Broadband rollout can be done in three years, operators insist
Ireland's rural broadband network can be built out sooner than the Government's 2022 timetable, according to the country's biggest telecoms operators.
More than 500,000 rural households could be connected to fibre-speed services in "under three years" once a rollout is greenlighted by the Government.
"Once the contract is signed, we can do anything if we put our mind to it," Vodafone Ireland chief executive Anne O'Leary told the Irish Independent. "We can certainly do it within three years."
Vodafone and the ESB are jointly bidding to build the State's National Broadband Plan, which aims to connect every rural household and business to fibre-speed broadband by 2022.
But business and community organisations say that 2022 is far too late if rural areas want to attract investment and stop depopulation.
A faster process could see all rural homes and businesses given state-subsidised access to adequate broadband by 2020 or before. "We think it's possible," said Conal Henry, the chief executive of Enet. "You'd need to be careful but we've looked at the figures and it's possible."
Enet, which is currently building fibre broadband networks around regional towns, is also a bidder for the National Broadband Plan contract.
A spokesman for Eir, which is a favourite to win the rural broadband rollout contract, declined to comment specifically on timing. However, Eir is thought to be ready to tell the Government that it can complete the vast majority of the rural network in under three years if it wins the state tender.
Other bidders for the process say that rural homes need not wait until 2022.
"It can be done quicker," said Brian O'Donohoe, managing director of Imagine, one of the companies bidding for the state-subsidised project.
"It does depend on what sort of solution you go for. But if involves a combination of fibre and fast wireless, it can definitely be done much faster."
The National Broadband Plan contract was due to be awarded this year. However, the new Government has confirmed that it won't now formally award the contract until June 2017. The Government's timeframe currently allows for a 2022 completion of the rural broadband network, barring further delays.
The state project promises to connect every rural household and business to fibre-speed broadband.
Earlier this month, the UK government announced that it was introducing a legal right to broadband access for all British households, regardless of where a dwelling is located.
Now, rural organisations say that such a law, which was also introduced in Spain, Switzerland and Finland, should be brought in here.
"It's one of the only ways to insure that broadband is actually rolled out to rural regions," said Séamus Boland, chief executive of Irish Rural Link which represents 500 community groups around the country.
"We've seen a big shift in broadband rollout deadlines over the last 10 years, partly because the ultimate pressure of a legislative right is not there."
The call for such a legal right is being backed by some of Ireland's biggest telecoms companies.
"I'm 100pc supportive of it," said Conal Henry, the Enet's chief executive. He added: "There should be one universal services obligation and it should be broadband."
A legal right to broadband now "makes sense," said Vodafone Ireland's chief executive, Anne O'Leary. "You have a right to electricity. So it's a fair enough request. However, it depends on how it's done."
In Ireland, every home currently has a legal right to access a telephone line, but this excludes broadband or mobile services. The Government currently classifies broadband as an "intervention" service, rather than a legal right.
Case study: 'I use cameras linked to my phone to monitor the herd'
Getting access to wireless broadband three years ago has been a huge boost for Joe Deverell and his large pedigree farm in Geashill, near Tullamore in Co Offaly.
The farm focuses on Hereford cows, beef sucklers and tillage and has a 400-strong herd.
"We had dial-up prior to that and we couldn't believe the difference, we went from 1mg to 5mg of data," he says.
Mr Deverell now utilises his internet connection to run cameras, monitoring his herd.
"We have cameras set up in the shed for calving and one in the yard for security. We can check that on the phone.
"It's so handy we can check it from anywhere when you are on the go and at night."
Mr Deverell says the Department of Agriculture has an excellent website, but many farmers do not have the broadband capabilities to make use of it.
"It's essential for us. Day to day, there are a lot of things we need to do online, from calf registration to motor tax renewal to online forms."
From next year, basic payment scheme applications must also be completed online.
As a pedigree breeder, the internet also proves essential to Mr Deverell for farm-to-farm sales.
"If we are selling bulls to another farm, we can do all the paperwork online there and then when they come to collect the bull. It has cut out so much paperwork.
"I see it as important as rolling out the telephone was in the 1960s. From my own point of view, it has cut down on the paperwork significantly.
"Even having to post forms, it was all a cost. It's the same as electrification and the modern phone system - this needs to be rolled out," he adds.