Thursday 17 October 2019

Broadband roll out stumbles onward as tech overtakes the State's plans

Editorial Comment

the latest twist in the seemingly endless saga of the National Broadband Plan could well be the death knell for the troubled and long delayed project.

In the last week Taoiseach Leo Varadkar - no doubt mindful of the outrage over the massive cost overruns at the National Children's Hospital - revealed that the projected cost of the broadband plan would be "many multiples" of what was originally anticipated.

The plan, which was first announced all the way back in 2012, promises to connect up to 500,000 homes in small towns and isolated areas to high-speed broadband.

To date around €22 million has been spent on the plan - though no fibre cables have actually been laid - and while the budget was initially expected to be around €500 million it is now thought it could reach €3 billion or more.

Clearly seeing the writing on the wall, Eir and Siro - the joint enterprise between the ESB and Vodafone - pulled out of the bidding process to carry out the plan.

Now only one bidder remains with a decision on the contract expected relatively soon.

Mr Varadkar has been at pains to emphasise that the situation is different to the National Children's Hospital where costs continue to spiral after what appeared to be a grossly dysfunctional tendering process.

The Taoiseach is right, in one respect at least, the two situations are very different. Mercifully for the taxpayer no deal has been done on the broadband plan.

The contract process remains at the 'due diligence' stage and the Government is still in a position to cut its losses and abandon the whole shambolic scheme.

Across the country the lack of access to high speed internet has put a stranglehold on economic growth but the proposed broadband plan will do little to improve matters.

Given how long it has taken for the plan to even get to this stage, it was inevitable that technological advancements would overtake the Government's concept for nationwide broadband provision.

Technology moves quickly and within the next few years we can expect to see the roll out of 5G wireless internet systems which will offer speeds far in excess of existing fibre networks.

Eir have already announced that they will begin the rollout of 5G in cities later this year, with larger towns to follow soon after.

Other operators are expected to follow suit in quick succession and within the next five to six years we can expect to have 5G coverage across the vast majority of the country.

As such, should the National Broadband Plan actually get the go-ahead, the Government will spend years and up to €3 billion rolling out infrastructure that will already be effectively obsolete.

Surely that isn't a wise investment.

Rather than pumping yet more money into a failed project, the Government should switch its focus and instead work with the communications companies to ensure that 5G can be rolled out nationwide as quickly as possible.

Gorey Guardian