Broadband will be rolled out to 170,000 extra homes and firms
The Government's proposed €1bn rural broadband network is to be expanded to another 170,000 homes and businesses in a new twist in the ongoing saga.
In all, the State-funded broadband service will now cover more than 900,000 Irish premises, servicing close to half the country's population.
The National Broadband Plan roll-out is due to start in the summer of 2017 and is expected to take up to five years to complete at a potential cost to the State of €500m.
It promises to provide speeds of at least 30Mbs to every home in the country, partially at the taxpayer's expense.
However, Communications Minister Denis Naughten now says that 170,000 homes, previously counted as being in 'good' broadband areas, have not passed the grade for the minimum 30Mbs speeds required under the Government's plans.
These homes will now join the 757,000 rural homes and businesses already earmarked for the scheme.
A map of the homes to be covered under the scheme is available at broadband.gov.ie.
Meanwhile, the minister confirmed that the whole rural network would be privatised after its 25-year contract was up.
Mr Naughten said a privatised model - also called a "gap" model - would keep the cost of the roll-out down and allow the State to spend up to €600m on other deserving projects and causes such as homelessness and the environment.
He also said that a privatisation model would prevent the roll-out being delayed any further.
However, Mr Naughten insisted that a privatised rural broadband network would not be a repeat of how Eircom was privatised.
"By the time this happens, I believe we will have introduced a universal service obligation to broadband," he said. "I have already raised this at EU level."
A universal service obligation entails households gaining a legal right to broadband by law. At present, telephone and voice services have a universal service obligation, through Eir, under Irish law.
The Irish Independent understands that three companies - Eir, Siro and Enet - have been shortlisted to enter the final phase of bidding for the National Broadband Plan contract.
In a separate development, Eir announced that it is to provide Premier League football, rugby and Formula One free of charge to its 370,000 broadband subscribers.
The operator, which has rebranded Setanta Sport as Eir Sport, is set to make BT Sport programmes free to its customers.