Should the Government ditch the National Broadband Plan and focus on wireless for rural areas?
Should the Government ditch the National Broadband Plan and trust a wireless operator to follow through on a promise to connect 400,000 rural homes and businesses? This is now a big question for Richard Bruton, the Taoiseach and more than a million Irish people in badly-served broadband areas.
Imagine Communications, the wireless broadband provider well known for its previous WiMax service, now says it plans to connect 400,000 of the 540,000 rural homes earmarked for state-subsidised rural broadband connection.
Chief executive Sean Bolger said this is to be a €300m commercial roll-out, with no state subsidy required. It will, he said, deliver speeds of 150Mbs to rural homes and business, a level currently in excess of the Government's high-speed broadband criteria.
A home or business will get access by an antenna on the roof, which will connect to a nearby mast. It will be faster than current roof-aerial broadband because of new spectrum Imagine is using.
So can the State now save €1bn of taxpayers' money? Is there any need for us to subsidise a buildout in rural regions? After all, this wireless company says it will do almost all of it, right?
But will it? Before the State decides to walk away from a guaranteed fibre broadband network for anyone who wants it in rural Ireland, it should ask some very detailed questions about the exact detail of what's being proposed.
I did exactly that last week and found a roll-out schedule that may be much less ambitious, or certain, than commonly reported.
Here's what's actually being proposed - 325 wireless 'sites' (such as masts) are to be put up in various locations, each touching an NBP intervention area, by June of next year. Imagine Communications is restricting the number of households it will connect per site to "between 300 and 400", even where there are many more homes in the area, because of 'contention' (where the service slows down if too many people use it, something that largely doesn't happen using fibre).