T he dial-up user’s guide to €1bn plan for high-speed fi­bre

Irish Independent - - Broadband Fiasco News - Adrian Weck­ler

What is the Na­tional Broad­band Plan (NBP)?

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 phone­line 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 high­speed broad­band and that it might be a waste of re­sources. This has also been dis­puted by in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives.

PHOTO: CLAIRE WOOD

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

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