The highs and slows of an ambitious national broadband plan
The broadband-connection statistics are impressive: 596,000 premises identified; 1.1 million people; 65,000 farms; 44,000 small businesses; and 679,000 schools. And with a total cost estimated to be €5.5bn, the NBP is certainly one of the largest public works undertaken by the State.
Not-so-fast roll out
Covid-19 has been part-blamed for the slower-than-anticipated progress in connecting rural Ireland to broadband in the almost four years since the landmark public-private partnership with the Irish Government was signed by NBI.
The restrictions on social engagement and the need to maintain social distancing disrupted every activity across the economy, and the challenges of building an entirely new broadband infrastructure were significant enough without further obstacles impeding progress. With the pandemic now in the rear-view mirror, we hope, the roll-out of NBI’s broadband programme is accelerating. Again, the figures are impressive. Four-hundred-and-thirty-thousand premises have been surveyed, with 411,000 designs completed at this stage. Three-hundred-and-thirty-eight-thousand installations to premises are either under construction or constructed, with 182,000 premises available for connection orders or pre-orders. In terms of ‘up-and-running’ premises, almost 170,000 premises have been passed for connection.
The bottom line on progress as we enter the last quarter of 2023, is that 50,000 private houses, farms and businesses have been connected. While that figure represents less than 10 per cent of the total number of premises that qualify for connection, realistically, it probably represents up to 20 per cent or more of the premises that will access the service in the short term.
It must be remembered that the initial take-up of an electricity connection during the Rural Electrification Scheme which began back in 1946 was lower than might have been anticipated at the time. In the event, by 1964, the take-up was universal, once initial reticence around the benefits of the electricity service were fully understood and appreciated. This will likely be the same with this latest technological revolution. As the need for fast broadband becomes more obvious, it will become a necessity rather than a choice.
An interesting aspect of the NBI programme was the decision to establish hundreds of broadband connection points (BCPs) across the country. This interim measure taken as the full-scale of broadband roll-out is progressing, means that there are opportunities for rural dwellers to use the high-speed service while waiting for a connection to their home or business.
It should be remembered that the decision to embark on an ambitious technological development such as this was initially taken back in 2012, spearheaded by the then communications minister, Pat Rabbitte. That was just after the near collapse of the Irish economy in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. It was ambitious, far-sighted and criticised by many for the potential cost involved. And it would be more than half a decade before the programme got up and running. Up to 100,000 connections were to have been made by January 2022. By January of 2023 only 27,000 homes, farms and other businesses had been connected. With the current figure almost double that, it is clear that momentum is building, though there is a long way to go before high-speed fibre broadband connectivity is universally available across rural Ireland.
While many rural dwellers can manage reasonably well with existing broadband facilities, there is little doubt that the performance improvements offered by the NBI service are appreciable. The new service can also be more economically viable. Depending on the historical broadband service in use, the NBI service is, in most cases, faster, more reliable and, at least, cost-neutral if not cheaper. On that note, it should be said that the model being used allows and indeed encourages price competition. Because any broadband provider can access the NBI infrastructure and offer price and upload/download speed packages to individual customers, there is scope to shop around. Many of the service providers are on a par with each other with only tweaks to the detailed services offered. However, there are price, service and contractual packages on offer that are more competitive and better value than others. As with every other service across banking, mobile phones, electricity and gas services, there is significant benefit in shopping around for the best value broadband service being offered for the NBI technology.
The entry-level speeds of 500Mbps for downloading and 50Mbps for uploading are significantly ahead of most of what is currently available for rural dwellers. It is anticipated that the infrastructure being installed will be capable of delivering speeds of up to 2,000Mbps – or 2Gbps – and, as technology advances and will require higher-speed broadband access, that futureproofing of the NBI infrastructure being put in place will be seen as highly creditable. The 30Mbps download speeds that were part of the original plan allowed for speeds of under 10Mbps, only matching, at best what is already available in many parts of Ireland.
If there is one major weakness in the NBI infrastructure, it is the fact that it is exposed to the vagaries of weather and the natural environment. Some of the existing pole infrastructure being used for broadband wiring needs or will need upgrading or replacement in the coming years. In fairness, where obviously necessary, poles are being replaced in the initial roll out.
Most of the broadband infrastructure runs along rural roadsides, sharing space with thousands of trees and hedging. That has been a modest physical challenge in the past for electrical or telecommunications infrastructure, with occasional interruptions caused by falling trees and branches. In the coming years, however, this will be greatly exacerbated by the fact that many of the trees are Ash and at least 90 per cent of our Ash tree population will succumb to the Ash dieback disease. Unless drastic action is taken to remove the vast numbers of these trees populating our rural roadsides, interruptions in our rural telecommunications and electricity networks will become commonplace. It is not an issue that can be ignored and should be addressed at an early stage to prevent, or at least mitigate the challenges of maintaining thousands of kilometres of pole and wire infrastructure along our rural roadsides.