The government is “committed” to a state-subsidised National Broadband Plan because there is no alternative for 25pc of the population, Communications Minister Richard Bruton said today.
Speaking in Dublin at the Small Firms Conference, Mr Bruton hinted that the government is ready to proceed next week with the €3bn National Broadband Plan (NBP) project, which aims to connect 540,000 rural homes and businesses with fibre-grade broadband.
He also said that the government favours construction of a rural network on existing private infrastructure rather than building a complete new “isolated” network.
“We've developed this [NBP] proposal on the basis of subsidising the private sector to reach areas that need to be reached,” said Mr Bruton.
“When the private sector has built an existing networks of poles and ducts, it is absolutely logical that the state should seek to build on that rather than have, in its own ownership, isolated ports and wires at the end of a network that is otherwise in private hands.”
Mr Bruton is expected to bring the NBP proposal to Cabinet next Tuesday to seek approval for it. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has indicated that he supports the plan.
“The private sector is not able to commit to [high speed broadband] for the remaining 25pc of the population,” said Mr Bruton.
”And that's why we have committed to the National Broadband Plan that we have been tendering for. We're getting to a very advanced stage in moving to make a decision.”
The only bidder for the National Broadband Plan is Granahan McCourt, a consortium led by businessman David McCourt.
Eir and Siro -- a joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB -- backed out, citing a lack of interest in building the rural network.
If given the green light, the bulk of the network is expected to take three years to build.
Entry level speeds under in the new fibre network will start at 150Mbs, which exceeds the best available speeds on the majority of Eir landline broadband services.
The government has promised that access to the broadband services will cost rural householders no more than similar products in urban areas.
Mr Bruton’s comments come after he all but ruled out mobile broadband as an alternative to fibre for the state-backed rural rollout.
Earlier this week, the Communications Minister said that a 4G or 5G mobile broadband network capable of covering every rural home and business would require an extra 6,000 masts around the country in rural areas, double the amount currently in place.
He also said that it would take up three times as long to build and that the broadband quality would be significantly poorer than a fixed fibre service.
“A mobile 5G service is not a suitable alternative to fibre-to-the-home broadband, for many reasons as outlined by Comreg and others,” Mr Bruton said in social media comments.
“Mobile coverage of 30mbs to 99.5pc of the country would require an additional 6,000 new masts around the country, would take over 10 years, would have insufficient capacity and [the] signal would be significantly affected by home insulation and hills.”
Mr Bruton pointed to a recent report from Ireland’s telecoms regulator, which estimated that it would cost almost €2bn to build a mobile broadband network that reached 99pc of the country, geographically.
The same report, commissioned by Comreg and conducted by Frontier Economics, found that the quality of a rural broadband network based on mobile technology would struggle in comparison to fixed fibre counterparts and may not qualify under the ‘future proof’ requirements set out in the National Broadband Plan criteria.
“The [mobile] service modelled is not the same level of service outlined in the NBP service requirements which are notably higher,” said the report. “In particular, the NBP proposed a minimum level of service of 30 Mbps to premises and bidders were also requested to provide a future proofed network which responded to growing demand for bandwidth.”
However, the report also found that a mobile broadband network that was built to reach 99pc of the population, rather than the geographical landmass, would be considerably cheaper, at a cost of €511m.
Mr Bruton’s comments come amid criticism over the cost of the National Broadband Plan, expected to be around €3bn over 25 years. Some critics of the plan have suggested a 5G wireless or mobile broadband network instead, arguing that it may cost less to construct.
Others have argued that the state’s ambitions for high speed broadband should be restricted to the original 1,100 villages and small towns initially identified by the process and that communities themselves should then find a way connect individual households and businesses to the state fibre.