Thursday 24 October 2019

Adrian Weckler: Three reasons we fear the NBP

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar listens to Communications Minister Richard Bruton speaking at the launch of the National Broadband Plan last week. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar listens to Communications Minister Richard Bruton speaking at the launch of the National Broadband Plan last week. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

We all thought that the principle of a State-subsidised rural broadband service was a settled thing in Ireland. For the last seven years, it has been national policy across successive governments and parties. Indeed, the main criticism has been that it has not come fast enough.

It's popular, too. National opinion polls show that it's not just a country thing, with support for rural intervention standing at over 60pc among urban dwellers according to the most recent Red C survey on the topic.

Yet there remains a significant feeling among a substantial number of people that something is amiss in this process.

I believe that it's possible to summarise existing unease over this issue within three broad categories.

(i) The Government is really bad at planning and executing national infrastructure plans.

(ii) Despite the State's best efforts, we have somehow ended up in a situation where we have a flawed tender that is giving away too much for too little.

(iii) The scale of the plan is unnecessarily grand and expensive in the first place.

Fear (i) is difficult to argue with. There are umpteen examples in recent years of the State flopping on big decisions.

Quite aside from issues such as the Children's Hospital, this column has repeatedly moaned about urban planning and housing policy in a tech-fuelled boom.

This fuels scepticism and downright cynicism when it comes to things like the National Broadband Plan.

Fear (ii) is a direct consequence of fear (i). If we're known for screwing up some infrastructure decisions, how can we have faith that this one isn't another cock-up?

When a Minister for Communications is effectively fired for putting the process at risk through a series of meetings with the bidding company's principal executive, it's even harder to not to raise an eyebrow around a contract that most people don't understand in the first place.

To add insult to injury, we seem set to ultimately give the whole thing away after investing billions in it! So isn't the sensible thing to scrap the whole process and do it from scratch, rather than screwing ourselves?

As to Fear (iii) this is somewhat related to Fears (i) and (ii) but takes in a different, much wider, subset of reservations about the National Broadband Plan.

Under this banner march those who variously believe that either (a) broadband simply isn't as critical as everyone makes out, (b) running fibre down every boreen to every home is crazy when wireless or 5G technologies are coming down the line or (c) it's bad policy to reward one-off housing in the first place and householders in bungalows must take some responsibility for their choice in where and how they live.

As a tech journalist, I've mostly been focusing on this last issue.

I'm no expert on cost or measuring value for money. And the rights and wrongs of one-off housing, or how those residents should be incentivised or penalised, is more a question for economists and environmentalists to spar over.

But I do know something about how different broadband technologies work, from their strengths to their weaknesses. I also have a good idea of what's coming down the line. And from a technical perspective, there is almost no merit to the argument that wireless technologies will match fixed fibre to the home, let alone overtake it, anytime in the next decade.

I could spend the rest of this column explaining why this is: from the fragility of the signals through bad weather and other obstacles to the requirement (impossible in Ireland) for up to 20,000 new masts around rural villages and open stretches of countryside.

But suffice to say that a wireless alternative would have to drastically reduce the quality of the broadband to be rolled out. It would meet today's needs, to be sure. But in as little as five years' time, it would be almost certainly obsolete without a major, expensive upgrade.

(This is what happened when the Government funded a 3G-based National Mobile Broadband Scheme 10 years ago.

At the planning stage, pundits argued that 2Mbs 'would be enough for most people', echoing predictions decades before that of there only ever needing to be one computer per town.)

If there was consensus on this - a temporary solution that would need to be upgraded at public cost in a few years' time - it would make sense to do it.

But when you actually thrash through the requirements that people say they want from broadband over the next 20 years - a service that will reliably match the opportunity afforded to an urban dweller - it inevitably comes back to a fixed-fibre service.

Does this mean that there is no alternative to the current contract deal on the table between Granahan McCourt and the State, or that it necessarily represents value for money?

Absolutely not. From a financial perspective, it's almost impossible to have an authoritative view on that without seeing the figures.

Unfortunately, the nature of a pre-signed contract means that only the principals (a handful of senior civil servants and ministers) have the comprehensive sets of data around the assessed bid.

But it is fairly widely known in political telecom industry circles that there was little difference in the provisional cost estimates being worked on by Eir, Siro and Granahan McCourt.

It is also accepted that a cost of €500m, initially flagged in 2012 as a possible subsidy level, was never a realistic infrastructure bill once the scale of the project crystallised into fibre to the home.

Beyond that, the cost level is hard to judge at this point.

"I believe in a subsidised rural service in general, just not this way of doing it," is the most common refrain heard among commentators who object to the National Broadband Plan as currently constituted.

But this is a political decision. And looks like it's been made.

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