Another blow for rural broadband as main bidder quits the process
Hopes for strong competition in the Government's upcoming rural broadband roll-out tender plan has suffered a blow with one of the main telecom bidders quitting the process.
Siro, the joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB, has announced it will no longer stay in the process.
That leaves just two bidders - Eir and Enet - competing for State contracts to connect 540,000 rural homes and businesses to modern high-speed broadband by 2023.
ESB chief Pat Doherty has described the withdrawal as a "difficult" decision.
"It was made on the basis that Siro was unable to make a business case for continued participation in the process."
Vodafone Ireland chief executive Anne O'Leary said she was "disappointed" by the decision.
Siro executives previously said the Government decision to allow Eir to remove 300,000 premises in the State's 850,000 targeted intervention area lessened its likely commercial interest in the scheme.
Communications Minister Denis Naughten said his department was formally informed by Siro of its withdrawal earlier this week.
He insisted the tendering process would continue with the remaining two companies.
However, he indicated that a tender decision would not be made until 2018. He also declined to offer assurances that connections under the scheme would start next year.
"I'm not going to be drawn on timelines," he said.
Instead, he said that he expects the total number of Irish homes connected to broadband will reach 77pc by the end of 2018 and 90pc by 2020.
The National Broadband Plan has already suffered considerable delays, with the completion date not expected before 2023. The news of Siro's withdrawal comes after internal Government memos revealed that the cost of the National Broadband Plan could be up to 60pc higher than planned.
The price hike could occur because of the Government's recent agreement with Eir.
Siro has moved to clarify that its withdrawal from the State-backed process doesn't mean it is to halt its own commercial plans for connecting 500,000 regional homes to fibre broadband.
"The decision to withdraw was difficult, but it means the company can refocus its attention to building out the Siro network further," said Ms O'Leary. "With over 100,000 premises due to be passed at the end of the month, there is clear commercial demand for gigabit connectivity across regional Ireland."