The Government has committed to a major telecommunications network build-out to rural Ireland, with fibre as a cornerstone of its investment under the National Broadband Plan (NBP). Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte announced last week that  that this commitment was "a clear expression of Government’s determination to address the connectivity challenge in rural Ireland in a meaningful and sustainable way". The Government has given the green light to the principle of a fibre build-out, which will be the cornerstone of the State’s strategy to deliver high-speed broadband to rural areas. An initial investment of €500 million will be made to address the digital divide between urban and rural areas. Some 1,000 rural communities have already been identified as target areas for the proposed fibre-based connections. The strategy will include additional measures to ensure that consumers and businesses can avail of services being provided off the new fibre network. It is envisaged that telecommunications operators will be able to offer multiple services off the fibre network, including fixed wireless, copper-based and mobile services, as well as offering the possibility of direct fibre connections. Detailed planning work is continuing in order to deliver the project. The Minister said that he will publish a comprehensive implementation strategy later this year. Central to the strategy will be a fibre build-out to locations in every county in the State identified as having no existing or planned enabling fibre network. The fibre will be delivered directly to access points for homes and businesses, where service providers can utilise the fibre to provide high speed services to end users. The fibre build-out will also ensure that fibre is deployed to strategic locations on each route such as schools, business hubs and health facilities. The strategy will address all parts of Ireland that cannot access commercial high speed broadband services. To this end, it will include supporting measures to accelerate end user connections to the fibre network and proposals to address the most remote areas of the country. The Minister said he had asked his officials to explore options for an appropriate, demand-led mechanism for inclusion in the published implementation strategy. Consultation with the local authorities, voluntary and co-operative sectors will take place in order to explore how such a mechanism could be mobilised and supported. Intensive design work is ongoing in the Department with a view to publishing an end-to-end implementation strategy later this year, together with the outcome of the mapping exercise which will identify the areas that require intervention. A full public consultation will take place once the strategy is published. BROADBAND DEVELOPMENTS The Minister noted that since publication of the NBP telecommunications providers in Ireland have accelerated the roll out of high-speed services. The last two years have seen significant increases in broadband usage and data traffic across broadband networks. The Minister noted that since publication of the NBP, the commercial sector has responded strongly in urban and semi-urban areas, offering high-speed services to consumers over multiple technology platforms, and is now investing approximately €2 billion in Ireland. For example:

  • Eircom is rolling out a €400 million investment in a Next Generation Access Fibre Network that offers speeds of up to 100Mbps. Service is already available to over 800,000 addresses, with planned coverage to reach 1.4 million addresses by 2016;
  • UPC has invested over €500 million in upgrading its cable network. Over 700,000 homes can already access minimum broadband speeds of 120Mbps and up to 200Mbps. Businesses can access speeds of 500Mbps;
  • ESB is engaged in a new project allowing a fibre network to be rolled-out on its existing electricity infrastructure. Discussions between ESB and Vodafone to form a new Joint Venture Company are at an advanced stage. The company has initial plans to construct a fibre network directly to 450,000 premises outside of Dublin and it is expected that details will be announced over the coming weeks;
  • Mobile operators have launched 4G high speed mobile broadband services following ComReg’s multiband spectrum auction. There has also been continued investment by all operators in enhancing and broadening 3G services and network improvements;
  • Fixed wireless operators are continuing to invest in high speed point-to-point wireless broadband;
  • The broadcaster Sky has entered the broadband market, increasing choice for consumers.
Minister Rabbitte said, “These high-speed services are possible because the networks on which they are based have a strong fibre component. This model cannot be replicated commercially in many rural areas because the fibre networks do not exist and population densities are small. The Government has confirmed that it intends to ensure that rural Ireland enjoys similar opportunities by ensuring an end-to end market intervention with fibre as a core component. “In committing to a fibre build-out at the heart of this strategy, the Government is acknowledging that broadband is the key infrastructure of the 21st century. In order to ensure proper connectivity for current and future generations, we must first address the fibre-deficit in these areas,” Rabbitte continued. NATIONAL BROADBAND PLAN  The Government’s National Broadband Plan, which was published in August 2012, outlined Government’s commitment to deliver high speed broadband availability across the country and reflects Government and European objectives to deliver high-speed services to all citizens. Specifically, it committed to a State intervention in those areas where it is evident that the commercial sector will not deliver. At the time of publication, the NBP it was anticipated that a State intervention would be required to address some 1.3 million of the 2.3 million domestic and commercial premises in Ireland. Since the publication of the Plan, investments by the commercial sector are underway and in some instances have been accelerated in both fixed line and wireless high-speed broadband services. Commercial operators combined have either invested, or committed to invest, over €2 billion in their Irish networks which will deliver broadband speeds of 30Mbps to 200Mbps to homes and businesses. Investment in fibre-based networks as well as the roll out of advanced wireless broadband products is ongoing. This accelerated roll out of high-speed services by the commercial sector means that the addressable area required by the State intervention has been reduced by 30%. While the commercial developments are welcome the acceleration of investment is largely contained to urban areas. This further highlights the need for an appropriate State intervention which addresses the digital divide in a meaningful and sustainable way. Alongside increased level of market activity, there have been a number of other developments which make a compelling case for a more long-term strategic view of the State intervention. These include:
  • The adoption of revised State Aid Guidelines which envisage the delivery of very high speeds and now specify a requirement for fibre as close as possible to the end user;
  • An increased number of connected devices, users and online services driving exponential increases in demand for data services;
  • Emerging trends across Europe and internationally in which Governments are deploying intervention policies that are long term, involve considerable infrastructure build out and rely heavily on fibre for both backhaul and, in some instances, the ‘last mile’ access element;
  • Government policy, as enunciated in the current eGovernment Strategy which focuses on increasing the online delivery of public services. Delivery of service in critical areas such as education and healthcare are also increasingly reliant on digital platforms and high speed connectivity.
Analysis shows that there is a significant lack of fibre backhaul across many rural areas which, if not addressed at the outset, will make it impossible to deliver ubiquitous high speed broadband. FUTURE-PROOFED INFRASTRUCTURE BUILD In light of these developments, the proposed State intervention under the NBP has evolved. The focus is now on a long term, future proofed infrastructure build with fibre as the key component underpinning whatever technology delivers the service (fixed or wireless). This solution aims to definitively address Ireland’s connectivity challenge by removing existing cost barriers preventing commercial operators from providing high speed services to end users. In tandem with the fibre build-out, the Strategy will include measures to respond to aggregated community demand for services, and the provision of access services in the most remote areas where fibre rollout may be insufficient to stimulate commercial investment or may be cost-prohibitive. Considerable progress has been made on the various work streams informing the direction and detail of the strategy, particularly in the area of mapping, financial and infrastructure modelling and technical specifications. These work streams are continuing and will be completed over the coming months. A detailed implementation strategy containing details of all of the proposed elements along with the outcome of the mapping exercise will be published for public consultation later this year. For detail of the NBP destinations please click here.