2018 saw some massive setbacks for the National Broadband Plan, but 2019 will prove to be a decisive year for the scheme as less than 12 months remain if the infrastructure is to be delivered on time.
It was a challenging close to the year for Leo Varadkar’s Government after the Taoiseach was quoted seemingly defending vulture funds. But another long used stick to beat his Government with, the National Broadband Plan (NBP), has seemingly gone through setback after setback.
Few more pertinent examples exist that more clearly illustrate the rural-city divide in terms of services than the issue of high-speed broadband and the National Broadband Plan. So today we're going to take a look at some of the key developments in the story and see where we are.
So what is the National Broadband Plan?
The NBP was announced back in 2012 by the then Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte. The plan was to bring broadband speeds of 30Mb/s download and 6Mb/s upload by 2020 to 840,000 homes in rural Ireland.
That figure was cut to 540,000 homes after Eir agreed to provide 300,000 of these locations with fibre broadband itself.
The plan is said to cost in the region of €1.5 - €3 billion to deliver.
A bad 2018
Last year saw the then Minister for Communications Denis Naughten resigning after it was revealed that he had held private meetings with bidders Granahan McCourt.
This was after Eir pulled out of the bidding earlier in the year, citing complexity in the tendering process, as well as uncertainty on a range of topics, and Siro, the joint venture of ESB and Vodafone, who pulled out in 2017.
Though a final investigation showed that Naughten didn't unduly influence the tendering process, this left only one tender on the table, from aforementioned US firm Granahan McCourt, who have close ties to Ireland's own Denis O'Brien's Actavo.
The only bid left on the table at the moment is from Granahan McCourt. A consortium consisting of Actavo, KN Group, Kelly Group, Enet and Nokia.
Ireland is not the only country having some issues when it comes to delivering rural broadband. The UK and Germany have both had to ditch their own plans recently to upgrade rural networks.
Unfortunately there is generally a reason why private companies haven't already put this infrastructure into place; it's difficult to implement and it's not always cost effectvie for suppliers to deliver. So perhaps it's only natural that the NBP would enounter difficulties.
What happens if it doesn't go ahead?
The Taoiseach in July said he was confident that the NBP would roll out on time, however just before Christmas he pushed back the date on the announcement to this month, leaving less than 11 months to deliver the project on time.
While the most likely case is that the tender from Granahan McCourt will be accepted, it's still worth thinking about worst case scenarios. The most obvious of which would be that the Government could reject the only remaining tender should it fail to meet the NBP requirements.
This would mean that the contingency would be to rely on 5G networks, which are currently being trialled across the country. Vodafone currently has a head start here, as it's already trialling services, with Eir and Three carrying out trials at some point in 2019.
While this would be an improvement with speeds of up to 500Mb/s, many regard it as “complementary” to rural broadband rollout rather than a replacement for fibre.
The fallout from the NBP debacle could be a mistake Leo’s cabinet comes to rue as some predict a failure to announce a coherent plan could collapse the brittle power sharing agreement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.
It already appears that the State, no matter what happens, will not own the infrastructure, and it seems that 2019 will tell us for sure if the plan is dead on arrival.
*Updated Monday 18.02.19*
The NBP continues to unfold against the backdrop of spiralling costs for the National Children's Hospital and the continued uncertainty with regards to Brexit. However, the more information that comes out about the plan, the less that seems clear.
As we have seen the process has been complicated by some dissent in relation to how the contract would be awarded, and now it looks like new developments are undermining the viability of the project even further.
Up in the Eir
Eir last week announced it would be substantially investing in a new fibre broadband roll-out. The provider is promising to invest €500 million into running fibre-optic cables past homes and business in underserved areas.
Residents can then choose to opt to connect to the cables, bringing FTTH into their own buildings, boasting speeds of up to 10Gb/s.
In the next five-year period Eir has pledged to run cables past 1.4 million homes, although most will be in cities and towns.
Which is not great news for the homes in “urban in-fill” areas - a euphemistic term for those living in towns and villages that have poor connectivity to broadband - although in the latest investment announced by Eir it says it will connect 80,000 homes in these locations.
The NBP had earmarked 540,000 of these homes around the country under the scheme. A large swathe of which will also have another option...
While some can’t figure out how to get enough fibre-optic cables to the people of rural Ireland, some think the answer doesn't involve fibre at all. In comes Imagine.
Last week saw Imagine announce it was going to build a high-speed broadband network over the next 18 months which will have the potential to reach over one million homes and businesses.
However rather than building new infrastructure, Imagine proposes to use infrastructure already in testing, 5G. Yes the network your phone will run on in the future. Their €350-million plan is to install signal boxes at various rural locations, which can pick up fast, 5G signals from phone masts.
While some are skeptical it will be this straightforward, this would provide speeds of up to 150Mb/s, far in excess of the speeds promised under the NDP. Of the aforementioned one million homes and businesses to be covered, 400,000 will be in areas earmarked for the NBP.
Which means of the 540,000 needing cover, Eir promises to cover 80,000 and Imagine is to cover 400,000.
Which leads many to ask the next question…
Does the NBP even make sense any more?
If the two pockets of people that these private companies will offer services to don’t overlap, it means 480,000 of the 540,000 needing cover will get it. Leaving only 60,000 for whoever wins the contract. If they do overlap completely then it’s a maximum of 140,000 premises needing cover.
Will that be enticing enough for the one remaining tender from Granahan McCourt to remain in the running?
Does it make sense for the Government to still offer a subsidy to such a small scheme?
Will it be allowed under EU rules?
All of these questions are still yet to be answered, and with Brexit and the spiralling costs of the National Children’s Hospital, it’s anyone's guess as to how Leo Varadkar’s Government will tackle it, or whether it will be them at all.
So what do you think?
Do you have trouble accessing high-speed broadband in your area? Will the National Broadband Plan ever be delivered?
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