No more dancing at the crossroads for National Broadband Plan

3 Oct 2016123 Shares

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Ireland cannot afford any more dancing around the issue of the National Broadband Plan. Image: Joe Dunckley/Shutterstock

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The people are not interested in mixed signals around Ireland’s National Broadband Plan. They want to be connected, and they want to be connected now says John Kennedy.

Reports suggesting potential delays to the pivotal National Broadband Plan (NBP) countered by statements that actually no, it’s still all on track, are not really inspiring my confidence right now.

It is Comms Week here at Siliconrepublic.com and all week long we will demonstrate how businesses and researchers are pushing the boat on digital connectivity. We will outline the future of networks, explain what 5G really means and much more.

But it is a poignant picture we also paint. Because digital communications in Ireland in 2016 is like the curate’s egg: it is only good in parts.

‘The Minister’s intention is to achieve the award of the contract(s) for the NBP in mid-2017’
– DEPT OF COMMUNICATIONS

On Thursday of last week, I fielded yet another flurry of questions from a close family member stranded in the countryside hearing wistful tales about the wonderful digital age we are supposed to be living in. Only a week into another month and the satellite broadband service she is paying over the odds for surpassed the paltry 8GB monthly data allowance, meaning the kids got to watch half of a Netflix movie.

“Is broadband coming to our area any time soon?” she wondered forlornly, before pointing to a flyer in the door about a new LTE service in her area that will demand a €150 installation charge – and it is still not certain if even that will work.

Meanwhile, at the weekend we receive a tweet from a man who had to drive 3km on a windy night because the broadband dongle he pays €75 per month for will not receive a signal and he has to use this contraption because he lives 2km beyond where fibre is available in Kinsale.

Yep, just another week on the wrong side of Ireland’s digital crossroads.

The nation is on tender hooks

Across Ireland, 1.8m citizens are waiting for their digital isolation to end. These include close to 214,000 white-collar workers, 139,000 farmers and 62,000 SMEs.

Of course, critics will point out, some households may just use their broadband for Netflix, Skype or Facebook, but the poignant and harsh reality is that without a digital connection these thousands of workers, farmers and business owners won’t have an economic prayer in the years to come.

The National Broadband Plan, an EU-backed investment by the Irish State to end Ireland’s broadband woes for once and for all, is costed at around €500m.

The plan was due to connect 1.8m Irish citizens to a minimum of 30Mbps broadband by 2020 and procurement was due to begin in June 2016.

In April, the bombshell landed that the plan was to be delayed and the news that procurement would not begin until June 2017 meant that it could be 2022 by the time the last citizen gets connected.

Soon after, this was accompanied by the news that three consortia – Eir, SIRO and Enet – were shortlisted to tender for the crucial project and that it will actually be a gap-funded investment whereby the winning consortia will own the national asset in 25 years time, because it will be 70pc cheaper that way.

A further bombshell was that 170,000 premises not included in the original plan will have to be accommodated, increasing the intervention footprint from 757,000 homes to 927,000 homes and businesses.

I warned in July that Ireland can have no margin for error, no more mistakes, if the plan is to get underway by June 2017.

Through the jigs and the reels

You can imagine my surprise when on Friday (30 September) the Irish Independent reported that Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, admitted that the project might be delayed once more and it could be close to the end of 2017 before people can type their Eircode into the database and find out when they will get their digital lifeline.

The blow is that, if this happens, it could be 2023 before the last fibre lights up a household in rural Ireland.

You could read into this in either of two ways: that there is a delay because it is a complex tendering process with a devilish amount of detail, or that building takes time and – even if contracts are awarded in June 2017 – it will still be later in the year before the first citizens on the wrong side of the digital tracks get online.

I immediately fired off questions to the Department of Communications and several hours later got a terse reply: “The Minister’s intention is to achieve the award of the contract(s) for the NBP in mid-2017. The minister and the department are in the middle of procurement dialogue with bidders and it is not appropriate to comment any further at this stage.”

I, for one, totally agree on that last point. Say nothing unless you’ve got something to say. Roll up your sleeves, stop sending out mixed signals and just get on with it. People are tired of waiting. They want progress.

‘It could be 2023 before the last fibre lights up a household in rural Ireland’

I could wallpaper my house with all the articles I’ve written down through the years about broadband and Ireland’s lamentable approach to it.

As a journalist, I can only report what companies or ministers say or claim, and I sympathise with people who get riled up when a telecoms company makes bold claims about the progress they are making (or not). Apart from consulting maps and databases or just putting on wellies to go and see trenches being dug on roadsides, we can only take these organisations’ word for it and reference or link back to the last claim and so on.

Sometimes, people can be angry or abusive in emails I receive, but it is understandable and their frustration palpable. I would say don’t shoot the messenger, but I am part of that message.

No dancing around the issue

Minister Naughten knows full well these issues first-hand, himself being a TD from the Roscommon-Galway constituency. He quite rightly referred to the National Broadband Plan’s impact as just as revolutionary as homes getting running water and electricity in the 20th century.

I would imagine his department would be quite sensitive to the negative PR that might arise if there is yet another delay to the National Broadband Plan. My advice: don’t be sensitive, just be honest. If there is a delay, or not, explain.

I know the officials who are working on the National Broadband Plan behind the scenes. I know they are committed, diligent and dedicated people who are working very, very hard to make it happen. I hope their professionalism is recognised and rewarded by a solid achievement.

It is a detailed and highly complex task that requires a lot of moving parts involving local authorities, highly competitive telcos and all the legals around ownership and payment. This is not to mention complying with stringent EU rules.

One slip and the whole thing could unravel.

It is a tense time. If the recent skirmishing at the National Ploughing Championships between Eir and SIRO over their courtship of the Irish Farmers’ Association is anything to go by, then the gloves are coming off behind the scenes.

But the plan must succeed. It is bigger than any government or company. It is about a people.

Remember, this is a plan that covers 96pc of the Republic of Ireland’s national landmass and some 100,000km of road network. It is the key to the economic future of over 1m people on this island. Local authorities, politicians and national infrastructure authorities all have a part to play.

If they care about their country and their fellow citizens, they will do everything they can to see the plan succeed. Bluntly put, it is their patriotic duty. Vested interests should fall by the roadside.

The National Broadband Plan is designed to be a silver bullet that will end Ireland’s broadband woes. Not only that, it will put rural Ireland at the forefront of European economies in terms of digital connectivity, paving a road of undreamed-of riches through entrepreneurship, education, culture, farm diversification and tourism.

We will get one shot, which means we have just this one silver bullet.

The plan cannot and must not fail.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com