Business Technology

Monday 18 February 2019

The dial-up user's guide to €1bn plan for high-speed fibre

Q&A

Broadband supremo: David McCourt is the man behind the Granahan McCourt bid to lay new fibre broadband lines across the country
Broadband supremo: David McCourt is the man behind the Granahan McCourt bid to lay new fibre broadband lines across the country
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Q. What is the National Broadband Plan (NBP)? A. It's a Government scheme to invest over €1bn in laying new fibre broadband lines to large chunks of the country that ordinary broadband operators won't serve.

What does that mean, 'new fibre broadband lines'?

It means they replace your existing phone lines. They're laid right up to your house. They carry a phone signal and a high-speed broadband connection.

So the Government is talking about covering all of rural Ireland with this?

Most of it, yes. But also parts of urban Ireland, too. Any of Ireland's 2.3 million premises (homes and businesses) that get less than 30 megabits per second speed from their best available internet provider (like Eir or Sky or Vodafone), qualify. That's a lot of homes - 540,000 in all. It's more than a million people.

The only exception is a few thousand far-flung rural homes, which the Government says will be connected by some sort of wireless service. But even that will be way faster than your current, crawling phone-line internet.

Is this really high-speed broadband, though? My provider calls my service 'eFibre' and it still takes 20 seconds to open an email.

Yes. An actual fibre broadband line can deliver a basic service that's at least 10 times the speed of Eir's fastest phone-line broadband.

How do I know my house or community is in this area?

There's an online map (yes, we're aware of the irony) you can check. It's at dccae.gov.ie. You put in your Eircode and it shows you instantly whether you're in the intervention zone or an area that already has basic broadband access.

So why doesn't the Government just do this? I've been hearing about it for years.

It's a truly massive infrastructural project. It has to cover most of the island. So instead of setting up a State agency to do it, the Government has opted to hold a competition (a 'tender') for a private company to do it on a 25-year contract. For various reasons, that tender has taken a couple of years to put together. It's also complicated by the fact the Government can't roll out a service (like broadband) in an area a private operator (like Eir) says it plans to service.

So where are we? Is it ready to proceed now?

We're into the final weeks before a contract decision is made. The initial batch of competitors for the project, which included Eir, Vodafone and the ESB, has been narrowed down to one lesser-known bid from Granahan McCourt.

Eir and the others pulled out mainly because the taxpayer subsidy wasn't going to be high enough for them.

Who is Granahan McCourt?

A company led by an Irish-American businessman called David McCourt. His main telecoms experience is in the US and Mexico, while he owned an Irish telecoms network company called Enet for a few years. Enet has a long-term State contract to run fibre networks around regional Irish towns.

So why is there controversy about it?

Some people are still unhappy about meetings between Mr McCourt and former communications minister Denis Naughten. Despite an audit report claiming the process wasn't undermined, opposition politicians are unhappy about the meetings because it's still not completely known whether the tender was discussed.

Is that it?

No. Other than criticism over the McCourt-Naughten meetings, the basic objections to the process now are as follows:

- It's too expensive: some media reports claim the final bill could be as high as €3bn. The reports, sourced anonymously, have been disputed by industry executives who say a figure of around €1bn to €1.5bn is more realistic. But even this amount is objected to by some, who wonder about the wisdom of taxpayers subsidising rural broadband;

- The main bidder's consortium doesn't have the status of Eir or Siro: this is a big objection for Fianna Fáil, which says the Government should spend more money enticing Eir or Siro back into the tender contest. But both Eir and Siro say they have no interest in the project anymore.

- There won't be demand: the idea has been floated that rural homes and businesses won't be that interested in high-speed broadband and that it might be a waste of resources. This has also been disputed by industry executives.

Irish Independent

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