One million homes and businesses to get broadband boost
ALMOST one million rural Irish homes and businesses are to be connected to a new state-subsidised fibre broadband service that will cost up to €1bn to build.
Construction will begin next year and close to 1,100 small towns and villages will get access to fibre broadband for the first time.
Announcing the initiative yesterday, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said the Government was committing up to €512m to the project, with hundreds of millions in matching investment expected from tender-winning broadband operators.
Mr Rabbitte said that the money could come from the €6.8bn Strategic Investment Fund, formerly known as the National Pension Reserve Fund, and the European Investment Bank. He said that the plan required final approval from the European Commission as it constituted state aid in an industrial sector.
Cork (108 towns and villages) and Mayo (105) are the counties with the most towns and villages to be connected under the scheme, while Donegal, Clare and Tipperary also have large numbers of villages to be connected.
The move marks a rapid upscaling of the Government's stated intention to subsidise rural broadband. Mr Rabbitte said the previous plan, which had committed €175m to rural infrastructure, had been recognised as insufficient to meet the cost of building a fit-for-purpose rural broadband network.
"We need a future-proof solution," said Mr Rabbitte. "And that's going to be much more expensive. It's the correct approach because otherwise we'll continue to see an unacceptable divide between urban and rural Ireland."
The plan envisages 900,000 of Ireland's estimated 2.3 million premises gaining access to the new fibre network. This will be dominated by a target list of 1,100 small towns and villages that are identified as having no other high-speed broadband service available.
"Anywhere that industry is currently providing a high-speed service will not be on our list," said Mr Rabbitte.
He said that the list of 1,100 small towns was the result of a mapping exercise conducted by the Government during the last year.
Mr Rabbitte said that neither the list nor the mapping exercise was complete and could be added to.
The minister said that the plan had been costed on a per-kilometre basis and that the State's roll-out bill could be contained at €355m if infrastructure such as railway lines or state-owned roadside structures could be "leveraged" to help distribute the fibre lines, instead of having to dig new trenches.
He said that the service was not expected to be fully completed "within the lifetime of this Government".
Under the plan, the Government will offer fibre broadband construction contracts out to public tender.
The winning operators will then run the broadband network. Mr Rabbitte said he had not yet decided whether the tender would seek one overall partner or whether it could be divided into separate tenders, based on regions.
A single tender contract would heavily favour Eircom.
Mr Rabbitte also said he was "agnostic" on who would retain ultimate ownership of the built-out networks, raising the prospect that tender-winning operators could end up with large pieces of state-built infrastructure.
County No of towns