The National Broadband Plan, Ensuring it is Worth the Wait

The procurement process for the National Broadband Plan is well under way and an announcement on the preferred bidder is expected in the Autumn. It is planned that the network rollout will begin very soon after.

The National Broadband Plan, first announced by Minister Pat Rabitte in 2012, has gone through a very extensive and thorough process, examining the proposed State intervention from all aspects including EU state aid rules, procurement and governance among others. It is to be hoped that all the planning, research and analysis will yield a National Broadband Plan fit for purpose for the next 25 years.

The National Broadband Plan or a Rural Broadband Plan?

Reporting of the NBP is often expressed in the context of delivery to rural homes and businesses. In reality it is much more than this – broadband has been and continues to be the most pressing infrastructure requirement throughout the country and there are ‘intervention areas’ across every county, including Dublin.

By describing the deficit as a rural deficit it risks identifying the issue as soley a rural issue and implies that urban Ireland is well served. Take Oranmore for example, a commuter town a few kilometres from Galway city with a population of 4,990 (Census 2016). Nearly half (45.9%) of workers living there work in Galway city and suburbs while many others commute to Ennis, Limerick, Athlone and Dublin.

While most of Oranmore has access to high broadband speeds, there are several housing estates which are within the Intervention area. For example, one housing estate, comprising over 40 houses all occupied by young families is situated less than 1 kilometre from the local boys national school, 1.2 km from the local Gaelscoil and 1.3km from the local comprehensive secondary school established in 1861 and catering for 800+ day pupils. The estate is on the public sewage network and on the public water supply yet has to wait for the National Broadband Plan to access fit for purpose broadband. Other housing estates situated further beyond the centre receive commercially defined high speed broadband.

Many residents bought these houses in the expectation that services that are typically provided in urban settings would be available. Most residents, if not all, would subscribe to faster broadband speeds if they could and many work (or try to work) occasionally from home as some commute long distances to work. This estate is not unique, there are other estates like this in Oranmore and across the country that are in the Intervention Area.

A Future Proofed Network

At a recent conference, Helene Graham, an independent telecommunications consultant, (previously with Eir), noted that when making the announcement in 2012, Minister Rabitte set out a plan that was going to improve telecommunications for everyone in Ireland, no matter how far and remote. At the time the target was 30Mbps download and 6Mbps upload. However the pace of change and evolution in services and technology has changed so much that as she noted there is really very little point in creating a service that gives you 100Mbps if it takes you two and a half years to build, because by the time you build it 100Mbps is irrelevant.

In considering the National Broadband Plan six years ago, the Department were looking for a way to provide a long-term solution, recognising the increasing demand for greater broadband speeds. The original target of 30Mbps was to be in line with the EU 2020 Digital Agenda targets. The Department are now talking about a future proofed network, without specifying speeds, again in recognition of the ever increasing demand.

This is very welcome, but will it be future proofed for everyone? The technologies and methods of rollout will have far reaching consequences for the 540,000 postal addresses in the Intervention Area over the next 25 years. There will also be consequences for new premises yet to be built in the Intervention Area over the next 25 years due to the choice of technology deployed now.

Future proofing telecommunications provisions is widely considered to mean using optical fibre, which involves laying cables, often via the road network. It is accepted that not every premises in the Intervention Area will be served by fibre as it would be very costly, especially in very remote areas. What is not clear yet however is the extent of fibre/non-fibre rollout. Some suggest that about 7% of homes in the Intervention Area are too remote and will be served by alternative technologies such as fixed wireless or 5G. The final figure is likely to be the subject of negotiation with Department officials and may also change during the course of the network rollout.

It will be important that the fibre rollout is as extensive and far reaching as possible given the long-term implications of the build. The National Broadband Plan is the Government’s attempt to deliver fit for purpose broadband for the next 25 years and while many have waited a very long time it is also important to ensure it is worth the wait.