National Broadband Plan to bring 1.8m Irish citizens across the digital divide

15 Jul 2015119 Shares

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Some 1.8m people - or 38pc of the population - who are on the wrong side of the digital divide will get connected from next year.

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The Irish Government has published its National Broadband Plan which will bring 38pc of the population currently on the wrong side of the digital into the 21st century with 30Mbps speeds and higher. By 2018, 85pc of Irish citizens will have high-speed broadband.

The plan sets the stage for telecoms players including Eircom, ESB, BT, Vodafone, UPC, E-net, Imagine and many others to bid for all or part of the project.

Communications Minister Alex White emphasised that the National Broadband Plan is critical and will underpin future digital initiatives by the Irish State.

“There is no point in rolling out digital education or e-health services unless every citizen in the country can avail of broadband.”

A tendering process will begin in December with the successful bidder or bidders rolling out the new broadband from the middle of 2016.

Telecom operators who bid for the project will need to be able to ensure minimum download speeds of 30Mbps, minimum upload speeds of 6Mpbs, two-way latency of no more than 50 milliseconds, jitter of no more than 50 milliseconds, packet loss of no more than 0.1pc and service availability of 99.95pc.

It is envisaged that the new network will be future-proofed for 20 years.

The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources anticipates the plan will result in 85pc of premises in Ireland having high-speed broadband by 2018 and 100pc by 2020.

Ireland’s digital divide

The plan was initially revealed last year and was costed at €512m. However, officials at the Department of Communications say the emphasis is on value for money and the overall outlay – provided under EU State Aid – may be a lot lower, possibly as low as €300m.

The plan is to connect 600,000 homes and 100,000 businesses to high-speed broadband by any means possible – fibre over electricity and telecoms poles, wireless.

However, it will ensure that 100pc of the population will be served with future-proofed broadband services by 2020.

‘There is no point in rolling out digital education or e-health services unless every citizen in the country can avail of broadband’
– MINISTER ALEX WHITE

There is no point in rolling out digital education or e-health services unless every citizen in the country can avail of broadband

Currently over 1.8m citizens – 38pc of the population – are in the rural areas not served by commercial broadband services.

This includes 688,000 members of the active labour force, out of which 214,000 are white-collar workers and 139,000 are farmers.

The National Broadband Plan aims to address 96pc of the national landmass, and includes 100,000km of road network.

Caught on the wrong side of the digital divide are 38pc of the working population.

Also on the wrong side of the divide are 7pc of business parks such as Udaras Na Gaeltachta parks, some 1,522 primary schools (40pc of all primary schools in Ireland) and over 63,440 non-farm businesses such as B&Bs, doctors, shops and SMEs.

The plan coincides with an accelerated rollout of fibre by Eircom, which has committed to bringing fibre to 1.9m premises by 2020, UPC which can provide fibre to over 750,000 homes as well as the arrival of SIRO, a joint venture between Vodafone and ESB, which plans to bring speeds of between 200Mbps and 1Gbps to 500,000 premises in 50 towns.

Catherine Licken, an official at the Department of Communications who is leading the project, said that the plan is the result of over 150 meetings with 60 different operators and stakeholders as well a detailed mapping process in order to unlock EU funding.

Criteria

Her colleague Fergal Mulligan explained that operators who bid for the contract will not only have to meet certain criteria but they will be scored on areas like ability to keep in step with broadband speeds in urban areas.

The plan divides Ireland into three horizontal strips and operators can bid for either all of the plan or some of the territories.

The operator or operators who win the contract with the government will have to provide access to the new networks on a wholesale basis.

“Joe Public will pay no more than their urban counterpart,” Mulligan said. “Prices will be maintained at the national average.”

The contract will be designed in such a way that if an operator builds part of the network at a lower cost the Exchequer will absorb the saving.

“Competition will be the key and all operators from large providers to regional wireless ISPs (WISPs) will be allowed to access the network on equal terms.

In this way today’s wireless ISP could be tomorrow’s fibre provider.

The three horizontal zones will be split evenly by population.

Quality of the broadband provided will be constantly monitored and Mulligan said that operators who fail to deliver what they are contracted to provide will find payment of funds withheld.

The tendering process will be designed in such a way that the operators will be able to suggest different outcomes in terms of ownership of the network after 20 years. For example, the provider and government could hold equity stakes in the network, it could be owned entirely by either the government or the operator.

“There are a number of different contingencies in terms of the nature of the overall contract. It could be provided on a gap-funded basis, for example, or there could be equity ownership. At its simplest, we estimate that if the State wanted to own the asset it would be more expensive in the long run.”

Mulligan said that the preferred option is that it is delivered on commercial stimulus basis as subsidies towards the company or companies building the network.

He said that the project will also be valuable to telecoms companies in terms of the investment climate. “Investors like Blackstone and other fund houses are very interested in this type of infrastructure. As well as this commercial companies can borrow for infrastructure projects under the EU’s Juncker Plan.”

Asked if there is a danger the National Broadband Plan could be derailed if there is a change of government, Communications Minister Alex White TD said that that will not be the case.

“This is work that will have to be done by whoever is in Government. If it is not done now then no Government will be able to deliver this to the standard that people deserve.”

Rural Ireland image via Shutterstock

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com