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'It's fatally flawed': What the hell is going on with the shrinking National Broadband Plan?

Seven years after it was announced, there’s still little clarity on the cost – or the size – of the long-awaited rural broadband network.

THE TIMING WAS perfect, if not brazen.

Last week, within spitting distance of the scheduled signing of a reported 20,000-page contract to finally usher in work on the long-awaited National Broadband Plan, Eir called a press conference.

The company was ready to unveil plans to spend €500 million expanding its fibre-to-the-home broadband to reach 1.4 million homes and business.

Two days later, wireless specialist Imagine had an equally impressive-sounding announcement: a €300 million investment to bring fast broadband to more than 1 million premises.

Those plans offer the tantalising prospect of internet speeds befitting this century for hundreds of thousands of sites across rural and regional Ireland who would otherwise be waiting another half a decade for high-speed connections.

However, the announcements could also further derail a State broadband scheme for those in areas still effectively off the internet grid after years of waiting. 

The long wait

The National Broadband Plan, first announced in 2012, aims to bring high-speed internet to parts of the country – smaller towns and one-off homes – that are unlikely to be viable business prospects for commercial providers.

Its more recent iteration, unveiled in late 2015, involved around 750,000 premises in rural and regional areas being connected with download speeds of at least 30Mbps on a State-subsidised network by 2020.

This was reduced to around 540,000 premises in 2017 when Eir signed an agreement to provide potential fibre-to-the-home connections to 300,000 premises within the intervention area on a fully commercial basis.

Meanwhile, some previously excluded sites were added back onto the intervention list after planned private investments failed to materialise.

The plan has since been beset by delays and setbacks, including the withdrawal of Eir and rival broadband infrastructure giant Siro, a joint venture between Vodafone and ESB, from the bidding process.

US-based investment firm Granahan McCourt is the only firm still vying for the contract for the project, which it plans to build with a group of subcontractors. SSE had been part of its consortium, however the energy giant pulled out of the group in July.

A contract had been expected to be awarded last year, with then communications minister Denis Naughten – who eventually quit his ministerial post over a series of controversial meetings with Granahan McCourt chief David McCourt – saying the network should take three to five years to complete once the deal was signed. 

Kieran Harnett Granahan McCourt's David McCourt Source: Kieran Harnett

The government, however, has notably dropped the three-to-five year timeframe from its more recent public commentary about the plan.

Eir, which pulled out of the State-subsidised project in 2018 citing the complexity and inefficiency of the requirements, says it expects the full National Broadband Plan build to take up to seven years from when fibre starts to roll – a timeframe many industry figures privately agree is probably realistic.

The former State-owned outfit’s director of strategy and communications, Ed Storey, says that this estimate was based on the company’s “informed view”. 

“We are in the process of rolling out 335,000 premises and that’s taking us the guts of three years. And the more rural you get, the longer the route lengths, the longer the distances between houses,” he says.

That would push the potential completion date to mid-next decade, five years later than the government’s original target to have every property in the State – no matter how remote – on a high-speed connection.

Peter Evans, the director of wholesale and strategy for the Irish arm of British outfit BT, says he believes it won’t be until next year that the first homes on the National Broadband Plan are connected and another five years for the network to be completed.

“I think everyone agrees it’s taken longer than the industry would have wanted. But we definitely believe that high-speed broadband is essential for rural Ireland, to get people connected – to get businesses and consumers connected.” 

In the meantime, commercial operators like Eir and Imagine, which expressed an interest in bidding for the National Broadband Plan but had its application dismissed at an early stage, are stepping in to fill the broadband vacuum.

90393592_90393592 Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Cherry-picking

Already accused of cherry-picking the best sites from the National Broadband Plan intervention area, Eir recently revealed that it planned to reach another 85,000 premises currently included in the State-subsidised scheme.

While some of those sites may not be serviced for another five years, the announcement has led to concerns that the broadband scheme will be again delayed while the maps are redrawn – making it less attractive to investors, and needing a proportionately larger State subsidy.

For its part, Imagine says about three-quarters of the properties in the National Broadband Plan area – some 400,000 premises – fall within the scope of its rollout, which it hopes to complete within 18 months.

Both expansions raise the prospect of commercial operators competing directly with a taxpayer-subsidised alternative, opening up the National Broadband Plan to challenges for illegal state aid.

Storey says that Eir doesn’t plan to enter into another formal agreement with the government – as it did for the initial 300,000 homes removed from the National Broadband Plan area – but it doesn’t plan to challenge the State intervention area, even if it overlaps with its future network.

“We have no intention to interfere with the National Broadband Plan and whatever the government wants to do with that,” he says.

Imagine declined to comment on how its plans for 400,000 rural homes could affect the National Broadband Plan, other than to say it had been “engaging comprehensively” with the government since early 2018 and continued to do so.

Behind the scenes, however, providers are adopting a wait-and-see approach before throwing up any competition concerns. 

Nevertheless, there are those who believe years of delays to getting the National Broadband Plan under way has opened up the way to commercial operators to pick off the easiest-to-access areas – and threatened the long-term viability of the scheme for those still without high-speed services. 

Fianna Fáil has been calling for the tender process to be scrapped now that it is down to a sole bidder, and its communications spokesman Timmy Dooley says both Eir and Imagine capitalised on an opportunity created by the failure to award a contract much earlier.

“The longer that the government procrastinates and prevaricates, the more uncertainty that comes into the business model, the less viable that it becomes and ultimately the greater the cost will be on the State to provide broadband to those homes that will remain outside the ever-reducing intervention area,” he says.

There remains little clarity on how many homes and business will eventually be included in the plan, with government officials maintaining that the intervention area still stands  at 540,000 premises.

This is open to change, however, based on the announcement of new commercial plans or when promised private investment doesn’t materialise and sites are again in need of access to the State-backed network. 

fianna Fail 934_90538027 Fianna Fáil's Timmy Dooley Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

A billion-euro pricetag

With so much uncertainty hanging over the project’s size and scope, it is unsurprising that estimates of its ultimate cost to taxpayers have varied widely.

Original estimates put the pricetag to the State at around €500 million, the same sum pledged to the project by the European Investment Bank last year, however that has long since ballooned.

Industry sources contacted by TheJournal.ie put the cost of building the network at more than €1 billion for a major player with existing infrastructure in place, however others suggested the cost to Granahan McCourt could easily be double that amount.

Granahan McCourt declined to comment, citing the late stage of the contract-negotiation process.

The network will be owned by the bidder at the end of the contract, which will run for 25 years, although other details of the agreement are unclear – such as the extent to which its subsidy will depend on take-up of the scheme.

Eir previously reported that adoption rates on its rural network of the most commercially viable properties had been only 14%. It has since stopped publicly disclosing the figure.

Industry sources say providers would be banking on around double that rate of take-up over a longer period, although that may be complicated for rural areas that include a high proportion of holiday homes. 

A wireless solution

One mooted solution to speed up the project’s delivery – and potentially cut its cost – is to ditch the strategy of delivering fibre connections straight to properties on every bog and hillside in the country.

New-generation wireless technology, proponents say, could deliver the mandated speeds without laying out labour-intensive fibre-optic cables to isolated properties.

While fibre would still provide the spine of such a system, 5G-equipped masts would blast the final broadband signal to end users, who could be equipped with fixed wireless receivers to achieve decent download speeds.

3843196 Source: Graham Hughes/RollingNews.ie

David Russell, chief executive of wireless broadband provider Host Ireland, says fibre may have been the best solution for the National Broadband Plan when it was conceived in 2012 – but that was no longer the case with 4G and 5G solutions.

“We have a wonderful geography, but you have houses literally speckled across mountains and as part of the National Broadband Plan they all need to be connected up,” he says.

“The nature of fibre, the digging of the roads, the infrastructure has to be put in, is quite capital and time-intensive, which all creates problems.

“What we’re advocating is that fibre still becomes part of it but wireless joins into the equation and helps complete the rollout. The reason for that is that wireless can be rolled out so quickly, if you have the right infrastructure in place.” 

Others, however, say wireless is not a silver bullet to the rural broadband plan’s woes.

Telecoms consultant Geoff Shakespeare, Eircom’s former chief technical officer who worked with Enet on its initial pitch for the National Broadband Plan as part of what became Granahan McCourt’s bid, says fibre to the home is the best solution for building a system that could cater to users’ forever-increasing data demands.

“Mobile technologies, whether 4G or 5G, are good for getting connectivity out there quickly. If everybody doesn’t want to use it at the same time it can actually be quite good, but if everybody does want to use it at the same time it’s not so good,” he says.

“The solution that’s being put out, that underlying fibre, is very future-proofed. That fibre will be there in 100 years, and all that will happen is that you will change the lasers on either end of it.”   

As part of its plan to reach 1.1 million premises, Imagine is promising customers download speeds of up to 150Mbs – far in excess of the National Broadband Plan standard – although it has not guaranteed a minimum rate at times of peak demand.

For its part, Fianna Fáil, which has been propping up the government through its confidence-and-supply deal, is calling for the private-public model of the National Broadband Plan to be scrapped altogether and for ESB to be charged with building a country-wide fibre network. 

“For some time I have believed that the (tender) process was fatally flawed,” Dooley says.

“Some people will be delighted in getting (a commercial) service now, but that will further alienate and isolate those in rural Ireland that don’t have or won’t get broadband.”

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