Clash over access cost to Eir rural poles could hit National Broadband Plan
The National Broadband Plan is poised to enter a new phase of conflict, with Eir indicating that it does not intend to lower costs for access to its extensive rural infrastructure.
This is despite Enet and government officials insisting that access to thousands of Eir's rural poles and ducts will be "critical" to making the state-subsidised rural rollout work.
Speaking to the Irish Independent, Eir CEO Richard Moat said that Eir would "absolutely" facilitate access to its rural infrastructure, but at existing regulated prices, typically between €10 and €20 per pole.
Eir's firm stance on the matter could introduce further uncertainty to an already fraught procurement process, which was rocked last week by Eir's withdrawal from the rollout.
"This is a cost-oriented price set by ComReg, and a fairly recent one," said Mr Moat.
"We spent more than €100m maintaining fixed infrastructure last year, most of which was on poles and ducts.
"Last year we replaced around 45,000 poles. If we were to voluntarily reduce the regulated price, it may not just apply to the National Broadband Plan, but for other operators as well."
Any legal action over the matter could delay the National Broadband Plan process beyond its time frame of construction starting in early 2019.
However, Mr Moat said that Eir was the only operator that has invested in advanced broadband in rural Ireland and that it was not fair for operators to now seek discounts on "regulated prices that reflect our investment".
Last week, Enet boss David McCourt told this newspaper that the matter could turn out to be a crunch issue.
"Accessing Eir's infrastructure is a critical issue for us," he said.
"That could be solved a number of ways, but there is still more work to be done for that to happen."
Mr McCourt said that a new agreement must happen "between us and Eircom, or us, the Government and Eircom".
"It's not in the best interest of anyone in Ireland to go building a third pole. That's not the best use of capital," he said.
Enet is understood to regard pricing and availability of poles to be a key issue, arguing that existing regulated costs for access to poles was initially set for far lower volumes than is anticipated under a National Broadband Plan rollout reaching 540,000 rural homes and businesses.
The government is also understood to regard the access issue as important, but has not yet said how it might be fixed.
Separately, Mr Moat defended the €270 wholesale access cost to rival operators on its new fibre-to-the-home network which will cover 300,000 rural premises by the end of 2018.
Operators such as Sky and Vodafone say they can not afford to offer retail competition on Eir's network at such prices. Speaking to this newspaper last week, they also compared the €270 charge unfavourably to the €70 fee charged by Siro for similar rival access to its regional fibre network.
However, Mr Moat said that the €270 charge was affirmed as fair by the telecoms regulator and that Eir's costs in building to rural homes is greater than Siro's costs in building to homes located around big regional towns.