'Everyone's right to fast broadband will be enshrined in Irish law'
Communications Minister Denis Naughten plans to make a high-speed connection an 'enforceable legal right' in Ireland as he finally closes in on signing the contract for the rollout of the National Broadband Plan. He also tells Adrian Weckler and Fearghal O'Connor that he's not concerned over speculation that Eir's new owner plans to flip the firm for short-term profit
Are you concerned that first thing the new owners have done with Eir is to let 750 people go?
DN: Naturally, any job losses are a concern. I haven't had an opportunity to meet the new company yet, but I will in the next fortnight.
I'm anxious to see what the company's plans are and how they intend to invest in the telecoms sector in this country. But the one thing that is exciting about it is that we now have a telecoms company taking over Eir.
It's the first time for a long time that the owners of Eir are in the telecoms sector themselves. This company probably wouldn't have bought Eir unless they see that there's an opportunity there for them. It'll be interesting to see exactly where they see their niche.
Obviously, Eir has changed ownership many times in its history. But after a lot of financial trouble, it has recently established a fairly sound fiscal footing and started to invest in regional infrastructure. Do you have any fear of Eir now being sweated and flipped?
DN: I actually don't. The fact that the owner is a telecoms company, the fact that what they seem to be doing in other jurisdictions is building out infrastructure.
To be sure, in those other jurisdictions they're competing against the incumbent and now they're becoming the incumbent here. But they've been about building out infrastructure. I hope and believe that it will look at a new phase of investment in telecoms here. Because we haven't seen it to any great extent in Eir in the past, other than the investment in the 300,000 regional fibre homes.
Are you worried at all about the company's ability to deliver on that plan to roll out 300,000 regional fibre-broadband connections when they downsize to such a degree?
DN: Well, of course I'll be asking them about the delivery of the 300,000 regional homes that they've committed to.
Do you have any indication that they'll go beyond the 300,000?
DN: I've absolutely no idea. And that's why I'm anxious to meet them.
What about Enet getting access to Eir's infrastructure, to make it easier in building out the National Broadband Plan?
DN: That's an issue that has been ongoing with Eir over the last number of weeks between my own officials and Eir. And it will be an issue with the new owners when I meet them early next month. We are anxious to see progress on that. It's in everyone's interest to build out this infrastructure.
Would you be willing to force that issue through the courts to ensure access for the NBP? Otherwise there is possibly a very large bill to be added to it.
DN: Everyone knows the difficulties we've had in relation to regulation via the courts in this country.
I have flagged, before Christmas, and it got Government approval, to draft legislation specifically in relation to infrastructure access for the National Broadband Plan. And that is part of the overall discussion we're having with the company at present.
Could 5G play a part in bridging the gaps?
DN: I remember when Eir pulled back [from the National Broadband Plan] some people were saying that 4G was the solution for rural areas.
But we know from when the National Broadband Scheme was initially launched [in 2009], that was a 3G solution which was going to provide broadband in rural areas. But we know that the day it went live it was obsolete. Because it just doesn't have the capacity.
In fairness, we could say the same about the 30Mbs nominal limit that the Government has as its definition of high- speed broadband and which determines whether your home needs intervention via the National Broadband Plan or not.
DN: Absolutely. When the 30Mbs benchmark was set, it was seen as a good target.
The reality is now, you really need to be delivering a service that's at least 100Mbs. With fibre, we're talking up to 1,000Mbs. And I'm even told it's up to 10,000Mbs. Fibre is the solution, it's the only way to future-proof this network.
We were the first country in the world to bring electricity to every single home. We're now going to be the first country in the world to bring high-speed broadband to rural areas through the National Broadband Plan. But we're also aware of urban areas as well, to address those anomalies where people don't have access there, even in the centre of cities.
And we now think that in urban areas the only way to future-proof this is to come with a universal service obligation. It's worked very well for us in relation to voice services, as everyone in Ireland can get access to a landline and they have a legal right to that. The same will be there in future in relation to broadband.
So you're saying there will be a universal service obligation for broadband?
DN: Yes. We have been negotiating this as part of discussions taking place at European level in relation to the European digital and social market where the state can set a minimum level of service for broadband that is a real practical level of service. At the moment you have this definition of functional broadband which is a joke. It's minuscule. So you'd have a proper threshold that would be set.
Which company would this be placed on? The existing USO for voice is on Eir.
DN: That would have to be regulated as to who is deemed the company responsible for that. It will be an issue for ComReg in the future. But what we want now is the tools to be able to bring that in, to ensure that for any anomaly that is there, for any premises that doesn't have access to high-speed broadband, that there is a legal guarantee that they can get broadband in the future.
Does a legal guarantee mean they can sue? And if so, who?
DN: That will be up to each member state, in this case Ireland. It could be the case that there will be a pool of money there for companies to dip into, to provide that service. But the intention is that everyone in this country, no matter how far they are from Leinster House, has access to high-speed broadband.
When do you see this coming into effect?
DN: That's part of the negotiations at the moment. We have it accepted, in principle, at a European level.
That will be incorporated into the new directives which will probably be approved, we're hoping, later this year. It will then be enshrined in Irish law after that.
Is the National Broadband Plan currently on track?
DN: Yes. There is significant progress now on how we're going to build it out. I'm determined that we sign that contract this year.
Do you think we could get to Christmas with no contract signed and an start to work in sight?
DN: I hope that won't happen. You can never be absolute in relation to this, I wish I could be.
But I would be very surprised if we were reading [that it hasn't been signed] coming up to Christmas. But yes, it has been frustratingly slow. I'm 20 years talking about broadband, so I have been keeping the pressure on my officials and on the whole operation to make sure it happens as quickly as possible.
I know the frustration that's out there. At the moment it's mainly business that's frustrated and also families. But the opportunities that this provides are absolutely immense. I don't think we can fully comprehend it. Electrification changed the whole rural economy. I think broadband can do the same.
Now that there's one bidder, is there less pressure on them now to provide the best value given they're the only remaining bidder?
DN: People tend to forget the type of contract it is. Many of these issues have already been bottomed out and signed off when there were two or three bidders in the process. There are other aspects, too.
This has to go through a value-for-money assessment and has to be signed off by the Department of Expenditure and Reform. The European Commission will also have to sign off on it, as will Cabinet.
But won't those entities obviously sign off on it? Who would block it?
DN: At the end of the day, this will be assessed by the comptroller and auditor general.
No one wants to be in a situation two or three years from now where the comptroller and auditor general comes out and says this was bad value for money.
So that is something that we're all very conscious of and something that is to the fore of these discussions.
Mobile coverage is also a big issue for lots of people, particularly in rural areas. Is there any progress on a mobile coverage map?
DN: Yes. Ofcom, the UK equivalent of ComReg, has a coverage map for all of the mobile phone operators in the UK.
We're currently working with ComReg to do the same thing. And by the end of this year we will have a mobile phone coverage map available. So if you live in Roscommon, you'll be able to see if operator A has better coverage in your area than operator B.
One of the things we've found is that when people complain about mobile coverage, you can nearly predict which operator they're with depending on where they live.
Is this data that the operators themselves feed in?
So how will we know whether they're accurate? Is there any verification?
DN: Absolutely. That's one of the things we're talking about. There will be a facility on it where you can download an app that actually feeds back your actual coverage.
And this can feed back to update that map. So if operator A says there's coverage in a bit of Roscommon but actually you don't have coverage there, that's fed back into the map.
Don't apps like Speedtest already have this kind of information?
DN: Yes, but this will be publicly available.
When will this be up and running?
DN: ComReg expects this to be operational by year end, which will be a big boost coming into the Christmas market.
Why are electric car sales still so low?
DN: There were huge targets in relation to it. We have about 4,500 registrations of electric vehicles. We're doing a lot of work.
There has been anecdotal evidence that people are importing second-hand vehicles from the UK. The big problem I'm told is that companies cannot get enough EVs to meet demand. Demand is actually outstripping supply and there is a pinch point. The changes that the Government made in last autumn's budget are actually having an impact. There are far more queries in relation to it but there is a squeeze in relation to EVs and they're hoping by the middle of the year when the second round of registrations come along, that we will see a significant increase in the numbers.
Why don't you drive more electric vehicles in government?
DN: We're working on that at present. We've set aside a fund of €5m specifically to promote EVs. We're also providing funding for private companies and semi-state companies to convert some of their fleet to electric. The gardai have six electric vehicles at the moment, while the defence forces are in the process of purchasing them. The OPW is looking at it and our own department are looking it.
But what about you and your own car?
DN: I've a Toyota Prius. It's a hybrid. I would love to be able to get an electric vehicle but the range just isn't there at the moment. Sadly, I don't live near enough to Dublin that that isn't an issue for me.
Down the line if we do all change to EVs, how does the government replace all the taxation that we're going to lose from petrol and diesel and VRT?
DN: That's a big question, not just here in Ireland, but right across the OECD. How do we replace the lost revenue? A substantial amount of revenue comes in from fossil fuels at the moment. And it is a far bigger issue than just Ireland.
To hear Mr Naughten's full interview, download or stream 'The Big Tech Show' podcast from iTunes, Soundcloud or Independent.ie/podcasts.