The National Broadband Plan aims to deliver high-speed broadband to over 500,000 premises in Ireland but has been beset by delays and controversies.
The National Broadband Plan (NBP) is one of the biggest infrastructure projects being undertaken by the Government right now. And some have said it's the modern day equivalent of the electrification of rural Ireland in the 1940s. Though it sometimes feels as if it's taking twice as long and costing numerous times as much!
So where exactly are we with the project and when can we expect it to be delivered?
What is the National Broadband Plan?
The NBP was originally announced way back in 2012 by the then Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte.
The objective of the plan is to bring high-quality, pure fibre broadband to around 540,000 homes and businesses in largely rural parts of Ireland which don't currently have access to a good internet connection.
Pure fibre broadband is considered the 'gold standard' of broadband as it doesn't rely on old, copper cables for any of the network. Instead it uses a high-speed, fibre optic cable for all of the connection.
The plan was originally to include over 800,000 premises but this number was scaled back after Eir, somewhat controversially, decided to provide 300,000 of these locations with fibre broadband itself.
The plan is being rolled out by National Broadband Ireland (NBI).
How much will the project cost?
The plan will cost around €2.5 billion to deliver.
This might seem expensive but unlike similar plans in other countries, when the NBP has been fully rolled out, practically every single home and business in the entire country will have access to a high-speed, pure fibre broadband connection. Other countries have either excluded large sections of hard-to-reach homes from their plans, or relied extensively on less reliable, wireless alternatives.
The NBP has been beset with controversies from the outset. Mind you, as the building of the National Children's Hospital and the delays to Dublin's Metro have shown, it's almost impossible to build anything in Ireland without delays, cost over runs and controversies.
In 2018 the then Minister for Communications Denis Naughten had to resign after it was revealed that he had held private meetings with one of the bidders Granahan McCourt.
This was after Eir pulled out of the bidding earlier that year, citing complexity in the tendering process, as well as uncertainty on a range of topics. Siro, the joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone, had already 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.
When details of the final plan were announced, some argued that the project should have relied more on wireless, 5G broadband, especially for more hard to reach, rural areas, to help reduce the cost to taxpayers.
The Irish Government's plans are somewhat unique in that they aim to use pure fibre, fixed-line broadband for the vast majority of connections. However, as mentioned, this is regarded as being the 'gold standard' for broadband and will also future proof the network so it seems unfair to criticise the Government over this.
It should be noted that the final plan still involves Eir indirectly as some of its infrastructure is being rented (for a considerable sum) to reach the most remote premises.
That Irish taxpayers are paying to rent infrastructure that was originally laid down and owned by the State has sat uneasy with some.
Current delays and more controversy
Since the NBP finally got approval and began rolling out two years ago, it's been beset by delays. Although the Covid pandemic obviously hasn't helped.
Over 100,000 premises were supposed to have been passed by the end of January 2022. This was then reduced to 60,000 towards the middle of last year when it became clear the figure would not be reached.
However fewer than 40,000 premises have been passed to date, according to NBI, and it will take until March to reach the revised, lower target of 60,000. The aim is still to have the vast majority of premises connected by 2026.
In recent months there has also been controversy around the terms and conditions of the contract, whether it represents good value for taxpayers, as well as complaints that the Government stumped up too much money compared to the private consortium that is managing the rollout.
What speeds can people expect?
The entry-level speeds will be 500Mbps for downloading and 50Mbps for uploading.
However the NBI has recently confirmed that speeds of up to to 2,000Mbps or 2Gbps will be available for households which want to upgrade.
This is a far cry from the 30Mbps download speeds that were part of the original plan and speeds of well under 10Mbps which many premises in rural Ireland can currently get.
Who will sell it and what will it cost?
Around 50 retailers have signed up to sell broadband products on the back of the NBP rollout. So consumers won't be short of choice!
These include Digiweb, Eir, IFA Telecom, Magnet, Pure Telecom, Sky, Vodafone, and Westnet.
Prices will vary depending on the supplier but Digiweb is currently offering a 500Mbps package for €29.95 per month for three months (€54.95 per month for the balance of the 12-month contract) and €59.95 per month thereafter.
When will I be connected?
To find out when your home or business is estimated to be ready for connection, click here and then enter your Eircode or address to search.
The NBI regularly updates its website to show the latest estimated connection dates though they are subject to change.
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.
Imagine is currently rolling out its own high-speed broadband network which will have the potential to reach over one million homes and businesses.
However rather than laying fibre cables, Imagine is using existing 5G infrastructure. Yes, the network your phone is running on.
Imagine promises speeds of up to 150Mbps. Of the aforementioned one million homes and businesses to be covered, almost 400,000 will be in areas earmarked for the NBP.
To lean more about Imagine's plans as well as the pros and cons of 5G wireless broadband, see here.
Are there other alternative options?
If you're stuck waiting for the NBP to deliver, you could try mobile broadband.
Mobile broadband allows you to access the internet via the 4G or 5G network operated by mobile operators, usually through a small router plugged into your wall into which you insert a special SIM. Speeds of between 10Mbps and 30Mbps are widely possible with a 4G network for as little as €15 to €30 a month. And with 5G now being rolled out, speeds up to 10 times faster are possible
Some providers like 3 Ireland offer the choice of a rolling, 30-day plan or a contract between 18 and 24 months.
Depending on the plan, the router might be included too.
The beauty of mobile broadband is that you can take the router, and thereby the WI-FI, with you wherever you go. But remember, if you've got a patchy signal on your phone back home, it'll probably be true for your mobile broadband too as it's using the same network. And if you decide to go with a flexible, 30-day rolling contract you'll likely have to pay for the router yourself, which could set you back around €150.
Also, mobile broadband is never as fast and reliable as fixed broadband so is rarely suitable for homes with more than two people.
Is the National Broadband Plan worth it?
When assessing the merits or value of the NBP it's important to remember that no large-scale project in recent times in Ireland has ever been delivered without delays or controversy.
The Dublin Port Tunnel, the Luas, the second terminal at Dublin Airport, the Poolbeg Incinerator and the National Aquatic Centre were all highly controversial at the time and accused of being 'white elephants' or too expensive.
All these projects have proven to be wildly successful and today form a vital part of the country's infrastructure.
A decent broadband connection is an essential modern utility. It's essential to allow people to work from home and important to enable rural areas to attract jobs.
In time the delays and controversies around the project will likely be forgotten and the project will be judged on its merits alone.
So what do you think?
Do you have trouble accessing high-speed broadband in your area? Do you think the NBP represents good value?
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