Monday 16 September 2019

Adrian Weckler explains what happens after National Broadband Plan report and the obstacles that still remain

What to expect in the days and weeks ahead

Stock image / PA
Stock image / PA
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

The government’s published audit review for the National Broadband Plan has given a green light to proceed with the state-subsidised scheme, which aims to roll out fibre to 540,000 rural homes and businesses.

The report, from consultant Peter Smyth, is expected to give a green light to proceed with the state-subsidised plan, which aims to roll out fibre to 540,000 rural homes and businesses.

That means that the government is expected to formally announce the Granahan McCourt consortium as its ‘preferred bidder’ in the National Broadband Plan tender competition in the coming weeks.

This paves the way for a contract to be signed by the end of December or early January.

Here’s a quick guide about what to expect in the days and weeks ahead, including the vexed question of when that elusive broadband will actually be rolled out.


1. The actual rollout: what happens now?

The current delay set back the rollout’s likely first connections from 2019 to 2020. With some elements still to be resolved (see below), it’s hard to see that getting back to a 2019 date. However, the lead bidder, Granahan McCourt, has spoken of its aim to make it in 2019. Much will depend on when the contract is signed and infrastructural logistical issues, including co-operation with the state’s biggest operator, Eir.


2. What might the final broadband network look like?

The guts of the plan, as constituted now, is for physical fibre broadband lines to be used in connecting areas of the country that have never received proper broadband. However, it is accepted that a small percentage of the connections in the most remote areas will be wireless. That percentage hasn’t yet been defined, but it could, in theory, be as high as 10pc (around 50,000 homes). Some recent commentary has suggested that 5G cellular connectivity could be a substitute. However, some industry analysts say that 5G -- or fixed wireless, connecting to a local mast from an aerial on your roof -- isn’t a more cost-efficient method to deliver high sped broadband over 25 years than laying down fibre.


3. Preferred bidder status: a ‘parallel process’

The government maintains that it has been operating a ‘parallel process’ of assessment on the Granahan McCourt bid while the audit review has been taking place. This should mean that it is now just about ready to announce whether it’s satisfied (or not) that it can proceed with the bid. While political handlers in government were indicating doubt earlier this month, current indications suggest that the bid will now proceed.


4. Obstacles

There remain a number of potential challenges to rolling out rural broadband on such a large scale.

(i) Getting a deal from Eir: it doesn’t get as much notice as other aspects of the NBP saga, but this might be the biggest task facing rural rollout and the government. Eir and Granahan McCourt have been in something of a standoff for months over access to Eir’s regional infrastructure. Getting through those poles is vital for the new rural network to function quickly. Eir says that there’s a price that has been long set by Irish telecoms rules. Granahan McCourt says that this was set for much smaller instances of access and that it’s way out of kilter with what is reasonable. Eir appears not to have much natural motivation to compromise: the National Broadband Plan doesn’t help its business in any way. (If anything, it hurts it.) Comreg, which sets the prices, is traditionally very slow to react on these matters as it usually has to complete a lot of due diligence and consultations before changing something.


(ii) Project cohesion: The bidding consortium has 40 sub-contractors, including some very large companies. This is a huge infrastructural project, almost unprecedented in recent Irish history. The head of the bidding consortium, David McCourt, has spoken before about his company's experience in building telecoms networks in other countries and has dismissed accusations of not being able to keep major consortium partners, such as SSE and John Laing, in the process. Nevertheless, it’s rare for telecoms projects in Ireland to roll out exactly as planned. The bigger they are, the more difficulties pop up.


(iii) Legal challenges: A legal challenge to a process as large and disruptive as the National Broadband Plan can never be ruled out. Wireless operators, which may see huge damage to their own business offerings in rural areas, have threatened legal action before to stop the process. As wireless speeds get faster, a new legal challenge can’t be ruled out. One of the big players could also seek a legal mechanism to delay some part of the rollout, possibly to give themselves an opportunity to capture more of the underserved rural market as their own services improve.


5. Other opposition to the NBP

There is still fundamental opposition to the current National Broadband Plan from a number of different directions. Fianna Fail has taken a basic view that the process has failed because the biggest bidders -- Eir and Siro -- pulled out of it. Its spokesman for communications, Timmy Dooley, has repeatedly voiced scepticism about whether the remaining bidder can deliver on its promise to roll out fibre to such a large and varied national footprint. Instead, Fianna Fail has floated the idea of scrapping the current process and awarding a rollout contract directly to one or other semi-state utilities, such as the ESB, Bord na Mona or Ervia (formerly Irish Water).

The other main branch of criticism of the project comes from telecoms operators, many of whom would see a detrimental effect to their business from the rollout of the state-subsidised network. Wireless operators, in particular, have repeatedly attacked the National Broadband Plan, arguing that their own wireless technology should be used instead. The state’s biggest operator, Eir, has mostly remained quiet about the National Broadband Plan since it pulled out of the process. However its recently-appointed chief executive, Carolan Lennon, has voiced scepticism over the project, questioning whether fibre can be rolled out to far-flung rural locations.

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