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.
The NBP was announced back in 2012 by the then Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte. The plan was to bring broadband speeds of 30Mbps download and 6Mbps 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.
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.
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 500mbps, 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.
Will the National Broadband Plan ever be delivered? Do you have trouble accessing high-speed broadband in your area? Get in touch as we love hearing from you. Comment below, tweet us @bonkers_ie or get in touch with us on Facebook.
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