Monday 16 September 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Can the ESB replace the NBP?'

New Communications Minister Richard Bruton is non-commital on delivery
New Communications Minister Richard Bruton is non-commital on delivery
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Can a semi-state body such as the ESB, Bord na Mona or Irish Water (Ervia) become a viable substitute for the current National Broadband Plan?

Now that it has been floated publicly by Fianna Fail, it will become part of the debate as we wait to see what the Government intends to do on what once looked like an urgent rural rollout process.

But is it realistic? How far will Fianna Fail push it? Could distrust in the current process really threaten a new Confidence And Supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail?

Last week, Fianna Fail's communications spokesperson, Timmy Dooley, raised the prospect of Irish Water (Ervia) or other semi-states taking on the project to deliver high speed broadband to 540,000 rural homes and businesses. He is clearly not impressed with the current prospect, which has seen Granahan McCourt left as the sole bidder to the state tender. Dooley went so far as to say that the State may have "low-balled" the biggest prospective bidders, Eir and Siro, by making it commercially unattractive for them to stay in the race.

Therefore, he and Fianna Fail are effectively calling for the scrapping of the current process and its replacement with a direct provision model.

But in doing so, they are indirectly saying that rural homes cannot have broadband for at least another three years. Because it is almost impossible to see such a plan delivering broadband to rural areas in any expedited time frame.

I spoke to some of the semi-state companies named about this proposal last week. Their responses generally indicated that it would be a matter of starting from scratch. (Some of them indicated hostility to the idea.)

In other words, it would likely take years from now. That's not an easy prospect to stomach for rural businesses, including thousands of farmers.

A lot of discussion around the National Broadband Plan in recent weeks has focused on technicalities.

Increasingly, the people that this process is supposed to rescue - 1.1 million rural residents and businesses - are being considered as an afterthought.

Elsewhere in this paper today, Communications Minister Richard Bruton answers some questions around the Government's general approach to broadband. He indicates that the administration is still behind the general principle of delivering high-speed connectivity to rural areas. But he's non-committal on how. And there is still no firm comment on timelines. It's worth noting that 2019 was previously a firm promise on delivery. (And that itself was a delayed target.)

Now, we're back to softer language over "decisions" to be taken in future.

(At least we now know that there is no 'Plan B', something that the Department of Communications previously suggested it had up its sleeve in case the current process failed.) So what happens next?

The moment of truth comes when the National Broadband Plan's auditor, Peter Smyth, reports on the process later this month. If he gives it the go-ahead after searching for potential improper meetings between the last Communications Minister Denis Naughten, and the head of the bid consortium, David McCourt, will Bruton and Varadkar sign off on it?

In theory, that's an easy answer: yes.

The Department's officials have been working for years to get the technical t's crossed and the commercial i's dotted.

Only one thing has really changed - the political climate. That incorporates both increasing hostility from Fianna Fail and criticism of the makeup (and alternating components) of the Granahan McCourt-led consortium.

Is that an instructive element in how Bruton and Varadkar now treat this process? Is it more important than timely delivery of the basic infrastructure promised?

If so, there are some big winners. Eir is one. Not only does it get a longer window to keep people on its sub-par telephone line internet in rural areas, but it may hold even more power in a reconstituted roll-out plan. In its desperation to deliver an alternative, the Government won't be in any position to string out negotiations with the company holding large swathes of critical infrastructure.

City landlords will also continue to win big. There is no prospect of college-leavers staying in rural areas - or even in the broadband-enabled towns close by - if high-speed connectivity is reserved exclusively for urban areas. (There are still towns in the midlands with derelict ghost estates, even as there's an accommodation crisis in cities.)

The country will become even more entrenched as a two-tier economy.

Many commentators continue to say that Eir effectively undermined the National Broadband Plan by siphoning off the most attractive 300,000 premises into their own private network footprint.

To be fair to the Government and to Eir, there was little the State could do to stop that happening: under EU state-aid rules, if Eir says it will provide high-speed broadband to a rural area, the Government can't stop it from doing so on the basis that it wants to roll out a State network.

Moreover, Eir has every right to point out that over 250,000 of the 300,000 premises promised are now within connection capability (they're 'passed').

That compares to not a single premises in the remaining 540,000 bundle of homes and businesses that can get proper broadband. Right now, that looks to be at least 18 months off.

"The Government is committed to providing high-speed broadband to every home, farm and business across Ireland as quickly as possible," a spokesman for the Communications Department said in response to questions put by this column last week.

"The Government remain committed to concluding the procurement process for the National Broadband Plan State-led intervention to a conclusion in a fair and impartial manner as quickly as possible."

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