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'Hopefully we will get the rollout done in five years'

The people behind the €3bn National Broadband Plan say they will not be triggering contingency fund despite the pandemic as they seek to connect up to 540,000 to fibre

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Nationwide coverage: Gerard Patterson, Finnán Reid (3) and Eileen Patterson enjoying fast broadband in rural Ireland

Nationwide coverage: Gerard Patterson, Finnán Reid (3) and Eileen Patterson enjoying fast broadband in rural Ireland

Roll up, roll out: Former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with David McCourt of National Broadband Ireland at St Kevin’s National School in Wicklow last year

Roll up, roll out: Former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with David McCourt of National Broadband Ireland at St Kevin’s National School in Wicklow last year

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Nationwide coverage: Gerard Patterson, Finnán Reid (3) and Eileen Patterson enjoying fast broadband in rural Ireland

The chairman of the National Broadband Plan company says that the €3bn state-subsidised project may now be completed in five years rather than the seven years initially agreed under contract with the government.

The remarks from David McCourt will encourage Communications Minister Eamon Ryan, who is currently pressing Mr McCourt's National Broadband Ireland (NBI) consortium to move more quickly in connecting up to 540,000 rural homes and businesses to high-end fibre.

Separately, a government spokesman has confirmed to the Irish Independent that Mr McCourt's consortium has not triggered any part of a €480m contingency fund, despite Covid-related challenges and setbacks. The €480m forms part of the potential €3bn bill, but can only be triggered in a small number of circumstances.

"Hopefully we'll get it [the rollout] done in five years," Mr McCourt told a Reuters podcast.

"Originally it was a ten-year project, then it was a seven-year project and now, because of Covid, they [the Irish government] want to make it a five-year project. It's a multi billion-dollar project, so to do it in five years will be difficult. But we'll do our best."

It's not the first time that Mr McCourt has expressed optimism about a shorter rollout. In June, he told the trade telecoms publisher Capacity Media that a quicker building timetable was in the works.

"We're working on a plan to speed up the build and build it in 60pc of the time we first planned," he said.

Under the existing terms of the NBP agreement, 115,000 rural premises are to be 'passed' by the fibre broadband network by the end of 2021, with between 70,000 to 100,000 premises connected for each of the five years after that.

People wishing to avail of the services will then contact a retail broadband firm such as Eir, Vodafone or Sky, which will connect the customer's home to the NBP wholesale network.

Last month, NBI said that it had completed survey work across 17 counties for over 63,000 premises.

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As first exclusively revealed by the Irish Independent, NBP services will start at 500Mbs rather than the earlier-planned 150Mbs, due to separate action taken by Eir. Services are expected to be priced from around €40 per month, with higher tariffs for 1Gbs speeds.

Cork will see the first connections later this year, officials say. A number of other counties including Galway and Cavan are set to follow.

The complete rollout was due to take seven years. However, the government has been pushing for a speedier rollout. Department of Communications officials have been "in discussions" with NBI "so that connections now scheduled in year six and seven could be brought forward".

The "target", say officials, "is to try, from the second half of next year, to accelerate the rollout".

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment confirmed to the Irish Independent that Covid-related factors have not been pleaded to draw down any of the €480m contained in a "contingency fund" that makes up part of the €3bn National Broadband Plan contract.

"Covid-19 related matters have not triggered any part of the €480m contingency costs," the spokesperson said. "The contingency subsidy can only be accessed under specific pre-designed circumstances and it does not cover any potential impact of Covid-19 restrictions,"

Mr McCourt has described the National Broadband Plan as the "largest public private partnership in Europe".

"When it is done, Ireland will be unique in that it will be a birthright to have fibre to your home," he told the podcast. "It'll be a game changer for Ireland."

In July, officials clarified that up to 60,000 rural new-build homes in future years will qualify to receive the subsidised NBP connection, no matter how expensive they are.

A small percentage of the most remote premises will be connected through alternate means such as wireless connections, where it is prohibitive to use fibre. However, the speeds and technical quality is guaranteed to be the same as the fibre connections, under pledges from NBI and the government.

Separately, regional broadband officers around the country say that the first community 'broadband connection points' (BCPs) are to go live to the public in the coming weeks.

There are currently over 250 such points established in community centres, sports clubs and schools in rural areas. They are designed to give areas that are stuck with no connectivity a broadband lifeline.

However, the BCPs are already running behind schedule, with the government having promised that 80 of them would be live by the end of the summer. The government, NBI and Vodafone all still say that 200 BCP points will be live and active to the public by the end of 2020.

BCP locations are divided into three priority levels, according to the 2,000-page contract signed between the government and NBI.

However, the milestone connection dates and other data associated with the BCPs were redacted in the recently-published document.

While the Department of Rural and Community Development is paying for the deployment, NBI has been installing the community points. Vodafone was recently awarded a three-year contract to operate 150Mbs connections to the public using the points.

A spokeswoman for Vodafone confirmed to the Irish Independent that the points will use fixed wireless connections rather than 4G or 5G.

"Connections will start this week, with a national launch of the BCPs anticipated to take place early in October," said Daniel Peeters, digital project leader for Cavan County Council.

"Vodafone have progressed to testing at a number of sites across the country. I understand there are a few network modifications to be made before they sign off on the technical solution for all sites. We need to have a reliable service at all sites to make them successful."

A map on NBI's website shows 263 BCP points dotted around the country. A separate part of the website lists only 197 by address.

Two weeks ago, the government published the National Broadband Plan contract, with substantial redactions on issues the government describes as being "commercially sensitive".

These include forms and details regarding subcontractors, subsidy payments, "termination" factors and some elements of how the financial model will work.

Partly withheld sections on the grounds of commercial sensitivity include "performance levels", "operational performance" and some ministerial sections, including the Minister's oversight of the "deployment subcontract procurement process".

The redactions mean that the public may have to wait for further analysis from other state bodies, such as the Comptroller and Auditor General.

However, the contract does allow the government to appoint the Communications Regulator to oversee some important elements of the network rollout, particularly relating to pricing.

It also points to something that NBI has yet to do, such as providing more detail and transparency to the public with regard to its network planning.

Separate contractual provision give NBI the power to ask for the destruction of computer entries or notes taken by operators as part of the ordinary process of doing business.

Six key subcontractors are confirmed in the contract, including David McCourt's National Broadband Ireland, Enet, Eir, KN Networks, Kelly Communications and Denis O'Brien's Actavo.

However, much of the information relating to the subcontractors' roles has been redacted.

Eir stands to gain the largest single slice of the deal with over €900m due for the use of its poles and infrastructure.


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