Saturday 1 October 2016

Plan to make broadband a right for all

Published 01/06/2016 | 02:30

Heather Humphreys: Minister for Regional Development. Photo: Mark Condren
Heather Humphreys: Minister for Regional Development. Photo: Mark Condren

High-level discussions are under way about making broadband a basic right for every household - but the move faces significant challenges, the Irish Independent has learned.

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The Government has engaged with regulator ComReg and the EU with a view to guaranteeing at least a 30mbps connection for every home, regardless of location.

The move comes after UK prime minister David Cameron said his government would introduce legislation to adopt a 'universal service obligation' for providers in Britain.

Mr Cameron's plan is to give people the legal right to request a connection to broadband with speeds of 10mbps, no matter where they live.

Here, Communications Minister Denis Naughten has now said he wants to follow the UK's lead and guarantee speeds three times faster.

It comes as the Irish Independent campaigns for better broadband throughout the country, highlighting the challenges facing various sectors which cannot access the internet effectively.

Mr Naughten said: "Applying a USO (universal service obligation) for 30mbps, which is funded through a levy imposed on industry or an obligation imposed on any one network provider would take time to establish in law and could be challenging to implement where a supporting high-speed telecoms network is not in yet in place.

"The department is, however, in discussion with ComReg as to whether USO may be a viable instrument in certain instances and has raised the matter at EU level ahead of a major review of the European Telecoms Regulatory Framework, which is scheduled to commence later this year."

The new minister said his department had "consistently" indicated that it would take three to five years for the rollout of broadband nationwide.

He said this time scale was based on "extensive consultations" with the industry and "reflects the scale of the challenge of building a network of this scale".

Mr Naughten noted that 30pc of premises fall into the 'Intervention Area'. "These premises straddle 100,000km of road network and 96pc of the land area of Ireland," he said.

Asked whether the rollout could be speeded up, as indicated by some of the broadband providers, Mr Naughten replied: "The Government is determined to ensure that the network is built out as quickly as possible and at a minimum cost.

"It is possible that bidders may come forward with more aggressive timelines for the build-out than envisaged when consulted in 2015."

He said that as part of the competitive process, the department would engage with winning bidder or bidders on the best rollout strategy.

"A prioritisation programme will be put in place in this regard, in consultation with the Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht," he said.

Mr Naughten has also sought to clarify confusion over whether his department or the Regional Development Minister, Heather Humphreys, is responsible for the broadband plan.

He told the Irish Independent his office was responsible for finding a company or companies capable of delivering the service.

To date, five prospective providers have bid for the contract and they will be shortlisted before several are invited to take part in formal discussions next month.

"The department will then enter into formal contract negotiations with the winning bidder. It is expected that a contract will be awarded by June 2017," he said.

Ms Humphreys will then be responsible for ensuring that infrastructure is put in place. She will work with the Western Development Commission, Leader groups, local authorities and telecoms industry to set up regional broadband task forces.

Irish Independent

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