Friday 18 October 2019

Broadband plan expansion on cards as providers miss targets

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Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

More homes may have to be added to the National Broadband Plan’s (NPB) ‘intervention’ area due to private telecoms operators falling behind their targets.

Communications Minister Richard Bruton says that promises from some broadband firms had not been fulfilled so the State is now stepping in to hook-up left-behind homes and businesses.

“There are a considerable number of premises which the Department has identified, in addition to the 84,000 that were taken out before, where although there was an indication that commercial service would be delivered, it does not now seem that it will be delivered,” said Mr Bruton.

However, he declined to say how many extra homes and businesses the State will now seek to add to the NBP schedule, which is still awaiting sign-off with the sole remaining bidder, Granahan McCourt.

A spokesperson for Mr Bruton said the State-subsidised NBP has a mechanism for stepping in where telecoms operators fail. “The procurement process for the National Broadband Plan allows for changes to the map over the coming years in the event that new commercial plans are announced, or where planned commercial investment has not materialised,” he said.

“This flexibility is necessary to enable it to take account of premises where commercial plans fail to materialise, or where new commercial plans are presented to the Department and satisfy the Department’s published assessment criteria.

“The Department continues to identify a number of premises in the blue area of the [State NBP intervention] map where commercial plans have not yet materialised. This is an iterative, continuous process.” Mr Bruton’s remarks come as the overall size of the NBP area map may be reconsidered.

Last week, the wireless broadband operator Imagine promised to roll out high speed internet to 400,000 of the 540,000 homes and businesses identified in the NBP intervention area.

Imagine’s chief executive, Sean Bolger, said the NBP’s structure should be changed to take account of his rollout. Under EU state aid rules, Imagine may be entitled to challenge the Government’s NBP rollout if it can demonstrate that a private firm is providing a similar, adequate broadband service.

Asked about the Imagine rollout and another expansion by Eir, Mr Bruton said that the companies had not submitted any plans to the Department of Communications of their promised rollouts. “The position on these new investments, which are welcome indeed, is that my Department is seeking an early meeting with both companies,”he said.

“At this point neither operator has submitted commercial or technical plans for the Department to assess. For the Department to determine that the companies have met the standard to reduce the size of the intervention area we will need to have a certain level of scrutiny of the proposals. The intention of the national broadband plan was to deliver to 100pc of premises a high-speed service, which was specified at that stage as being 30 Mbps.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Communications is still deciding whether to proceed to a ‘preferred bidder’ status with Granahan McCourt, the telecoms consortium which is the only remaining bidder in the Government’s NBP process.

A decision has been waited on for almost four months. Sources close to the process say it’s a number of “weeks” away. If ‘preferred bidder’ status is conferred upon Granahan McCourt, the Government and that company will then move to sign a contract for the 25-year deal.

This will see the Government commit to subsidising the buildout of a (mostly) fibre broadband network to the ‘intervention area’ of 540,000 homes and businesses in mostly rural areas.

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