Broadband pledged for 300 rural towns next year as EU signs off on €2.6bn scheme
The first rural premises are to be connected to high-speed broadband in the spring after the EU signed off on the Government's €2.6bn rural broadband plan.
The Irish Independent also understands the long- delayed contract to supply "full fibre" broadband to 540,000 rural homes will be signed in the next two weeks.
Under the plan, 300 rural towns and villages are to receive a fibre broadband connection in the first 12 months of the scheme.
The timing of the plan means broadband roll-out is sure to become a hotly debated election issue with the country expected to go to the polls in May.
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The contract timetable also promises the service to 250,000 rural residents by the end of 2021, with the remaining homes to be connected over a five-year period.
The rural infrastructure plan cleared its final regulatory hurdle yesterday with state-aid approval from the European Commission.
EU Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said the measure was approved to address the "significant digital divide between urban and rural areas".
She said it will "help households and businesses in areas of Ireland where private investment is insufficient".
The EU Commissioner's statement went on to say "no private investor has demonstrated a concrete plan to invest commercially in the near future" in the designated areas targeted and suggested 5G or wireless broadband services may not offer a viable alternative.
The National Broadband Plan has been dogged by delays and controversy over its cost and ownership.
However, the Government insists the plan is necessary to provide vital infrastructure.
The rural roll-out envisages "full fibre" connections directly into homes and premises, achieving the maximum available broadband speed under current technological conditions. The plan also envisages a small number of rural premises using wireless connections, but only with the same speeds guaranteed as the fibre connections.
The EU Commission announcement was welcomed by Communications Minister Richard Bruton and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.
Mr Varadkar described the EU approval as "really good news" and indicated the Government would move to sign a contract before Christmas.
"There's still a few t's to cross, and i's to dot, but we'd be confident we could sign the contract in the next couple of weeks. We would expect next year you'd start to see some of the connection hubs around the country. After that about 100,000 homes, businesses and farms all over Ireland being connected every year."