The role of county councils across Ireland in removing outdated civil-engineering bottlenecks could make or break the National Broadband Plan, the Communications Minister Denis Naughten TD has said.
Naughten said that while the National Broadband Plan will be primarily driven by his department, with up to 70 people focused on the plan full-time, the reason for the sharing of the responsibility for its rollout with the Minister for Rural Affairs Heather Humphreys TD was to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that threatens to unravel the plan.
“We have to get this right,” Naughten said. “This is a contract for the next 25 years. We cannot afford to get this wrong. It is important to take the right decisions, we can’t delay.”
‘This is as big as rural electrification but people won’t know its potential until it happens’
– DENIS NAUGHTEN TD
The National Broadband Plan is a €275m EU-backed strategy to deliver a minimum of 30Mbps broadband to the 40pc of the Irish population on the wrong side of the digital divide. Future-proofed, it covers 96pc of Ireland’s landmass, 750,000 postal addresses and some 1.8m citizens, including 1,522 primary schools, 96,000 farms, 64,440 non-farm businesses and ultimately 38pc of the working population.
“It can attract new types of foreign investment into Ireland, enable tech companies to pilot technology in rural communities and bring investment into rural communities.
“It will have a long-term impact and benefit. This is as big as rural electrification but people won’t know its potential until it happens.”
Naughten said that as soon as the plan – which has been delayed to June 2017 and tipped for completion by 2022 at the latest – begins, the universal service obligation (USO) to provide copper telephony to every premise will be upgraded to 30Mbps broadband for all.
Naughten said there are a number of steps that are involved in the process, which started with the pre-qualification tenders before Christmas, the shortlist, which will be decided this month, and a complicated series of draft bids, evaluations, final tenders and more will be involved before the final contracts are awarded in June 2017.
This will be to ensure that a rigorous, transparent process was applied that will factor in crucial decisions, such as who will own the network – by that stage a jewel in Ireland’s infrastructural crown in 25 years’ time – if the spectre of future tribunals i be avoided.
Speed of the essence, no bottlenecks, please
But from there, speed will be of the essence and the local authorities, in particular, county councils, will need to step up to the plate to ensure the citizens in their regions aren’t deprived of the right to broadband.
Naughten confirmed that Minister Humphreys has joined a new Broadband Taskforce established to ensure delivery of the plan.
‘One 100m section that Eir wanted to roll out fibre to took six months because of bottlenecks’
– DENIS NAUGHTEN TD
“There are issues that the industry has raised, such as access to ducting. Way leave differs from county to county. For example, contribution charges for a mobile mast can be €20,000 in Kerry while it is zero in other counties. We need to get consistency across the country in relation to this.
“I have met with Transport Infrastructure Ireland suggesting they act in collaboration with the county councils. Minister Humphreys will drive that with the authorites, the Western Development Commission and local CEOs of county councils.”
He said, ideally, many of these idiosyncrasies of Irish planning will be ironed out before the plan begins properly in June 2017.
“One 100m section that Eir wanted to roll out fibre to took six months because of bottlenecks,” Naughten said. “This is all to do with engagement with local authorities. Eir wanted to put the fibre overhead on poles, while the local authority in question wanted it to go underground.”
Naugthen recalled another farcical situation where the local authorities wanted crash barriers to be built around the poles that would carry fibre overhead.
“That’s the sort of thing we are up against and cannot allow to get in the way of people getting broadband.”
The Mobile/Broadband Taskforce will look at all means of getting broadband to the people, including state infrastructure.
“We are not going to get high-speed broadband to every community overnight, even if we get the civils ironed out and the contractors work fast, it is still going to take a number of years. But why should communities suffer in the meantime? If the opportunity to use existing state infrastructure such as public sites and buildings for antennae we will take it.”
As well as working with state agencies like the Office for Public Works, ComReg has been tasked with facilitating spectrum licensing to ensure wireless solutions can be used where fibre is unfeasible.
Naughten said that Minister Humphreys also has the purse strings and control over the Leaders’ Fund for additional finances to rejuvenate towns.
“In the meantime, we need a uniform system in terms of constructing 4G masts, a proper process and timeline for accessing poles and ducting and accessing state-owned infrastructure.”
Asked does he anticipate any logjams from county councils that will refuse to play ball on broadband, Naughten said that public outcry for broadband is too significant for local authorities to ignore.
“Could you imagine the local newspaper coverage if a county council got in the way of people getting broadband in their community?”
But Naughten said that the dynamic in county councils in relation to broadband is changing radically.
“Cavan, which is seeing the earliest deployment of SIRO’s fibre network, for example, is already seeing the benefits in terms of foreign direct investment and start-ups emerging and the local county council has created a template for engineers for when a contract is in place. If Cavan’s model is ideal there is no reason why this can’t be replicated across the country.
“The technology to achieving high-speed broadband countrywide will be neutral, but for the plan to work we need to address bottlenecks within the infrastructure across the board, not just the ducting or masts but also use of buildings for antenna.”
Roadworks image via Shutterstock