Reading between the lines on the National Broadband Plan

11 Sep 2017

Image: Simon Burt/Shutterstock

The public needs reassurance that the National Broadband Plan will deliver and it needs to know when, writes John Kennedy.

On a sunny Monday morning just like this one way back in 2001, as an earnest young magazine editor, I was summoned by senior brass at Eir – then Eircom – to the then HQ on Stephen’s Green. Distinguished-looking people in pinstripes gathered excitedly around a table with a computer on it, giddy as science students about to reveal an experiment.

The big reveal was DSL (digital subscriber line) and, at the time, it would deliver about 1Mbps broadband. Ireland was about a year behind the rest of the international curve. Cheekily, I asked them to play a video. (Remember: this was four years before YouTube.) We were immediately hit with a buffering error. Awkward. On the third go, enough data came down the pipe and it worked. To everyone’s relief, it seemed.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but it might have been an omen.

‘Telecoms is a costly, competitive and complex business. There are a lot of good minds focused on delivering what has become a complex, ambitious – but nevertheless, vitally important – endeavour’

What followed since was a myriad of different owners of the national incumbent operator, Eir. Challenger brand BT ploughed tens of millions of euros into unbundling a handful of telecoms exchanges only to exit residential in 2009 after signing a €4.8m deal with Vodafone that saw the transfer of BT’s consumer telephone and broadband base of 84,000 consumers, as well as 3,000 small businesses. A Government plan to cover rural Ireland in 3G only revealed 3G to ultimately be unfit for purpose for rural broadband needs. Operators couldn’t access ducts beneath motorways to connect towns and cities. And on and on it went. One speed bump or pothole after another.

And then, in 2012, then Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte revealed that the State was no longer going to dilly-dally on the issue. A top-down investment supported by the EU would future-proof Ireland for decades. At a press conference, he placed on the table what appeared to be a fibre cable sheathed in protective material that could bring broadband down along roads and over fields using telephone and electricity poles.

Over the next two to three years, the National Broadband Plan was formulated, potentially affecting the economic and social future of 1.8m citizens – including 688,000 members of the labour force, 80,000 farms and 62,000 SMEs.

The National Broadband Plan is a complex enterprise

Telecoms is a costly, competitive and complex business. When it comes to the National Broadband Plan, there are a lot of good minds focused on delivering what has become a complex, ambitious – but nevertheless, vitally important – endeavour.

They serve many entities: shareholders, the EU, the government. But, if you ask me, it is all about the citizens.

My cards are on the table. I want the National Broadband Plan to succeed. Ireland needs it. The world is watching and it could unlock billions of euros worth of economic potential for generations to come. Many countries have failed national broadband strategies and many are now looking to Ireland as a testbed for getting it right. And so, a lot is riding on this.

I am not a critic, a crank or a cynic. My heart is invested in this because I believe in it. I live in the countryside. I know people and I am related to people who are missing out on the economic potential of broadband, just as surely as the present Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, who hails from rural Roscommon, is, too.

Naughten is the latest in a succession of ministers who have all vied for having the honour of being at the helm when this plan – the equivalent of rural electrification in the 1950s – begins.

The issue is that, reading between the lines, we are at an impasse. The plan was due to be announced in June this year, and that is held up for reasons not disclosed. Three players have been shortlisted: Eir, Siro and Enet. But no contract winners have been announced. The plan, already delayed, may not begin until later this year or early next year, meaning that the final people to get broadband may not do so until 2023 or even 2024.

The plan has already been changed through a deal between Eir and the Irish Government, giving Eir access to 300,000 homes. The good news is that Eir will move fast to connect these rural homes to fibre by 2018. The bad news (for the National Broadband Plan) is that the other shortlisted providers may be peeved and there have already been suggestions in the media that Siro, a joint venture between ESB and Vodafone, is considering withdrawing as a bidder.

A document – a Freedom of Information request – emerged recently and was reported here and in the wider media last week, indicating from internal Department of Communications documents that the cost of providing broadband in intervention areas as a subsidy could be 60pc higher, based on regulated wholesale prices. At cost price, this could mean a subsidy of 10pc to 15pc, but how Eir – as a private company with investors who want a return on their investment – could or would agree to this is anybody’s guess.

Sources in the telecoms world suggest that the plan – envisaged in such a way to ensure clear ownership of the network once it is built, fair wholesale access and avoidance of legal beefs or tribunals – is becoming complex and unwieldy.

Last week, Enet revealed that it plans to invest €100m with SSE to build fibre broadband in rural areas of Galway, Roscommon and Donegal, in a move that could create 700 contractor jobs at peak delivery. This is good news in terms of competition, but, because the investment is targeting towns where Eir is already active, it is still no silver bullet for rural broadband.

And what of Siro? Wasn’t legislation passed to enable a joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone to ensure that the ESB network could be used to facilitate fibre delivery? Where is the ESB in this?

More than anything, the public needs answers about where the National Broadband Plan is at. They don’t want sound bites, they don’t want to see PR photos, they don’t want hyperbole on the radio.

They want answers. But, most of all, they just want to get connected.

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