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Rural broadband rollout

Rural broadband rollout

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Rural broadband rollout

A beginner’s guide to what the National Broadband Plan is, when it will happen, who will be covered and how much it will cost.

What is the National Broadband Plan?

It’s a plan to cover every rural home and business in the country with high speed broadband of at least 30 megabits per second (30Mbs), partially paid for by the taxpayer. Today, the government published a map (on broadband.gov.ie) showing in detail every townland, village and rural area where the new state-subsidised broadband will apply.

When are the first rural homes and businesses set to be connected?

The government plans for the first homes and businesses to get the service in late 2016. It says that the entire network should be completed by the end of 2020.

How much will it cost rural householders and business owners?

The same as city-based services. In other words, a 30Mbs service should not cost more than €40 per month (at today’s prices), regardless of where you live.

Will it apply to every rural premises and, if so, how many does that entail?

The government is adamant that every last home and business in the country will be covered, whether on top of a mountain or on the remotest island. It says that this amounts to 600,000 homes and 100,000 businesses that cannot receive current high speed services from existing operators. It says that of 50,000 townlands in the country, 47,000 will qualify in whole or in part for subsidised broadband. It also says that this amounts to 100,000km of road network.

Is the new service to be a minimum of 30Mbs or ‘up to’ 30Mbs?

It will categorically be a minimum speed of 30Mbs and not merely ‘up to’ 30Mbs,” said Minister White. “This chimes with the targets being set by the EU of 30Mbs for all European citizens.” This is a change in policy. Last year, the previous Minister for Communications, Pat Rabbitte, said that it would be ‘up to’ 30Mbs. The upgraded speeds may be designed to help it pass European state-aid tests: the higher the minimum speed specified, the easier it is for the government to say that government intervention is necessary because private operators won’t provide similar services.

How will the government get a minimum of 30Mbs to every last home in the country?

The government is prioritising fibre to be connected into each house or business. However, it is anticipating other methods of broadband delivery in cases of hard-to-reach locations, such as phone lines or fixed wireless solutions. For this, it has specified “community points” such as Garda stations and schools: it may be that fibre runs to such a point and is then switched to a phone line or a wireless signal to reach the house or business.

Is the government’s new broadband map final?

No. The government is encouraging people to examine the map in detail (it zooms down to every household and business) and check to see that it accurately reflects broadband availability. The map is available at broadband.gov.ie.

How much will the government spend and where is the money coming from?

The government’s standing estimate is that it is ready to contribute between €355m and €512m of the total cost of rolling out the national broadband network, with private operators providing matching amounts. However, Minister White says that it could cost more (or less) than that, depending on the tender results. The government hopes to tap into EU funding to help pay for it, possibly including the European Investment Bank. However, it says that it will commit taxpayers’ money to it as necessary.

Over the last three years, the cost of building that has come down significantly, with industry sources estimating that almost every house in the country could be covered for around €1bn.

Why can’t it be done sooner than the end of 2016?

The government says that to pass EU state-aid rules, it now needs to consult with industry (Irish broadband providers) on the issue before formally submitting its plan for EU approval next summer. If it clears that hurdle, it will then tender out for operators to help build and run the networks. Minister White says that the tender process should happen “this time next year” and that construction of the network (or networks) will begin in 2016.

Is there anything that could hold it up further?

There are three main potential barriers. The first is that the EU may draw out or prevent it happening based on state-aid rules. A second hurdle is that the government may lose interest: despite all the promises and plans, there is no budgetary commitment yet to this process and the earliest expected roll-out date will almost certainly come after the election of a new government.

One obstacle that is likely to crop up is a legal challenge. This could come either from a losing tender bidder or existing rural broadband providers, who might argue that the state-funded infrastructure is set to put them out of business. For example, there are at least 50 wireless internet service providers around rural towns and villages that could be wiped out if fibre is rolled out to every rural home.

Who will own the newly built rural network or networks?

We don’t know. The government is leaving the door open to handing over the rural networks to private operators as it doesn’t particularly want to start running a new utility. The issue will be outlined in the government’s tender next year. While the government does not want to give away taxpayer-funded infrastructure on the cheap, it also does not want to scare off potential bidders by denying any long term financial incentives for them.

Who is likely to bid to run the new networks?

Eircom and UPC, which dominate Ireland’s existing broadband infrastructure, are interested in the process and are likely to pitch for whatever tender comes up. Vodafone and the ESB, which are currently building a smaller fibre network, are also interested in the process.

Will the new network or networks be regulated by Comreg?

Probably, but neither the government nor Comreg is yet saying what role Comreg will have.

Is this the only rural broadband scheme currently underway?

Technically, yes. The ESB and Vodafone have announced plans to connect ‘up to’ 500,000 homes and businesses around the country with a new fibre broadband network, but this will only be towns of at least 4,000 people. So it will largely just replicate what Eircom already has on its own road map and won’t reach the 700,000 rural premises targeted by the National Broadband Plan.

Where does this leave the previous National Broadband Scheme?

That scheme -- which ran from 2008 until August of this year -- is now over. It used cellular mobile broadband (from 3 Ireland) as its main service with promises of delivering between 2Mbs and 3Mbs. It’s interesting that the government has now saying that it will not 4G mobile broadband as part of a National Broadband Plan. This would appear to restrict extremely remote locations to fixed wireless or phone line connections.

How did the Department of Communications put the map together?

It sought detailed information from broadband operators about their own existing coverage maps and their planned coverage maps up to the end of 2016. (In effect, this means Eircom and UPC.) It then worked back from that to identify individual estates, townlands and one-off houses not covered by broadband services of at least 30Mbs. “Where an operator said that it provides 20Mbs or 25Mbs, we counted that as an area that is not covered,” said one department official. The government says it has had 100 meetings with industry operators between April and mid-November.

Why is all of this necessary?

Commercial operators such as Eircom and UPC say that they simply cannot make money from offering high speed broadband to remote townlands and rural ribbon developments, which have 26 people per square kilometre living there according to the government. So the only way for the 700,000 homes and businesses in those areas to get high speed broadband is by state intervention.

“The government is clear that this requires a robust state intervention to deliver to the parts of the country that the commercial sector won’t be in a position to do,” said Minister White.

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