Wednesday 13 November 2019

Existing infrastructure should reduce €500m taxpayer bill for National Broadband Plan - Government

The scheme promises high speed broadband services of at least 30Mbs to 700,000 remote rural homes and businesses
The scheme promises high speed broadband services of at least 30Mbs to 700,000 remote rural homes and businesses
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

The government says it will try to reduce a €500m taxpayer bill for its proposed state-subsidised National Broadband Plan by using existing infrastructure like telephone poles, ducts, sites and masts.

The scheme, which is promising high speed broadband services of at least 30Mbs to 700,000 remote rural homes and businesses, is due to start rolling out by the end of next year and is to be completed by the end of 2020.

In an official update, Departmental officials say that they met with European Commission officials earlier this month to discuss a formal state aid application for the rural broadband roll-out. EU rules forbid governments from interfering with existing competition unless there is a clear lack of services present.

And the government has held discussions with the European Investment Bank, the Irish Strategic Investment Fund and commercial banks to consider how it will fund the new broadband rollout.

The Government's standing estimate is that it is ready to contribute between €355m and €512m of the total cost of rolling out the national broadband network, with private operators providing matching amounts.

But recent estimates from industry figures such as Eircom’s chief executive Richard Moat put the cost of connecting every rural dwelling to fibre at “considerably” less than €1bn.

“The cost of [fibre broadband] equipment is coming down,” Mr Moat told The Irish Independent earlier this year. “And our know-how on how to use existing assets is improving. The combination of those two means that the cost of rolling out rural fibre broadband is substantially less than either we or the market originally thought.”

The Government is adamant that every last home and business in the country will be covered, whether on top of a mountain or on the remotest island.

It says that this amounts to 600,000 homes and 100,000 businesses that cannot receive current high speed services from existing operators. It says that of 50,000 townlands in the country, 47,000 will qualify in whole or in part for subsidised broadband. It also says that this amounts to 100,000km of road network.

And the new services will be pegged at the same price as city-based services, meaning a 30Mbs service should not cost more than €40 a month (at today's prices), regardless of where customers live.

The Department Of Communications says that is in discussions with a number of telecoms companies that have expressed an interest in the government’s proposed state-subsidised broadband roll-out. It said these companies include Eircom, BT Ireland, Enet, Imagine, the ESB-Vodafone joint broadband venture and the Wireless Internet Service Provider Group which represents 33 small broadband providers around the country.

However, the Department Of Communications said that it received just 29 submissions in response to a public consultation phase for its national mapping exercise. While 13 submissions came from telecommunications operators and seven came from local authorities and representative bodies, just seven submissions were received by individuals in relation to the proposed scheme.

Commercial operators such as Eircom and UPC say that they cannot make money from offering high speed broadband to remote townlands and rural ribbon developments, which have 26 people per square kilometre living there, according to the Government.

So the only way for the 700,000 homes and businesses in those areas to get high speed broadband is by state intervention.

"The Government is clear that this requires a robust state intervention to deliver to the parts of the country that the commercial sector won't be in a position to do," said Minister White.

Despite prioritising fibre, the Department will also consider wireless broadband delivery, according to its officials. It is to inspect a high speed “fixed wireless pilot project” in the coming months, say officials. And it has specified "community points" such as Garda stations and schools that may be used to transfer fibre to a phone line or a wireless signal to reach the house or business.

Mobile cellular broadband, such as 4G, has been ruled out.

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