Wednesday 28 September 2016

Naughten: My neck is on line over broadband

Published 03/06/2016 | 02:30

Communications Minister Denis Naughten (Picture: Tom Burke)
Communications Minister Denis Naughten (Picture: Tom Burke)

The Communications Minister says the government is to seek more "aggressive" rollout timelines for a million Irish people living without broadband as a short list of rural broadband providers is drawn up.

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The move could open the door to the National Broadband Plan being completed before the heavily-criticised 2022 date that has been reaffirmed by the new government.

Denis Naughten also said that the government is ready to intervene in rural planning processes to improve mobile phone reception around the country.

"We're going in to negotiate the most aggressive timeline that's physically possible," said Mr Naughten of the upcoming contract. "That means bodies on the ground and trucks on the ground addressing 100,000km of roads. My neck is on the line here politically. I need to be able to guarantee broadband and coverage to people."

The Communications Minister was speaking as five companies prepare to find out which ones will be in the final shakeup for a 25-year National Broadband Plan contract to provide connectivity to over 500,000 rural homes and businesses.

The companies bidding to make the shortlist are Eir, Enet, Imagine, Gigabit Fibre and Siro, the joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB.

Eir and Siro are regarded as frontrunners for the project, which promises fibre-speed broadband to every Irish rural home and business at the same prices as city broadband customers.

Gigabit Fibre, co-founded by former O2 Ireland boss Danuta Gray, is regarded as a dark horse for the project, with a number of powerful global telecoms and financial companies behind it.

Winner

The winner of the 25-year contract, which could be worth over €300m to the successful bidder, is due to be announced a year from now.

But big decisions remain on ownership of the rural network after the contract finishes. Communications Minister Denis Naughten (pictured) is understood to favour the network reverting to public ownership.

"Anyone who looks at what I have said on this before will know how I feel," he said.

Other government politicians have also expressed a preference for public ownership of the network, citing long term infrastructure difficulties caused by the privatisation of Eircom in 1999.

But operators say that taking the rural network back into public ownership could prove to be an expensive cost to the state in the long run. They also say that it might prove less attractive to invest in the short to medium term. The decision is expected to go to Cabinet soon.

Meanwhile, the Communications Minister says that there is to be a new effort to improve mobile phone reception in rural areas through fresh efforts at overcoming planning logjams.

"Mobile phone coverage is a huge, huge problem around the country," said Mr Naughten.

"There are big issues that operators face in relation to access in different counties. Development contribution charges for mobile masts, for example, can vary from €20,000 per mast to zero.

"We need to get a consistency across the country in relation to that. That's as important for the rollout of rural broadband as it is for mobile phone coverage. We expect to make progress in advance of next June."

Mr Naughten said that he is to meet commissioners of the telecoms regulator, Comreg, later this month to discuss the issue.

Irish Independent

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