The Interview: Alex White, TD, Ireland’s Minister for Communications

13 Feb 2015

Alex White, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources

Digital will define the industrial and economic policy of Ireland for the next decade, says Alex White, TD, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, as the National Broadband Plan takes shape.

It’s a little strange calling it a plan, since the National Broadband Plan is still pretty much in a state of evolution.

But, according to White, the very first citizens in areas deprived of broadband will receive their first proper, fibre-based broadband service in 2016, with the last rural recipients getting fibre broadband by 2020.

While for many people – about 70pc of the population on cue to receive world class broadband services from commercial telecoms operators – this might sound far out, but the scale of what is being attempted will place Ireland at the forefront of Europe, if not the world, in getting to grips with a very real problem.

In the Ireland of 2015 it is unrealistic to even attempt to apply for a job or run a functioning business without having broadband connectivity and yet currently hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses don’t have this vital service and are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

This divide might seem technological, but in a very real sense it is depriving people of social and economic opportunities.

The National Broadband Plan – which is a once-and-for-all attempt to nail the problem and give 600,000 homes and 100,000 businesses the minimum of 30Mbps broadband speeds – is far-reaching, chiefly because there is an emphasis on fibre and the network being technologically neutral.

While it represents 30pc of the premises in Ireland – commercial operators have committed to delivering broadband to 68pc or 2.3m premises by 2016 – it is a mammoth undertaking, because serving 30pc of premises involves traversing 96pc of the land mass of Ireland, or the equivalent of dragging fibre across 100,000km of roads.

Financially the National Broadband Plan could cost around €516m, but even that has yet to be fully confirmed and the financing of the plan depends on the purse-holders at the European Investment Bank.

Yesterday was the deadline for submissions by interested parties on the mapping exercise. This will inform the planners at the Department of Communications and various advisors including Mason Hayes & Curran, PWC, KPMG and Analysys Mason about the size of the task ahead, the technologies at play and ultimately the decision-making process, the tendering process and the eventual winner (or winners) of the tender.

Ask anyone associated with the plan and the refrain “we want to get this right, we have once chance” will be heard again and again.

The intervention

By next year 2016 the very first people in broadband-deprived areas will be receiving their first proper broadband services.

“My hope and aspiration is that the last person will be reached by 2020,” Minister White said.

“It is a project that will take the order of three to five years to build out and we will have shovels in the ground by next year. 2019 is possible, but our best estimate is 2020 is achievable and at the same time realistic for the very last person to be connected to fibre. Worst case scenario is 2021.”

White said that while 30Mbps is the bare minimum download speed covered in the plan, because the network will be fibre and because it is going to be technologically neutral, the intervention by the State will mean that commercial operators could ratchet this up using G.Fast and GPON technologies to even higher speeds.

Minister White pointed out that while for years people have been clamouring for faster and faster broadband speeds, the reality is the conversation is just over a decade or so old and he posits that it is only now that the technologies have made it possible to attempt this undertaking.

“People were talking lots of different source of technology going back 10 years ago, but now we’ve got this literally reliable, future proofed technology so we are able to up our ambition and that’s what we’ve done. We’ve actually scaled up our ambition. Even in the last six months, and certainly in the last year we’ve managed to now be able to say that we could deliver this for everybody in the country.”

As the National Broadband Plan is delivered White says he is also anticipating a lot of frustration from people who live nearby areas that will be served with fibre before them. “As something comes closer but doesn’t quite reach you it will add to frustrations, no doubt. But the prize is knowing that it will actually reach you.”

He conceded his department and the Government will have a job of managing expectations.

“People around the country say they love the plan but is there nothing we can do in the interim to give them the connectivity they crave? And the answer really is no.

“We hope that the private sector can serve areas of the country it has committed to and the more it serves the better, but I don’t want to misrepresent this project in any way, I don’t want to oversell it or undersell it.

“The time lines are realistic but people are going to have to realise it will take enormous patience, some considerable patience.

“But I think it is absolutely realistic to say we will see the first delivery of fibre-based broadband under the National Broadband Plan by 2016.”

A lot of moving parts

Ireland’s unique geography and demographics mean a lot of people live in rural areas which is the whole reason for the National Broadband Plan being devised. The mainstream broadband providers serve primarily in towns and cities, but have undertaken to achieve 68pc of the population by 2016.

In fairness to the commercial operators they are pressing ahead with relevant high-speed services. Eircom has surpassed 1.1m homes with 100Mbps broadband and plans to connect 66 towns to 1Gbps services. UPC has claimed to currently have the fastest broadband service in Ireland at 240Mbps. Meanwhile both Vodafone and ESB have been given the green light from Europe to create a €450m 100pc fibre network in Ireland which will connect over 500,000 premises in 50 towns during its first phase.

Ultimately, the purpose of the National Broadband Plan is to act as an intervention, a stimulus to encourage providers to go even further and serve the places they previously couldn’t commercially justify.

“30Mbps is just a minimum requirement. The technologically neutral aspect of the network means other providers can plug in. When I first came into this office I used to raise an eyebrow at the phrase ‘future-proofed’ (it sounded like ‘state-of-the-art or ‘world class’), but it actually does have real meaning because fibre can take the upgrade. So we could be starting with 30Mbps but in a few years we could be talking 1Gbps. Why not?

“For me 30Mbps is a minimum. We shouldn’t have differential levels of service in one part of the country versus another. Rural versus urban. In order to run a business today you need to be able to download and upload content unimpeded.”

The digital economy is the real economy

Minister for Communications Alex White with World Word Two RAF Spitfire pilot and internet skills trainee Bernard O’Connor at an event at the Digital Hub Dublin in December where White announced €)540,000 in training funds to help 12,000 people develop basic internet skills

Before leaving office, former Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, rightly pointed out that telecoms infrastructure, unlike other areas, had been ignored. He said Ireland spent €17.5bn on its roads between 2002 and 2012 and virtually nothing on telecoms infrastructure.

White is adamant that the same mistakes are avoided, especially when it is clear that the digital economy is connected to everything.

“If we talk about the industrial and economic policy of Ireland into the next generation, it is no exaggeration to say that the digital strategy – and broadband is a key part of this – is the industrial policy of the next decade.

“It is absolutely going to be the foundation of business, whether large or small, whether agriculture or software or science, and it definitely is critical to the future area of energy consumption.”

He said first world digital infrastructure in every part of Ireland will play a key role in reviving the economies of towns and villages and in turn their social fabric.

“Because of the recession these communities have been under real pressure. But if we have strong, robust connectivity people can work from home, start businesses in the community and this could be transformational.

“It is vital to economic development and a good quality of life where families can actually live where they want to live because they can connect at the speed of the world, build businesses, study, learn and do a host of things they can’t do currently without jumping in a car to drive to the nearest town.

“It will potentially open up a new horizon of social, cultural and intellectual activity that people don’t realise,” Minister White concluded.

So as we wait for the first strands of the new fibre network for Ireland to be lit, there are indeed a lot of moving parts. But as White and his advisors have pointed out, we have but one chance to get this right.

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