National Broadband Plan ditches own roadmap

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27 April 2016 | 0

Niall Kitson portraitA few months ago I was invited to contribute to a national radio talk show on the subject of broadband. In conversation with a producer I outlined my long-held view that the worst decision ever made by the state was in dealing with the privatisation of eircom as both a carrier and a network infrastructure provider. It was my contention, and still is, that this move led to a dark age where telecommunications was treated as a commodity when, in fact, they are a utility as vital as electricity and water.

Thanks to increased competition and the advent of fibre networks that message has found some purchase but the rules of the free market do not work for all. Having a population of more than 1 million people makes Dublin an attractive territory for many operators, small rural communities are still suffering with dial-up speeds and poor 3G connectivity. This Digital Divide has massive social and economic consequences, leading to the funnelling away of business and talent to the cities.

It’s an issue the state has tried to tackle before with the first national broadband plan in the late 00s with modest success. Then, mobile operator Three won the tender to develop a 3G broadband network accessible through mobile dongles, promising speeds up to 7Mb/s.

Now it’s a new day. The EU’s Digital Single Market vision sees a baseline of 30Mb/s accessible for all by 2020 and it’s a goal the state has taken to with gusto. In the meantime players like eir and Siro are rolling out ‘fibre to the building’ networks capable of delivering 1Gb/s outside Dublin – targeting underserved parts of the country. There’s even hope for remote areas with the release of €150 million in funds from the EU and the state for a new National Broadband Plan.

Happy days.

Not quite. This week eir released a statement noting the Department’s decision not to award the tender for an extended broadband network. For the moment, the money is being sat on and it’s up to industry to decide whether to narrow the Digital Divide without public sector support.

According to a Department statement issued 31 March, of the five applicants vying for the 25-year contract none met the criteria for deployment, service, futureproofing and delivery laid out in its revised strategy from December 2015. The next stage is to invite the shortlisted companies for further consultation in June.

“Based on our extensive procurement planning, the granting of an earlier industry request for an extension to the PQQ [pre-qualification questionnaire] submission deadline and the number of responses received, it is now envisaged that the Department will not be in a position to award a contract until 2017. This is a delay, potentially of a few months, to the actual procurement process.  It is still planned to commence the build as soon as possible in 2017 with the majority of premises being addressed within three years.”

So, no announcement until next year but no big, that’s probably only a few months off target. Sounds a bit optimistic to me.

Still, as with that other utility I refuse to mention there are other hurdles to be overcome at government level. Ibec director of policy Fergal O’Brien put it well: “The delay will disappoint those communities affected, but it is encouraging to hear that the matter remains a key priority of the Department… Several major decisions connected with the National Broadband Plan will need cabinet approval. This underlines the need for the resolution of ongoing negotiations on the formation of the next government and the creation of a stable environment for policy making and legislation.”

Operational issues
From an operator’s perspective it seems little has changed. Eir, the biggest player in the market, has said it will be continuing its work regardless of the status of its application, expecting to connect 1.6 million premises – including 300,000 it classes as being in rural areas – by June this year.

“It’s very much business as usual for enet and the comprehensive international team we have assembled for the National Broadband Plan bid,” said Conal Henry, CEO of enet. “Following submission of our PQQ response document in March, we remain engaged with the Department as they work through the necessary stages of the procurement process… We will also continue to invest in the development of our own fibre networks.”

It should be noted that not every major operator in the state is even part of the tendering process. Virgin Media, for example, did not apply.

Unfortunately where the Department is urging for quality control and operators appearing indifferent to the prospect of a massive windfall, the consumer is once again stuck in the middle, often with no choice but to wait for the sole telco in their area to upgrade. Eoin Clarke, managing director of independent price comparison website Switcher.ie, said: “The National Broadband Plan is ambitious and, if successful, will make a massive difference to homes and business across the country… Terrible speeds can isolate people and take their toll on businesses, schools, even house prices. The latest news that the contract for the National Broadband Plan will not be awarded until 2017 is very disappointing. The delay will affect thousands of consumers and businesses across the country who were promised access to better broadband.”

I never did get that radio spot, by the way. Apparently I wasn’t negative enough.

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