Siro quits National Broadband Plan, expect more to follow

Sean Atkinson, Siro
Sean Atkinson, Siro

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26 September 2017 | 0

Wholesale broadband provider Siro has quit the National Broadband Plan, citing a lack of a compelling business case to justify its participation in the tendering process. This leaves applications from a consortium led by enet-SSE and eir to go forward for consideration.

According to a statement, the decision by the Vodafone/ESB joint venture to remove itself from consideration comes as it continues a 450 million investment programme connecting regional areas to 1Gb/s broadband.

The Siro Gigabit Towns project has delivered fibre-to-the-building connectivity to 100,000 homes and business across the country – including the new Ludgate Hub, where connectivity has been responsible for the creation of hundreds of jobs in Skibereen over the next five years.

An official statement by the company expressed disappointment at the decision. Siro CEO Sean Atkinson said the company said the decision was “not taken lightly” but the company would continue with its expansion plan regardless.

The sentiment was echoed by Vodafone boss Anne O’Leary, who talked up the “clear commercial demand for gigabit connectivity across regional Ireland”. ESB chief executive Pat O’Doherty also weighed in, confirming that the goal of connecting 500,000 premises in 50 towns across the country would be unaffected by the decision.

A disappointing decision by the network operator? On paper, yes. Markets need competition, other you are left with the situation we had in the mid-00s when telcos talked about ‘co-opetition’ – effectively an excuse to avoid expansion into areas of the country with limited commercial potential.

Stephen Wheeler, managing director of SSE Ireland, had a different view in a statement issued yesterday evening. “SSE welcomes reaching today’s significant milestone in the ongoing procurement process that allows our consortium to submit our ‘detailed solution’ to the Dept [of Communications] and we look forward to participating in the next stage of the process.”

Ancient history
In 2015 I covered Siro’s pilot project in Cavan town, where homes were enjoying 1Gb/s connectivity via fibre delivered over the ESB’s network. At the time talk was divided between the potential of the new high-speed network and the role of public sector support in the form of a new National Broadband Plan. About the former there was excitement, the latter was met with a ‘wait and see’.

Well we waited, saw nothing and now Siro is out. And they won’t be the first to withdraw their interest, either. Whether through lack of interest or general frustration, I would be surprised if it wasn’t a case of ‘last man standing’ when the contract to plug the digital divide is finally awarded. Finally.

Let’s be clear, this move has little to do with commercial viability – it’s about reminding us that a) there is a National Broadband Plan and b) two years after the original consultation period ended and more than a year after the tendering process was to be completed we don’t have a winning proposal.

You have to wonder why would a company announce it was pulling out of a process that’s so far behind schedule?

The answer is simple: the National Broadband Plan doesn’t actually exist. Good luck eir and enet-SSE, but don’t expect a decision any time soon.

There was life in it at one stage but the market has moved on and regional operators are forging ahead with connectivity plans delivering speeds far in excess of the 30Mb/s promised by government way back when. In theory it’s job done without a cent handed out in subsidies. If you were a network provider wouldn’t you be annoyed while successive ministers for communications sat back and let technology take its course?

The NBP is a zombie process. Pulling out so publicly not only draws attention to its failure, it gives Siro a chance to publicly restate its mission with a politely worded statement, knowing the move is entirely consequence-free.

It’s a clever move. You have to wonder why it wasn’t made earlier.

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