If you are sitting somewhere in rural Ireland getting a patchy broadband service, you have had, up until recently, many reasons to feel left behind, forgotten or cut adrift.
The National Broadband Plan (NBP), a scheme that was proclaimed to bring all of Ireland roaring into the 21st century with the velocity of a nuclear-powered juggernaut, bringing rural homes and businesses into the digital revolution, looked in danger of petering out.
The departure of both Siro and Eir from the procurement process in recent months was hardly inspiring and the stepping down of the former CEO of Enet, Conal Henry, was a big surprise. Enet is one half of the last remaining bidder for the NBP, as part of the Enet-SSE consortium.
And then, Friday afternoon (13 April), something amazing happened. The European Investment Bank (EIB) approved €500m in new financing for the NBP.
“This is a huge vote of confidence for our plan and our work to date to bring high-speed broadband to every home, business and farm in Ireland through the National Broadband Plan,” said Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD.
“It is hugely significant from an Irish and a European perspective as more than half of the total financing approved by the board of EIB relates to Ireland’s National Broadband Plan.”
A fresh start?
The plan has had a lot of starts and restarts. But now, 542,000 or so rural homes and businesses have something solid to believe in.
It must also be a relief of sorts to Naughten who risked being the minister left holding the can if the plan were to be scrapped.
But now, things look very different indeed.
That €500m can also be leveraged by a €275m approval in State Aid to 2020, not to mention the private investment likely to come from players such as SSE once it gets into the game.
But the economic consequences of the plan – which will ultimately connect around 1m citizens, many of whom are business owners, employees and potential entrepreneurs – will be incalculable.
The EIB – which supports only ‘sound’ investments that will progress EU policy goals – last approved total financing of €987m for nine projects at a board meeting on 12 April, and this included €500m for Ireland’s NPB.
This puts Ireland in the spotlight for a Europe that has a myriad of connectivity problems. Could Ireland one day be the poster child for getting it right, getting broadband finally sorted and future-proofed?
Yes, Ireland is not unique in having broadband problems. The problems in the UK are just as severe. What does make Ireland unique, though, is its small, sparse population spread out on a comparatively large land mass to most European nations and populations. We have a lot of space, a lot of roads, and a lot of ribbon developments and bungalows.
It would be mere conjecture at this point to wonder if Eir or Siro would have left the NBP procurement process if the EIB decision had come sooner. Such conjecture would be about as helpful as wondering if Ireland’s broadband problems would be anything like they have been had Telecom Éireann (now Eir) not been privatised in 1999.
It’s all history now, and the future is more important.
Be unafraid of joined-up thinking
So, where do we go from here?
We start by remembering that, once built, this infrastructure is supposed to serve the country for decades to come.
We start by realising that the sinews of broadband and fibre that will criss-cross roads, homes, farms and businesses, will be the arteries through which commerce will flow long into the future.
We start by remembering that connectivity is as vital to human life as electricity and water, and should be considered a human right at this point.
We start by remembering that these cables will be the seaports, railway lines and motorways of our times.
Policy should be brave and fearless but also unafraid to admit when it is wrong.
At present, the NBP rests on one consortium: Enet-SSE. If all goes to plan, contracts will be awarded in September.
As I have pointed out before, SSE could be the dark horse in the whole process in terms of bringing considerable expertise to bear as one of the largest energy infrastructure players in the UK, and one that has renewable energy as well as consumer billing experience in Ireland through its Airtricity subsidiary.
But, if that process comes to naught – always a possibility – Naughten and his advisers should not be afraid to look at the plan again to see how and if it can still deliver in its present form. They can determine if it needs to be tweaked, or if a brand new procurement process is needed for a reformatted plan.
Ireland needs to do it right because it will never get an opportunity like this again.
I have pointed out before that fibre will have to be the backbone of any new network. That network has to be capable of interconnecting with the powerful urban fibre networks that are also being built by Eir, Siro and Virgin Media, not to mention the fibre assets of players such as BT, ESB, Bord Gáis and others. And don’t forget various players that also have considerable regional experience, expertise and resources, such as Digiweb or Imagine.
Fibre on its own may be unrealistic but it will have to form the bulk of any network if it is to be future-proofed. Relying on blanketing Ireland solely in 5G or LTE is folly, but what will not be folly is cleverly designing ways in which mobile and other platforms such as satellite can plug the inevitable gaps.
But fibre will underpin everything. And a pioneering plan has to envisage how everything can be joined up.
This infrastructure has to be capable of going from 30Mbps in 2019 to potentially 1Gbps and higher within a decade.
Remember, €500m is a vote of confidence. And all of Europe is watching. Our success or failure will strike at the heart of EU broadband policy for decades to come.
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