Everything you need to know about the National Broadband Plan so far

31 Jul 2018

Image: Asharkyu/Shutterstock

A quick 8-question guide to bring you up to speed on Ireland’s National Broadband Plan and the enduring quest for 100pc high-speed broadband connectivity.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock this week, you have probably realised that big questions are being asked about Ireland’s National Broadband Plan (NBP).

The NBP was rocked to its core this week when SSE, a vital partner in the final Enet-SSE consortium shortlisted for the project’s roll-out, walked away from the table.

This has thrown the plan as we know it into disarray, although the Government of Ireland has insisted it is going ahead albeit with a few “structural changes”.

1. What is the NBP?

Unveiled in 2012 by then Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, the NBP was revealed as the silver bullet to sort out Ireland’s complex broadband problems for once and for all.

The plan envisaged that between 2017 and 2022, every premises in rural Ireland would have at least 30Mbps of future-proofed broadband, mostly fibre.

The winning contractor, or contractors, would 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 would likely result in tough financial penalties, according to the contracts designed by the NBP team.

The original plan covered 750,000 postal addresses and 1.8m citizens, including 1,522 primary schools, 80,266 farms, 64,440 non-farm businesses and, ultimately, 38pc of the working population.

The plan covered more than 96pc of national landmass and aimed to send broadband down over 100,000km of the existing road network. In terms of people, it aimed to benefit 688,000 members of the active labour force, including 214,000 white-collar workers, 139,000 farmers and 62,226 SMEs.

2. Who is going to pay for this?

An initial stimulus package of €275m has been approved by Government to 2020, with further funding available where required. Earlier this year, the plan received European Investment Bank backing for €500m.

Overall, the plan was costed to be around €1bn to achieve, with the remainder of funding coming from the private sector companies bidding for the contract. After 25 years, they would own the networks that were constructed.

3. When did things start to go wrong for the NBP?

When did they start to go right is the real question. The procurement process took some time to get started but early on, sources in the telecoms industry started to question the complexity of the NBP and sheer amount of paperwork involved.

Each operator that was shortlisted for the NBP was given a document that amounted to a list of Eircodes for every address in the intervention area. The document contained 750,000 addresses and was 5.5in thick, according to an official.

More than five consortia consisting of 32 companies bid for the NBP, including Eir, Siro (Vodafone-ESB), Enet, Imagine and Gigabit. This was eventually whittled down to three consortia: Eir, Siro and Enet-SSE.

Not long after the shortlist was revealed, Siro left the process last autumn. Eir left the process earlier this year.

4. The plan was whittled back, too. Why?

A deal between Eir and the Government in 2017 saw the plan redrawn, with Eir taking on 300,000 premises in rural areas, reducing the intervention area to about 542,000 premises, meaning about 990,000 people or 21pc of the national population, and 381,000 members of the labour force.

Eir agreed to invest an additional €200m to upgrade 300,000 premises in 890 communities to fibre broadband in a move that would also help accelerate the roll-out of its fibre footprint to 1.9m premises by the end of 2018.

The intervention area proposed by the Government was contested by Eir, which insisted it could deliver fibre to these areas and therefore required no intervention.

Eir is understood to have passed 175,000 of these premises at the end of June, according to the Department of Communications.

The Eir deal no doubt frustrated other members on the shortlist and some complained that Eir had effectively cherry-picked the most commercially viable 300,000 premises on the plan, leaving rivals with harder-to-serve locations.

5. When did the wheels really go off the tracks?

Successive Communications Ministers from Rabbitte to Alex White and current Minister Denis Naughten, TD, have vied to be the one who saw the plan begin and be completed on their respective watches. So far, to no avail.

Questions of when shovels will be in the ground reached a chorus in 2017 when there was still no sign of the plan beginning or contracts being awarded.

In late 2017, Siro pulled out of the procurement process, preferring to focus its attention on its own €450m plan to deliver fibre to 500,000 premises in 51 towns.

In early 2018, the plan was shook further when Ireland’s largest telecoms operator, Eir, stepped away.

“Based upon the significant commercial issues and complexity within the tender process, together with growing uncertainty on a range of regulatory and pricing issues that reside outside of the NBP process, the company’s board has decided that the risks are too great for its continued participation in the NBP,” the company said in a statement at the time.

Around teatime on Saturday (28 July) when most people were winding down, cooking dinner or supping on a few well-earned pints after a hard auld week, the proverbial shit hit the fan when the news broke that SSE was leaving the plan.

SSE should have been the dark horse in the whole episode, as the Airtricity owner could have brought its considerable expertise in engineering to bear. As one of the biggest electricity operators on the surrounding islands, it is powering ahead with 5G and fibre projects in the UK.

“SSE confirms that it is no longer a participant in the consortium bidding for the National Broadband Plan,” SSE said in a statement on Sunday afternoon (29 July).

“We wish our former consortium partners and the Government well as they continue to progress discussions for the delivery of this important infrastructure project for Ireland.”

Enet’s David C McCourt said: “I can confirm that SSE is no longer a member of the Enet consortium and that the consortium now comprises Granahan McCourt, John Laing plc and the Irish Infrastructure Fund.

“In building this consortium, we have brought together the best global expertise in building networks, particularly in telecoms and in coordinating all of the elements required to finance a project of this size in partnership with Government. To this, we have added world-leading funds committed to the development of infrastructure around the world and to the NBP in particular.

“As I’ve said before, the process is very much on track. We’re just weeks away from submitting our final tender. The team is very focused on concluding the procurement phase of this project and moving swiftly into delivery.”

6. So, what now? Is the plan salvageable?

Last night (30 July), the Irish Government, through the Department of Communications, insisted that the NBP was going ahead.

“The NBP remains on track, with a final bid expected from the Enet consortium in the coming weeks,” the Department of Communications said in a statement.

“It is intended the procurement process will reach a conclusion shortly thereafter.”

It added: “The Enet consortium has reaffirmed its commitment to the National Broadband Plan and timelines around the procurement process. A formal notification from the consortium with regard to structural changes is awaited.”

The Government insisted that all has not been in vain and that since the plan’s onset, it has served as a catalyst in encouraging €2.75bn in investment from the telecoms sector in rural Ireland.

It said that today, seven out of 10 of all Irish premises have high-speed broadband. “By 2020, nine out of 10 of all Irish premises will have access to a high-speed broadband connection.

“This is not only in urban areas – Eir’s commercial rural deployment plan commits to providing high-speed broadband to over 300,000 premises, predominantly in rural areas and including the west of the country. Although figures for Q2 2018 have not yet been verified by the Department, it is understood that Eir have passed a total of 175,000 premises as of Q2 2018,” the Department of Communications said.

7. Will the plan really succeed or is 100pc broadband just a pipe dream?

It will remain to be seen if Enet and its remaining partners have the resources to roll out high-speed broadband to about 542,000 premises across rural Ireland. A lot can happen between now and when contracts are supposed to be signed.

At the time of Eir’s departure from the procurement process, Naughten enigmatically referred to some kind of a “plan B” and seemed to suggest that the State would go it alone if it has to.

But this raises a tangled web of questions and scenarios, such as: do the Government and the 70 or so members of the NBP team have the expertise to go it alone?

8. Could they not just redraw the plan and start the bidding process again?

The NBP, in this writer’s view, has become a victim of efforts to ensure it is watertight. The plan’s designers are motivated to ensure that it delivers quality broadband to rural Ireland and acts as a social and economic accelerator, but also that it is free of the kind of manoeuvring, manipulation and skulduggery by big business and politics that have lamentably dogged Irish life in the late 20th century. If anything, they do not want it to lead to a tribunal.

But, in their quest to create an asset for the State that is beyond reproach, they may have failed to take into account the need for private businesses to have a bit of wriggle room to make it commercially viable, too.

It is never too late to go back to the drawing board. Ireland holds a lot of aces in terms of the engineering expertise of so many companies, from ESB to Eir as well as players such as Virgin Media, Bord Gáis and countless others no longer at the table, or which were never at the table to begin with.

Nowhere has achieved broadband penetration to such a degree envisaged by the plan, unless you count nations with large urban centres such as Japan, Singapore or South Korea.

Ireland still has a shot at showing the rest of the world how to connect a low-population-density nation to state-of-the-art modern infrastructure.

But it may only be one shot. So we must get it right.

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