 addresses and is 5.5in thick, according to an official.
8. A search database to tell you when you will finally get your broadband is in the works
Once the final plan has been agreed with the operators that win the contract, officials at the Department of Communications said that people will be able to access a web database where they can put in their Eircode and receive up-to-the-minute information on when their broadband will arrive.
9. The tie-up with the Department of Rural Affairs is necessary to cut bureaucratic red tape at local authority level
At first, it was confusing and seemed like a turf war between two departments was brewing. But the sharing of responsibility for the National Broadband Plan between the Department of Communications and the Department of Rural Affairs is a calculated manoeuvre aimed at avoiding bottlenecks. As well as the powers of her department in dealing with the CEOs of county councils, Minister Humphreys also has control of the Leader Fund, which provides funding to rejuvenate towns and their economies. “Whoever pays the piper calls the tune,” Naughten quipped.
10. Local authorities will make or break the success of the National Broadband Plan
Bureaucratic red tape and different rules in different counties could kill the plan before it even begins. Naughten cited a situation where it took six months for Eir to roll out fibre over 100 metres because of planning problems. In another case, the local authority wanted crash barriers installed around each pole. Some county councils such as that of Cavan are actually grasping the nettle because they know that broadband ultimately means new jobs for the area through foreign investment and start-up activity. Naughten hopes that through working with Humphreys that local government rules around masts and ducting can be standardised.
“The wind behind this process is so big that no local authority would stand in the way,” Naughten said.
11. A new EU directive will reduce the cost of broadband rollout
A new EU directive that will be transposed into law next month will force the ESB to give broadband operators in rural regions access to poles and ducts. This will speed up the deployment significantly for the winners of the National Broadband Plan contract. ComReg will be the dispute regulator for ensuring the directive is enforced.
12. The 2022 date is not written in stone
When the news emerged that the National Broadband Plan would be delayed until 2017, it gave rise to fears that it would be 2022 rather than 2020 when the final homes get connected. However, the mood at the Department of Communications is that they are hoping operators who compete for the contract may be able to come up with more aggressive timelines. “The aim is to hit as many counties with as much broadband as possible in 2017 and 2018 and within two years cover 60pc of premises in the intervention areas,” said Naughten.
“In our dialogue with the operators, we will be pushing them to give their best and most realistic and aggressive plan. We want this done properly and have a solution in place that will endure for 25 years. When we award the contract in June 2017, I would hope that by 2021 it is that we will be 100pc. We’re going to negotiate the most aggressive timeline physically possible.”
13. The intervention map is flexible
Naughten welcomed Eir’s initiative in pushing to bring 1Gbps to 100,000 homes, as well as target 300,000 of the 750,000 of homes in the intervention area, with high-speed broadband and said the department would be willing to tailor the final plan accordingly. But he said that Eir has not yet signed any commitment or updated the intervention area map. “750,000 is our target and the less we have to do the better.
“We will consider any new plans that come with a commitment agreement. We’ve been mapping this since 2013, but when we engage with companies things become a different reality. The bidders are aware of that, we can flex the map.
“What we will be issuing bidders with in the next month will be the list of Eircodes of where we want them to be able to go do. They then need to come back with a plan and a cost.”
14. Broadband access will be a legal right in Ireland
Just like every premise in Ireland is entitled to electricity, water and a phone line, high-speed broadband will become a right under amendments to the universal service obligation (USO) rules. The existing USO has served the country for the last 40 years in terms of ensuring every premise has a phone line. By the time the contract is awarded, a USO guaranteeing 30Mbps for every premise will be the baseline. “We want to ensure people have access to broadband as a right,” Naughten said. “I want it as an enforceable right.”
15. Who will own the network at the end of the day is the elephant in the room
When the National Broadband Plan contract is awarded in June 2017, a vital decision will have been made around the ownership of the network in 25 years. Will it revert to being a State asset or will it be owned by the contract winner? One thing is for sure, a national fibre network connecting across 96pc of Ireland’s landmass will be a very valuable asset indeed.
Fibre broadband image via Shutterstock