Ireland’s National Broadband Plan, which aims to deliver high-speed broadband to rural homes and businesses by 2020, is set to begin its procurement process next week.
The ambitious plan will cost between €300m – €500m, and is being spearheaded by Communications Minister Alex White TD. The funds will be allocated to operators that pledge to bring broadband to underserved areas. They will be required to deliver a guaranteed minimum of 30Mbps download speeds and 6Mbps upload speeds with 99.95% uptime.
The plan will serve 300,000 homes and 100,000 businesses by 2020. Many of these homes and businesses are located in rural areas that are far beyond the reach of fixed-line broadband services. The problem is that these areas are designated economically unfeasible by operators to serve. This is why government intervention is deemed necessary.
Renewed interest in the plans emerged in recent months after Eir’s wholesame division, Open Eir, said it could now provide fibre services to 300,000 homes that had been designated as being within the intervention area.
However, some doubt was cast on the project when UCD economist Colm McCarthy published a report stating that the plan was seriously flawed in terms of market design, monopoly regulation and competition issues. His report was commissioned by a group of 36 wireless internet service providers (WISPs).
A spokesperson from the Department of Communications responded to the report, saying, “the plan is not in jeopardy. The procurement process will commence next week where the Pre-Qualification Questionnaire will be issued on the European Official Journal and e-tenders.”
“This department and Government will work with Eir and all broadband providers that have expressed an interest in the upcoming tender process.”
“As stated previously, and as set out in the timelines to-date, the procurement process will commence next week with a view to concluding a contract or contracts in 2016.
“We expect the initial homes to be connected in late 2016, with 85pc of premises in Ireland to have access to high-speed broadband by 2018, with an ambition of 100pc by the end of 2020.
“The Government is determined to ensure that the network is built out as soon as possible and engagement with industry stakeholders has indicated that this could be achieved within three to five years of the contract award.
“While all industry investments are welcome, these investments, together with any required subsidy from the State will ensure that the above targets are achieved as envisaged by the National Broadband Plan,” the Department of Communications spokesperson said.
People living in the intervention area have been struggling for years to get a better broadband service. Yet despite this, the WISPs’ report tried to make the need for intervention seem unnecessary, arguing that there is no evidence of market failure in these areas. But for anyone living in an intervention area, the need is unquestionable.
The WISPs appear to be driven by concern that new fibre services will threaten their respective market areas, even after the Department of Communications stated that all service will be accessible on a wholesale basis, enabling the WISPs to become fibre providers themselves.
The WISPs’ report fails to acknowledge that customers in the intervention area are not being supplied with adequate broadband. Indeed, what has been labelled broadband by many suppliers would not meet the definition of broadband in the US, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled earlier this year that anything below 25Mbps can no longer be defined as broadband.
Many states are now following the footsteps of Finland and pushing towards making access to high-speed broadband a human right. If Ireland is to achieve this it can no longer rely on the incentive of internet service providers alone.