National Framework Plan
Up and down the country, internet blackspots disrupt daily life: Families cannot bank online, students can’t file assignments; farmers can’t access grants, and shops cannot trade.
It is an indictment of a modern country, where high-speed broadband access is now being equated to the electrification of homes in the 1950s. The shock withdrawal of Eir from tendering for the national broadband plan has raised fresh concerns about proposals to connect 540,000 mainly rural homes. Just one provider, Enet, remains in play.
Amid clamour for a review, the Government insists the plan is on track for full rollout by 2023 and that a contract will be signed by September. How does Enet’s bid stand-up, particularly now Eir and Siro (the latter a Vodafone/ESB venture) have jumped ship? And what does this mean for the national broadband plan and taxpayers?
Enet is a consortium, made up of SSE — owner of Airtricity — Granahan McCourt, and the John Laing Group. SSE and Granahan McCourt last year unveiled plans to bring fibre broadband to 115,000 homes and businesses not covered by the national broadband plan. In other words, it already has involvement in the sector.
It is also worth considering the market spread of and funding for Enet. Of the original three bidders, Enet is the only wholesale operator. A state-backed fund also bought two thirds of Enet.
The two issues strengthen Enet’s position. Existing questions linger about Enet’s ability to do the job, especially given that ESB and Eir both have existing connections into homes nationwide. Essentially, Enet, if it is the winning bid, will have to negotiate access to Eir’s polls and ducts, to hook up the high-speed broadband.
Eir could insist on a price of up to EUR20 a pole annually. That is a huge cost with 1.3m poles under the national broadband plan. But can the Government legislate to cap these costs?
The crunch issue could end up in court. The success of Enet’s national broadband plan venture may come down to how it cuts a deal for rural infrastructure already owned by Eir, formerly Eircom. So all of this is in part a gamble, a jump into the unknown.
Communications Minister Denis Naughten says any delays have not been under his watch. The national broadband plan was promised back as far as 2012. Furthermore, there is strict overview of this plan, insists Mr Naughten.
Enet might be the sole bidder, but its bid will go through several tests. The national broadband plan is subject to a steering group and procurement board, including national and international experts. The final subsidy for the winning tender will be go through a value-for-money assessment by the National Development Finance Agency.
National broadband plan spending is also subject to an audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Mr Naughten maintains that the Enet-led consortium has vast international experience across telecoms, engineering, and infrastructure sectors. Nonetheless, a fear among opposition benches is that Siro and Eir backed out of the bid because of onerous bidding terms dictated by Mr Naughten’s department.
Questions raised include why Eir was allowed ‘cherry-pick’ 300,000 homes out of the 850,000 intervention target, leaving the more isolated premises in the national broadband plan. This made the project less attractive for bidders, it is claimed, and now just one consortium is left in control — Enet. Nonetheless, Enet has rejected accusations that it is not big enough or equipped to do the job.
It says that in the US it has spent £100m a month on projects. Furthermore, Enet’s partner for the national broadband plan is SSE, which has injected EUR2bn since 2008 in energy projects in Ireland. Overall, the reality is there just isn’t a plan B, at least not one to release publicly.
This could be the best deal to give rural homes the same type of connection speeds around the country that match those in any big city. Furthermore, a strict vetting process is there to protect the State’s interest. It is now down up to Mr Naughten to ensure there is no slippage on the timeline, loose ends in the terms for Enet, and, most importantly, the needs of 540,000 homes who need this remain at the top of the plan.
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