Broadband intervention set for 2017 rollout

Former Communications Minister Alex White described the National Broadband Plan as “by far the most significant Government communications project in Ireland’s history”, eolas looks at the details of the Government’s intervention plan and implications of wider EU telecoms reform.

First announced back in 2012, plans to provide high speed broadband to every citizen in Ireland have been slow in progression. However, the procurement process for the 25 year plan is finally underway, after a further delay earlier this year, and new Communications Minister, Denis Naughten TD, believes that the awarding of the contract to the winning bidder or bidders will now take place in 2017.

The inability of the commercial sector to access huge parts of rural Ireland led to the country dramatically falling down Europe’s ranking tables for broadband accessibility. The problem lay in Ireland’s low population density, which made connecting 1.8 million of Ireland’s rural population economically unviable for the commercial sector. State intervention aims to achieve 100 per cent access to high speed broadband by 2020 (the original date set; prior to any delay in the process) meaning that it needs to connect over 750,000 postal addresses to a target minimum download speed of 30Mbps.

Last September the Government revealed that it would allocate an initial €275 million, with further funding expected over the 25 year lifetime of the contract and would complement a €2.5 billion accelerated commercial investment for enhanced telecommunications. The Government also revealed that they have chosen a gap-funded model for the building of the network. Despite Naughten openly admitting his preference for state ownership, the potential cost of an extra €500 to €600 million on the Exchequer’s balance sheet, led to the decision to opt for a commercial stimulus model.

“While I recognise the potential long-term value in the State owning any network that is built, I am advised that under a full-concession model, the entire cost of the project would be placed on the Government’s balance sheet, with serious implications for the available capital funding over the next five to six years,” he said.

“Given that both models will deliver the same services and be governed by an almost identical contract(s), I cannot justify reducing the amount of money available to Government for other critical priorities such as climate change, housing and health, over the next six years.”

Naughten has proposed introducing universal service obligation (USO) for the eventual owner, making broadband a legal right for every citizen in Ireland.

However, some problems have already emerged in the process. A mapping exercise conducted prior to the intervention failed to recognise around 170,000 additional premises, thought to have already been served with broadband. It’s possible that the Government will have to negotiate an increase in the intervention area from 757,000 premises to 927,000 premises.

Recent figures from ComReg showed that only around 10,000 homes and premises in Ireland are directly connected to fibre broadband. Currently companies mostly run new fibre technologies, widely accepted as the future of high speed broadband, to street level cabinets and then rely on the old copper connections. The copper network has suffered from underinvestment and is in various states of disrepair and it is believed that broken connections is a main cause in the 170,000 premises not being served.

eir, the State’s largest telecoms firm, has previously pledged to deliver high-speed broadband to 1.9 million homes and businesses by 2020. It’s one of the providers which has pledged to reconnect those premises missed on a case by case basis, however, an analysis of commercial performance being carried out by the Department will influence a decision on whether those premises are to be re-added to the NBP.

Another potential setback in the process is the likelihood of new EU guidelines. Recently leaked documents, ahead of wider EU telecoms policy, suggest that regulators in Brussels want every household to have access to superfast broadband (100 mbps) within a decade, significantly faster than the minimum 30 mbps set out in the NBP. Any shortfall on the EU targets could also impact on Ireland’s ability to access State aid. The EU review is also set to alter current regulations in a bid to promote wider public investment.

Technical standards set by the Department

  • A minimum of 30 Mbps download
  • A minimum of 6Mbps upload or twice the maximum upload speed of existing broadband in the intervention area, whichever is greater
  • Latency (one-way) – no more than 25 milliseconds
  • Jitter – no more than 25 milliseconds
  • Packet loss – not more than 0.1 per cent
  • Service availability – at least 99.95 per cent of the time
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