Saturday 10 December 2016

A land of confusion over broadband rollout in Ireland

Published 02/06/2016 | 02:30

There are lots of things Ireland could do to speed up its rural broadband rollout. But no one seems to be in charge of making them happen.
There are lots of things Ireland could do to speed up its rural broadband rollout. But no one seems to be in charge of making them happen.

PERUSING the Central Statistics Office figures recently, I discovered that Holland produces and exports more potatoes than Ireland. Not just marginally more, either: 20 times the amount.

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It brought to mind an old joke. If the Dutch ran Ireland, the joke goes, we'd feed the world. But if the Irish ran Holland, they'd drown.

We have many great traits as a culture and as a country. But setting infrastructure up and running it efficiently isn't among our strengths.

We have seen it with water pipes. We have seen it with rail lines. And now we're seeing it with broadband.

There are lots of things Ireland could do to speed up its rural broadband rollout. But no one seems to be in charge of making them happen.

It isn't widely known, for instance, that an EU law is about to take effect that requires utility companies to make their infrastructure available for broadband firms providing cheaper and speedier rural rollout.

It's a common sense move from Europe. It's about working together for the common good. It asks that "physical networks" like electricity and water should make their considerable infrastructure available in otherwise hard-to-reach scenarios.

One can easily see how, for example, a remote community could be wired up to broadband through use of the ESB's ducting. What the EU law says is that the ESB, which owns the ducting and poles into those remote communities, should co-operate with broadband providers to help make this happen for society's benefit.

But this is Ireland. The ESB reckons it doesn't have to co-operate with the directive unless someone orders it to. It has had multiple requests for access to its rural infrastructure from at least one telecoms firm (Eir). But why comply? The government isn't telling it to. And its own strategic interests aren't really advanced if a telecoms firm starts offering a broadband service that the ESB-linked broadband company, Siro, might want to look at in five or ten years' time.

I asked the ESB about this, but no one was available to comment on the subject.

As for the government, it seems to have a detached view on the subject.

The new Communications Minister, Independent TD Denis Naughten, has often spoken about wanting "to look at existing infrastructure, to see how we can utilise it better".

He has, for example, suggested a new focus on additional 4G rollout "in the interim" while the National Broadband Plan slowly wends its way to its 2022 completion date.

But putting some organisation into action seems to be a different process to talking about it. In this context, the telecoms regulator, Comreg, says that it is unaware of any specific new proposals to facilitate more 4G wireless coverage throughout the country outside its own existing spectrum release plans. Similarly, mobile operators say they are in the dark about such suggestions, if any actually exist.

And if confusion reigns over vague suggestions concerning 4G, it also looks set to take over the main broadband decision-making process. Very soon, we won't really know who is in charge of rural broadband rollout.

Up to now, the issue has been the responsibility of the Department of Communications. But the new government is now splitting it into two departments and a potentially large number of task forces and agencies.

The Department of Communications will be solely responsible for the next year, until a contract with an operator is signed.

Then Heather Humphreys' Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht takes over.

It has "responsibility for rollout". Humphreys' department is also to oversee the creation of regional task forces whose aim is to help co-ordinate the broadband rollout, purportedly by intervening in planning and road blockages the broadband plan faces.

Meanwhile, the Department of Communications plans to create a new body to manage the state broadband contract.

So that's at least four different entities with varying levels of responsibility for rural broadband rollout. No single minister or body will apparently have overall responsibility once the contract is signed.

At present, there's a small team working on the National Broadband Plan (the Government won't say how many, exactly, but it's a handful in relative terms). They do the best they can with the resources they have. But they simply may not be able to deal with the process as quickly as the public might like.

And the issues are starting to become more urgent than they have ever been.

"The planned roll out of rural broadband which is to be completed by 2021 needs to be fast tracked," said Denis Naughten before he became Minister for Communications. "The current pace of the rollout of the Government's high-speed broadband plan for rural areas will see 64pc of premises in Co Roscommon and 47pc of premises in Co Galway have to wait until 2020 or 2021 for decent broadband. This is just not good enough."

A few months - and a ministerial seal - makes a big difference in what you believe. Mr Naughten now says that the majority of his Roscommon and Galway constituencies must indeed wait until 2020 or 2021.

And broadband firms can now say, with some legitimacy, that they're being stymied in rolling out rural broadband by utilities that don't appear to care and aren't being held to account by the law of the land.

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