Friday 24 May 2019

Adrian Weckler: The four biggest complaints about the National Broadband Plan

NBP would benefit many households, but has been dogged by controversy
NBP would benefit many households, but has been dogged by controversy
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It now looks fairly certain that the Government will formally announce the National Broadband Plan on Tuesday. This will proceed on the basis of a fixed-fibre network rolled out to one million rural residents over the next five years.

While the 540,000 households to benefit are overwhelmingly in favour, the scheme has drawn a fair amount of criticism.

Here are four of the most common complaints, and my view on whether they're right or wrong.

1. There's no need for speeds of 1,000Mbs

Yes, there is. Full stop. If this is a multi-billion-euro, 25-year contract, it absolutely needs to be at that level. It can't be some half-assed solution that will be 'grand' for the next five years.

"But I don't need that kind of speed to send an email or watch Netflix," you respond. Not in 2019 you don't. But you will in a few years. Twenty years ago, 1Mbs was considered to be fine. Ten years ago, 5Mbs was still easily adequate. Today, neither speed is remotely suitable for an ordinary home's requirements. In the same way, a normal family home will have much higher broadband requirements than a basic 20Mbs connection in a few years' time. Not just for entertainment and work, but for things like health.

2. But look at the areas where fibre is being rolled out, take-up is less than 20pc in the first year. There's little demand for this

Of all the arguments used against State investment in broadband, this is the weakest. I asked both Eir and Siro - both of which are spending hundreds of millions on their own fibre broadband networks - about what is considered a decent take-up.

Both companies' executives said that 15pc to 20pc is right on target. Both expect take-up to steadily increase and for fibre usage to completely cannibalise existing DSL phone line or wireless broadband in areas where it's available.

Even if you dismiss their views on this as self-serving, a simple glance at Ireland's broadband statistics is irrefutable. According to Comreg's latest quarterly report, fibre-to-the-premises connections are currently rising by 129pc year on year (to 91,000). Nothing else comes even remotely close in terms of take-up. Quite simply, when fibre broadband is available in an area, people gradually move away from anything else. Maybe not in the first year. But eventually, most of them will move. Because it's by far the best you can get.

3. What about 5G and wireless? By choosing fibre, is the State investing in something that will soon be superseded?

This is one of the most common technical criticisms of the Government's tender. From the beginning, the State has structured the process to be heavily geared towards a fixed-fibre network. This, critics say, now looks outdated. 5G, in particular, promises high-speed wireless broadband and could cost significantly less. So is the State backing something that could be obsolete soon?

No. A recent report commissioned by Comreg looked at this as an alternative. It estimated that building out a mobile broadband network to the same rural households would cost between €500m and €2bn. But, it said, for that you would get a service that is a fraction of the speed that a fibre network would offer, something that would certainly not be "future proofed". The report also pointed out that mobile broadband services can be flaky, unreliable and subject to fluctuations due to things like seasons and the weather. Finally, there was the small matter of the additional 6,000 masts (at least) that would need to be erected for this to have a chance.

Ironically, even if the Government looked at a universally available 5G network, it would need to build supporting fibre close by to handle the traffic. Wireless alone simply doesn't have the capacity needed for a mainstream broadband network.

In time, 5G may provide some excellent supplementary services. But there's almost no one who believes it is a standalone alternative to fibre. Even the operators that stand to gain most from 4G and 5G rollouts agree with this. Vodafone Ireland's chief executive recently said that mobile broadband should only be considered a "complimentary" service to a long-term fibre rollout.

4. It can't be justified as value for money

This is one of the most subjective and political elements of this entire debate. What is value for money when it comes to a broadband service? Is this a societal or an economic calculation? Who decides how much a modern connection is worth to half-a-million homes?

There are some clues. Last month, a Red C opinion poll found that two-thirds of us - both in rural areas and in cities - are in favour of a State-subsidised National Broadband Plan. But one in five said it should only go ahead if the cost was under €1.5bn. (It's a fair bet that those people are not among the 540,000 households set to benefit.)

Is this doable using the same fibre broadband technology? Absolutely. It just means telling 100,000 of the 540,000 households that they're not getting it, that they need to take one for the team.

According to most industry estimates, around half the cost of the proposed rural network would be in connecting the remotest 100,000 of the households, located in the middle of counties such as Tipperary, Kerry, Galway, Roscommon, Mayo and Donegal. One simple way of chopping the bill in half would be to exclude those homes.

It's pretty obvious why that would be a politically contentious thing to do. And it's also pretty obvious why no-one is publicly suggesting it.

That leaves us with a national policy of paying extra to accommodate the more remote premises. This indicates that, as a country, we regard this as one big piece of long-term societal infrastructure.

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