Government broadband plan for rural areas 'isn't feasible'
THE chief executive of BT Ireland has cast doubt on the Government's ability to deliver fibre speeds to rural Ireland, as promised under the National Broadband Plan.
Last week, the Irish Independent revealed that the Government was considering a watered down version of its commitment to co-fund fibre-speed rural broadband access of at least 30 megabits per second.
In response, campaigning groups such as Irish Rural Link warned that moves to water down the National Broadband Plan could cost rural jobs.
Now Colm O'Neill, CEO of BT Ireland, has cast doubt on the ability to deliver the promised speeds.
"I think physics and economics will say that 30 megabits per second to all rural areas is not feasible," said Mr O'Neill.
Mr O'Neill said that he thought the Government would face "intractable" difficulties in delivering such fibre speeds to every rural premises in the country.
"I think that (Communications) Minister (Pat) Rabbitte has moderated his view on that," he said. "The minister has indicated that coverage and adequate services, rather than pure speed is what counts and that's important."
However, Mr O'Neill said that the main issue for rural Ireland was reliable access to better broadband than it had at present.
"The main issue is that so many rural premises can only get less than a megabit per second broadband," he said.
"If you could deliver even three megabits per second reliably to everyone, that would genuinely be a step forward. Two to three megabits is generally accepted across the EU as the level at which you can access most services without flaws."
But building out a national rural broadband network faces "intractable" difficulties, he said.
"From a network point of view, the Irish rural housing stock is a nightmare," he said. "You might have a (broadband) cabinet that services 30 homes and some of those homes could be up to 6km from the cabinet. But once you get 2km from a cabinet, it becomes very hard to deliver high-speed broadband."
BT Ireland currently has 90pc of Northern Ireland premises networked to fibre-connected broadband services.
Mr O'Neill said that it is currently in discussions to increase that figure to 95pc. But this is very expensive to do due to the location and topographical challenges of the unconnected rural premises, he said.
"Every extra percentage of population covered as part of that process costs an absolute fortune," he said.
"The way that some rural housing is situated in the Republic is a bit of a nightmare in this regard."
Mr O'Neill said that although Ireland was very well connected in terms of international networks, it still lags behind Britain and other countries.
"On broadband, there is no doubt that we are well behind areas such as the North and Britain," said Mr O'Neill. "In the North, 90pc of homes are being connected to fibre, which can give you up to 80 megabits per second. It's the same story for Britain."
"Having said that, there are a lot of good initiatives and programmes and good things to have happened in the last 12 months," Mr O'Neill said, praising Eircom's eFibre broadband infrastructure and the advent of 4G mobile operator licences.