Wednesday 24 May 2017

Broadband plan for 700,000 in doubt as State rows with Eir

Rural scheme now in jeopardy, says Adrian Weckler

Under EU rules, the Government may not subsidise state broadband investment if existing operators say they will provide the service in the same areas
Under EU rules, the Government may not subsidise state broadband investment if existing operators say they will provide the service in the same areas
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Ireland's National Broadband Plan faces uncertainty as a disagreement between the Government and Eir threatens to delay or derail the initiative.

The row could force the Government to change its plans to roll out state-subsidised fibre broadband to 700,000 homes and businesses in rural Ireland by 2020.

The dispute revolves around whether the Government will accept pledges from Eir, formerly Eircom, that it will roll out its own fibre broadband into rural Ireland.

The Government wants to proceed with its current plan, which would cover 700,000 rural premises. But it cannot do this if Eir extends its own fibre broadband plans to cover 300,000 of these rural homes, as it now says it will.

Under EU rules, the Government may not subsidise state broadband investment if existing operators say they will provide the service in the same areas.

But reducing the number of premises from 700,000 to 400,000 could damage the Government's prospects of attracting multiple bidders to the process. These remaining far-flung households are among the most expensive buildings to connect to fibre services and would prove less attractive for potential bidders such as Vodafone, Virgin, BT, Magnet and others.

Communications Minister Alex White sent in departmental officials to quiz Eir on its resources for connecting the additional 300,000 rural premises to fibre broadband.

The Government is set to announce its decision on the issue on December 22.

It has committed to proceeding with a public tender for the National Broadband Plan by the end of the year.

But if the Government proceeds with its existing plan to connect 700,000 rural premises, it can expect to face strong objections before the European Commission over unwarranted state aid interference in Eir's proposed broadband areas.

This could lead to delays in rolling the plan out, potentially leaving rural homes and businesses stuck with poor-quality broadband for years to come.

A spokesman for Minister White said that it would "take account of commercial operators' investment plans up to 2020.

"The department is currently engaged in ongoing dialogue with all the operators that have advised us of plans to invest in commercial high-speed broadband services," said the spokesman.

"The outcome of this dialogue will be reflected in the revised map."

An Eir spokesman said that the operator would forge ahead with its plans.

He added: "Eir remains fully committed to going ahead with the rollout of the additional 300,000 homes.

"We expect to have the rollout complete by 2020 and it will reach 1.9 million homes and businesses across the country."

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