Friday 20 September 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Rural rollout now possible in 2019 - but other barriers may yet hold up process'


Stock image / PA
Stock image / PA
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Is that it, now? Will the Government finally be able to get on with the business of rolling out broadband to more than one million people?

Despite the green light afforded by the official audit report, there are still obstacles ahead.

The Government hasn't actually yet signed off on the project.

What happens now is that Richard Bruton's Department of Communications, via the Cabinet, has to declare the Granahan McCourt consortium a "preferred bidder".

All things considered, this is likely to happen before Christmas. Then it's a relatively straight path to a formal contract binding the two parties, probably in January. It is only then that the building actually begins: sub-contractors start digging and laying fibre.

But when will ordinary households and businesses benefit?

The bidding consortium is understood to believe that at least some of those 540,000 households and rural businesses can be connected by the end of next year - it was pretty certain about this before the audit delay, but sources suggest it's still bullish on it.

Officially, the Government will no longer give timelines, having been repeatedly burned by its own missed projections in the past.

"It's only after a decision by Government that we'll be able to set out the timescales," said the Communications Minister.

Cost might still be a factor. According to Peter Smyth's audit report, the Government has already turned Granahan McCourt down at least once on the overall subsidy proposal.

The department "could not bring the potential subsidy likely to be sought on foot of the bidder's proposal to Government for approval" on one occasion, the report said, because the bidder was being "too conservative" on the number of households likely to initially use the service.

However, that was at one point in time: the two sides are understood to have come closer on cost since then.

Eir is arguably the biggest hurdle to a quick rollout. It owns most of the rural infrastructure. The NBP network has to be able to use some of it. But there's a standoff over it. Eir wants the going commercial rate, which has been in place since before the National Broadband Plan was a thing. Granahan McCourt, and some parts of the Government, say that we're in new circumstances and that demanding the usual commercial rate is ridiculous. The telecoms regulator, ComReg, might be the one to intervene, but it usually takes more than a year to come to any decision.

Presuming there's no further hold-up politically, the main barrier to a 2019 rollout may now be a legal challenge from a rival operator, a go-slow from Eir or a contractual issue within the consortium.

Irish Independent

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