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Tuesday 23 July 2019

Ireland can't roll out rural broadband through USO backdoor, regulator says

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Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

The government cannot roll out high speed broadband to 500,000 homes through a regulatory universal service obligation (USO) at present, Ireland’s telecoms regulator says.

The USO is only to be used when all other efforts have failed, Comreg chairman Garret Blaney told TDs and Senators at an Oireachtas Committee hearing on the National Broadband Plan.

"With regard to broadband, the current legislative framework does not allow for a USO for high speed broadband," said Mr Blaney.

The telecoms USO is a national law that requires the provision of basic services to every home in the state. In Ireland, Eir is mandated to have a basic telephone line to every home, a rule that the company is currently challenging in the High Court, arguing that it’s an unfair cost burden.

"The USO is not intended to replace public policy interventions such as NBP. Instead, the USO is only meant where commercial initiatives and public policy interventions can’t do it," said Mr Blaney.

He added that the "transposition" of an EU directive on broadband by the end of 2020 left it up to the state to decide what proportion of the country was left outside both commercial and public policy interventions.

However, he said that an example of a USO area was 2pc of households. He said that in the UK, 98pc of premises could access broadband of 10Mbs or higher. The USO function there was the remaining 2pc, he said.

Asked by Fianna Fail TD Timmy Dooley whether the state could bypass public policy intervention if it proved too expensive, Mr Blaney said that EU rules specified a "hierarchy" in approach to USO that had to be followed.

"You have to use commercial arrangements first, then you must investigate public policy interventions. There’s a hierarchy. Only after public policy interventions can a USO be used."

He added that a USO designation would require extra time to assess and pick one or more operators under EU rules.

Mr Blaney and fellow Comreg Commissioner Jeremy Godfrey said that they could not comment on Eir’s proposals for an alternative rural rollout process at a cheaper price.

"That is a matter for the department of Communications," said Mr Godfrey.

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