Imagine Communications Group

I welcome the witnesses from Imagine Communications Group. Mr. Sean Bolger is the executive chairman and he is accompanied by Mr. Derek Kickham, chief operating officer.

I remind everybody to turn off their mobile phones or to switch them to airplane mode, at least, because putting them on silent can still interfere with recording systems. I thank the witnesses for attending.

We have met the Department to discuss the national broadband plan, NBP, before. We have discussed the metropolitan area networks, MANs. We are elected Members of Dáil Éireann. We do not have any technical knowledge in this area, so we have asked to meet a number of people in this industry so we can listen and learn. The witnesses are not under investigation here. They are here voluntarily and we appreciate that. It is hoped we will add to our learning during the course of the day, so that when we meet the Department again, we will have a lot more information than the first time we met its representatives.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given, and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Mr. Sean Bolger

I thank the committee for the invitation. We are here to help. We have tried to address the questions put. Our submission was in direct response to the queries raised to be as helpful as possible. It is given in that context. We intend to identify risks and issues concerning the national broadband plan.

I would like to begin with some clarifications. We are bringing something completely different and new to the market. We have taken time to provide some additional information. It has been said that no fixed wireless operator has spectrum. To clarify, Imagine Communications Group secured a large amount of spectrum in the previous auction.

When was that?

Mr. Sean Bolger

It was awarded in June 2017.

I thank Mr. Bolger.

Mr. Sean Bolger

That is part of the reason we are here. Since 1993, Imagine has been an innovator and a strategic investor in the Irish and European fixed wireless and mobile telecoms markets. Internationally, Imagine is an industry-recognised and credited innovator in the use of 4G long-term evolution, LTE, advanced and 5G fixed broadband. That is a very important clarification. In 2016, we deployed a trial network of 54 sites providing high-speed broadband with speeds up to 70 Mbps to 20,000 customers across regional and rural areas of Ireland. This was the pilot trial of the commercial roll-out. In July 2017, we secured 5G spectrum for the provision of fixed broadband services in ComReg’s 3.6 GHz spectrum licence auction. In April 2018, we announced a strategic partnership with Brookfield, which is the world’s second largest asset management fund, with more than €310 billion of assets under active management, and the funding of the roll-out of high-speed broadband infrastructure across Ireland.

On 13 February 2019, we formally launched our plans to roll out a national 5G-ready fixed broadband network with the priority to deliver high-speed broadband to the underserved areas of regional and rural Ireland. With an initial project investment of more than €300 million, the initial roll-out will see 155 sites live by June 2019 and 325 sites live by June 2020. That is a rough estimate. Commercially, our objective is to be first to deliver 150 Mbps broadband to the majority of the 1.6 million homes and businesses in our licensed coverage area. Our current roll-out plans will initially cover 400,000 of the 540,000 premises where there is currently no planned commercial alternative. That is about 75% of that cohort. It would surpass this with regard to fibre.

It is important to make clear that while we have raised concerns about the NBP intervention strategy and process, Imagine continues to support fully the important objectives of the NBP. This is clearly demonstrated by our significant commercial investment in the market which will help deliver the NBP objectives, de-risk its execution and, most importantly, ensure the delivery of high-speed broadband to underserved rural areas as quickly as possible.

Internationally, with the inevitable cost and significant time needed to deliver services, major companies such as Google are abandoning previously planned fibre to the home, FTTH, roll-outs in favour of alternative wireless solutions that cost less and are faster to deploy. With the focus of current commercial investment and the intervention based solely on FTTH, users could be waiting for decent broadband for a great many years to come, not just in rural areas but throughout the country. Currently our 5G-ready technology can deliver 300 Mbps services, which far exceeds user demand. An industry roadmap shows service speeds will exceed 10 Gbps. In fact, the most recent numbers have increased to 20 Gbps. 5G fixed broadband has become a mainstream alternative to FTTH for the delivery of future-proofed next-generation high-speed broadband to homes and businesses. It is currently the primary business model and driver of commercial 5G infrastructure investment across the world.

We believe that in addition to delivering services in underserved areas, our investment will stimulate competition and investment across the market. However our primary concern is that the current intervention strategy, unless revised, will delay the roll-out of critical backhaul fibre infrastructure on a national basis. We have openly engaged with key stakeholders, Departments and elected representatives to outline our commercial plans and our view that the objectives of the NBP can best be achieved by a phased approach which prioritises State-subsidised investment in extending fibre backbone infrastructure into every region in Ireland. That is the alternative to extending to every home as work goes along. This approach would mean getting fibre to every part of Ireland first.

This approach would ensure the availability of critical fibre backbone infrastructure to support hospitals, industry and business on a national basis as quickly as possible while at the same time enabling commercial investment in demand driven "last-mile" connectivity, potentially using multiple access technologies, including FTTH and 5G fixed wireless. This would provide the essential core infrastructure platform commercial investment needs to be able to extend services economically to customers in underserved areas now and in the future. It is not necessary for the State to replace commercial investment completely as appears to be the case in the current NBP approach.

I will now address our participation in the national broadband plan process. Imagine was an active participant in the high-speed broadband task force. The initial NBP goal was to provide next generation access, NGA, high-speed broadband services using different technologies as provided for in the state aid guidelines, SAG. This would ensure the delivery of 30 Mbps broadband to 100% of the population and 100 Mbps to 50% of the population by 2020. In 2014 the Government approved a more ambitious plan with a focus on long-term future-proofed infrastructure with additional fibre backhaul, a key component underpinning the technology used to deliver the service to customers in rural areas.

I will now refer to the mapping process. As required by the SAG and to avoid market distortion, the purpose of the mapping process is to assess existing and planned commercial deployments to identify market failure and minimise unnecessary intervention. At the end of 2015 our plans for the roll-out of high-speed broadband were rejected by the Department and therefore not included in the NBP maps which defined the proposed intervention area. Since then many of the perceived risks that led to our exclusion, such as the risk that Imagine would fail to secure spectrum in the ComReg auction and concerns about the availability of LTE advanced wireless equipment, evolution of the technology and market demand, have been shown to be incorrect. The revised NBP strategy, including the 2020 broadband map published at the end of December 2015, effectively embedded FTTH as the preferred intervention solution. Fibre to every home, which had never been done anywhere ever before and has never been done since, subsequently became the mantra of the NBP.

I will now outline our involvement in the NBP intervention process. The project information memorandum, PIM, for the NBP set out very specific and detailed pre-qualification criteria for the financial, technical, building, operation and management work. These included a requirement that in the preceding two years, consortia bid members had participated in similar relevant large-scale infrastructure projects with a value in excess of €300 million. Together with Macquarie Group, one of the largest infrastructure funds in the world with an impeccable and highly successful track record in Government infrastructure projects and public private partnerships in Ireland, we assembled a consortium of blue-chip international partners which exceeded all of the requirements of the pre-qualification criteria. This consortium included Macquarie Group, Black and Veatch, which is one of the largest telecommunications infrastructure contractors in the US, and Huawei, the largest communications technology company in the world.

Due to an administrative technicality pertaining to the ultimate global holding company ownership structure of both Black and Veatch and Huawei, both were deemed ineligible to be a bidder member and the economic, financial, technical and professional capability of these entities was excluded from the assessment process.

Therefore, their contribution to the consortium was not considered in the evaluation of our pre-qualification questionnaire, PQQ, which then, unsurprisingly, failed to meet the stringent pre-qualification criteria. Given their international experience, the bid members were very surprised and disappointed with their exclusion, and while an appeal was considered, this was not pursued as the subsequent immediate announcement of a gap-funded model, which favours existing infrastructure operators, in preference to a concession model consolidated the apparent preference for a full fibre to the premises solution, which our consortium did not consider to be financially viable.

We were asked by the committee to address the administrative risks to the NBP and there are a number of existential threats to the NBP process. Given that the pre-qualification process was to ensure the financial, technical and operational capability to complete the roll-out, the significant changes in the last remaining consortium’s membership raises concerns. Does the remaining bid member meet the PQQ criteria, and if not, what are the consequences for the integrity of the process and the outcome? In circumstances where the two bidders with experience in the roll-out of fibre to the home, FTTH, networks have pulled out of the process, apparently on the basis that they could not make a commercial business case, the inevitable conclusion is that either there is a significant risk to the successful roll-out of the network or there will be a significant increase in the final cost, or both. With the sole remaining bidder determining the only proposed technical solution, without the required spectrum and absent any competitive tension, there is a risk that the process can no longer deliver its objective while effectively excluding the benefit of available, alternative lower-cost last-mile solutions.

With the current intervention based on an end-to-end FTTH solution, in the absence of a phased approach which prioritises fibre backhaul infrastructure, there is a risk that while some areas will eventually benefit, other areas will be significantly delayed and will have to wait many years to get any service. With 5G essential to the future digital society and economy, and wireless mobile a part of that, the current FTTH approach can no longer of itself achieve the very objectives of the NBP, with the risk of further marginalising regional Ireland and rural communities. An inherent risk to the proposed FTTH focused NBP intervention is the requirement for and cost of access to incumbent poles and ducting infrastructure, resulting in avoidable delay and unnecessarily high costs to the State and taxpayers. There is a risk that unnecessary market intervention and cost could lead to difficulties with state aid approval. All these identified risks will need to be addressed by the Department and in any contract. This should happen to ensure the NBP is successful.

We have had no communications with the Department on the operation of metropolitan area networks, MANs. However, this infrastructure is underutilised and could be a useful component of a fibre backhaul network across Ireland. We are a major user of fibre backhaul so today's news of a reduction in price is welcome. It will be a significant factor in bringing down the cost of fibre backhaul for our network. With regard to the mapping of MANs, private fibre networks and mobile blackspots, in line with state aid guidelines, all existing and planned commercial investment should be taken into consideration prior to any state intervention into a commercial market. The mapping of mobile blackspots is a different issue and should be looked at separately from the NBP. In the context of the NBP, 5G mobile will have a significant impact on the future digital economy, and the availability of fibre backhaul infrastructure in the regions is also critical to the development of 5G mobile services in those areas.

On behalf of Imagine, I thank the committee for providing us with the opportunity to outline our views and I welcome any questions it may have.

Mr. Bolger used the phrase "fibre backhaul infrastructure", and although he knows what it is, what is it in layman's terms?

Mr. Sean Bolger

It is important to clarify the terms as there is certain amount of confusion and misconception in this area. All high-speed networks use fibre backhaul infrastructure. All large modern telecommunications and high-speed networks are built on backhaul structure comprised of fibre.

What does that mean? What is backhaul?

Mr. Sean Bolger

The committee will have heard about fibre to the cabinet, fibre to the home and we will hear about 5G broadband today. They all connect to a national fibre network. What differentiates them is how they connect from that network to homes and businesses. It is important from our perspective to explain that fibre has always been in the network, and because of the heightened demands for speed and capacity, it is now about bringing fibre closer to customers. There are basically four ways to do it and most people probably confuse them. One uses cable, which is what Virgin Media does. Another method is fibre to the cabinet, where fibre is brought to a local cabinet in a town or village and then copper is used to bring the service to a home. The next method brings fibre past the cabinet into every single home, thus replacing the need for copper.

That is what is contained in the national broadband plan.

Mr. Sean Bolger

It is the technology that was chosen for the national broadband plan. 5G fixed broadband takes fibre to a mast and from that mast it uses wireless to connect to every home. It therefore saves the cost of having to bring fibre to every home.

In other words, the last leg would be achieved by wireless technology.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes. It is referred to in the business as the last mile. The last mile differentiates the different solutions as such. LTE wireless has the capability of 100 Mbps and up to 300 Mbps today but at the time of tendering for the NBP, the issue was the future-proofing element of fibre to the home. The only way to achieve a future-proofed network was through fibre to the home, but with the announcement of 5G, there will be massive capacity that is also future-proofed. That capacity will be up to 20 Gbps per user. It is a very high-capacity solution that has fundamentally changed the industry. It is being used internationally and is a major driver of investment. It is an alternative to fibre to the home.

With regard to the existing mast infrastructure, would additional infrastructure be required for rural areas where there are still even mobile phone blackspots? How many people would not be able to get the service?

Mr. Sean Bolger

I am glad the Chairman asked the question. There is another understandable misconception that when people speak of 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G, it is always about mobile technology. We are talking about 5G mobile services powering driverless cars, the future digital economy, the Internet of things, artificial intelligence, remote technologies and remote automation of farm machinery. To do this there would need to be an extensive additional build of masts because current masts do not have the coverage to support such services. That is as it relates to 5G mobile technology. 5G fixed technology is a completely different build and network. It is not built for what I have just described but specifically and totally to deliver high-speed broadband from fibre in the mast directly to premises. It does not require a massive additional build of masts because the technology is not like that used to connect to a small mobile phone, which will not function properly unless the user is near a mast or outside a building. 5G fixed broadband will put an outdoor antenna on a premises. It is being deployed around the world. In the United States, for example, Verizon, AT&T, Google Fiber and Sprint have all started to roll out 5G fixed broadband as an alternative to fibre to the home. That is because technology has advanced so much.

High-speed data cannot be delivered across a long distance with a mobile phone. If there are thousands of mobile phones using a service, the signal is variable. A fixed broadband network using 5G limits the number of people on every mast to guarantee that the service can be provided with high quality to those people. It does not need many extra masts because it can reach longer distances. In Canada, this distance has extended to 30 km but it depends on how we would like to build our network. In our network, approximately 13 km is the maximum distance we would allow, giving us a large range. This means distance can be covered much faster.

It is very important to note we are talking about two totally different technologies.

In relation to some of the challenges in rural areas, which other people mentioned, is it line of sight, for example? Yes, it is largely line of sight to get the kind of quality of a connection one wants but one is talking about new technologies. Without going off too far, beamforming is one, which basically directly focuses the signal. Things like trees or massive MIMO allow for the signal to be picked up from multiple locations. If one has a mast and a connection on a house, whatever is in between will block one. When one is building a national network, one is talking about multiple sites, so the signal can come from different directions and because it is also used in beamforming technology, it can direct the connection directly to one.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Beamforming, yes.

Mr. Sean Bolger

It sounds a little bit like "Star Wars". It is basically just directing the signal, so instead of it blasting out everywhere it basically-----

It channels them.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Exactly, it channels them. Basically, when we build a network, we will not connect anybody on the network unless we get the quality of connection that we expect. The box that we have - the equipment that goes on the house - is like a large book basically.

Is it the size of the screen in front of the witness?

Mr. Sean Bolger

It is size of the screen, yes. This has to be done professionally.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Where we have gained an international recognition is, basically, by developing this and optimising this technology for home broadband. Basically, that box connects. Others have talked about technologies and wireless. One cannot do this with unlicensed spectrum because it is too variable. One cannot do it with mobile because one is sharing this spectrum with everybody and people are on the move. One can only do this by fixed broadband. Today, one is talking about eight transmitters and eight receivers in one box that allow one to take signals from different locations. Many of those challenges that existed previously have been addressed.

To receive this, everybody would have to have a cable to the house under the national plan or, under Mr. Bolger's plan, they would have to have one of these things on the gable end.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Absolutely, yes.

I call Deputy Murphy.

Mr. Bolger said in his opening statement that the revised national programme "strategy including the Broadband Map 2020 published at the end of December 2015, effectively embedded FTTH as the preferred intervention solution." He said that has never been done anywhere and that there is a mixture of technologies. We all want everybody to have access. Not everyone will want it-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes.

-----but we should at least to make it available to people. I understand that Mr. Bolger has said a mixture of technologies is needed. Am I correct?

Mr. Sean Bolger

If one looks at this from a commercial point of view, if one was to build a network today, with the technologies that are available today, one would not be building a fibre to the home or to every premises because there are new technologies that can be used.

Those technologies are different since the process was initiated in 2012.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Fundamentally, at the time the process started, a decision was made that the fibre to the home was a solution for two reasons. It could meet and exceed the existing requirements, and the Government was right to say not to take 30 Mbps for now. It made a decision to do this for the future. One was able to deliver a high-capacity, high-speed broadband service and then in the future, because one had fibre, it was basically future-proofed in terms of investment. That is important for two reasons. The first is that it is the right thing to do and the second is that from a funding, finance and banking perspective, one has a long-term infrastructure that can give one the returns, which justifies the investment. I refer to building out a network. We are investing €300 million now to do this because we have a solution that has a long-term future. At the time, that was not available but it is now.

Has the business case for the current national broadband plan fundamentally changed? Should it be changed?

Mr. Sean Bolger

The business case.

The business case for the decision the Government took for the national broadband plan that was tendered for. Has that fundamentally changed or should it fundamentally change?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Fundamentally, it should look at all of the solutions that are available at the moment, but that is a matter for the Department. We have been very open with everybody and all stakeholders and we have offered to make our solution available as part of the solution. It is in the process of the Department considering that.

I noted Mr. Bolger welcomed the significant cost reduction that was announced-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes.

-----in the context of the release of the Analysys Mason report yesterday.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes.

What will be the impact of that?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Enet is ostensibly a wholesale infrastructure and network that was built by the Government and managed under a contract. Therefore, what it did not do was connect customers. It was there to provide wholesale access. Obviously, the cost of access has an impact on what services are financially viable to deliver off that network. We use that network as part of our fibre backhaul infrastructure. We have and require a very large national fibre backhaul infrastructure so we are investing tens of millions of euro.

What is the cost?

Mr. Sean Bolger

A big part of our expenditure is the fibre backhaul so it has a big impact in terms of all our costs.

That impact on the end user in terms of-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

It impacts on the overall investment case.

Yes, and the viability-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

And the viability.

-----in terms of people connecting, affordability and all the rest.

Mr. Sean Bolger

At the end of the day, we are talking about major investments that people look at in a very logical way so the costs are quite a significant factor.

In his opening statement Mr. Bolger stated: "With the sole remaining bidder determining the only proposed technical solution, without the required spectrum and absent any competitive tension, there is a risk that the process can no longer deliver its objective...". I refer to difficult to get to places which is where Mr. Bolger sees his technology being particularly effective.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes. The technology we are talking about is from a performance perspective and from the service one can deliver - I know others were in talking about different wireless technologies - a complete game changer in the industry. What we are talking about is an alternative to fibre to the home as a solution.

Mr. Sean Bolger

For example, it is used in Tokyo to deliver rather than fibre to the home and that is commercial. In terms of the NBP, it is a different issue. The NBP process has been ongoing and it is a very difficult process. We need to all recognise that. The complexity around the NBP contract is because this is a big challenge. Even the commercial operators today have struggled to get fibre to the home out. Even if one started it tomorrow morning, it would take years.

Mr. Sean Bolger

There is an opportunity now to ask if there are other future-proofed technologies available. The answer to that is, "Yes". We made the announcement yesterday at the launch. Since last year, we have kept the Department updated on this. It knows what we are doing. The opportunity now is to ask if we can use different solutions. At the moment the problem is that if one is left with one bidder in a process - it is the process that defines that the bidder makes the bid and defines the solution - then who can say the bidder chooses the best and lowest cost solution. That is something we are saying and I want to make it clear in this context. These are all issues that can be and should be addressed by the Department and in the contract to make sure that this is done right. That is the context-----

Is what is being rolled out purely commercial?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Absolutely, it is purely commercial.

Has the State subsidised the project?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Absolutely not. As far as we are concerned, the national broadband plan is essential and should go ahead. One of the major benefits of the national broadband plan is that it has driven commercial investment. There is no doubt about that in terms of the fact the State took a view to build out and to have a national broadband plan. The objective of the task force, of which I was a member, was to stimulate commercial investment and that is what it has done. The objective is to get everybody high-speed broadband. It is not about the State doing it; it is about getting it. If one gets commercial operators to invest - the announcement by Eir is very welcome - and if more money is invested, more people will get broadband quickly.

In the second last paragraph on page 1 of his statement Mr. Bolger refers to the current intervention strategy delaying the rolling out of critical backhaul fibre infrastructure nationally. Presumably, that is returning to the same point-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

To which paragraph is the Deputy referring? I want to get the right-----

It is the second last paragraph on page 1, starting with the sentence which reads: "While we believe that our investment in addition to delivering services in underserved areas will stimulate competition and investment across the market, our primary concern is that, unless revised, the current intervention strategy will delay the roll out of critical backhaul fibre infrastructure on a national basis". Mr. Bolger is, therefore, seeking a revision.

Mr. Sean Bolger

I will deal with two points. First, the network we will launch will cover rural areas. That is where our focus is going to be and it is for commercial reasons. It will, however, automatically cover many of the areas where Eir is going to run out of fibre broadband connections on a commercial basis. The reality for everybody is that this roll-out has taken many years and much investment. It takes a long time to have fibre broadband. This is an alternative solution which will create competition to make sure everybody will put in the best effort to move forward. Is the Deputy referring to the areas that are left?

Yes; the ones that are difficult to get to.

Mr. Sean Bolger

What we are saying to the Department and everybody else is that if there is an alternative way to do this which is better and quicker, it should be done. If the current approach to the roll-out, with an end-to-end contract, is followed, there is a risk that there will be two issues with the NBP. The technology was chosen and it has now evolved. It is evident that things have changed. The second aspect was that a decision was made to ensure everybody received broadband. The initial idea of the contract was that €500 million would be put into backhaul infrastructure. There were two ways to set it out. One was to give a contract to roll out backhaul infrastructure. Alternatively, a contract could be given for an end-to-end service to bring fibre broadband near homes.

Mr. Sean Bolger

The problem is that the process is taking a long time. Even if it was to start tomorrow, a fibre broadband roll-out that started in County Kerry, extending to Galway and then County Donegal to connect every home at same time, would take a lot of money and time. I am simplifying it, but by the time the people at the end of the line were reached in that process they would have been waiting for years.

They are people who happen to be in the wrong place.

Mr. Sean Bolger

The difference with and benefit of 5G technology is that coverage can be provided. The service is then available to those who want it now. It will not be the case that everybody will take the service straightaway. There have been references to the take-up of fibre broadband to homes. It does not matter what is done; there will be a take-up rate, at which nobody should be shocked. Wireless technology allows us to provide coverage over a wide area, but, to be clear, we are not going to connect 1 million or 1.6 million premises. We are going to make the service available and will add more capacity as people want the service.

Mr. Bolger’s business case will be based on a certain initial take-up which might then increase.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Exactly.

There is one remaining bidder in the consortium which is undertaking the national broadband plan, the delivery of which requires two components, one of which is at the technical end, while the other is the financial aspect. Mr. Bolger has described his backers and the technical side of his operation. Therefore, he has the combination required. Is the last remaining consortium coherent as it has changed several times? Will it create issues in respect of the ability to build out the network?

Mr. Sean Bolger

That is not my decision. Everybody is asking the same question. A clear process with high standards and qualification criteria was needed. All of the bidders should have had to go through it to ensure they had the financial capability and practical expertise to build, operate and manage the network. I do not know if that is the case with the current consortium as it has progressed and changed, but I am sure the original members of the bidding team were there for a reason. Now that some of them are no longer there, how is the loss to be made up? Again, we do not know. It is an issue about which everyone is talking. We are here to help the committee-----

When Mr Bolger says everybody is talking about the issue, does he mean within the sector?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Everyone within the sector and the media is asking how this issue affects the consortium. If it can demonstrate that it can meet the same criteria and that it has the ability to deliver, that is fine. I just do not think anybody knows if that is the case. There is a risk.

I have struggled to keep on top of the companies in the consortium. That is fine and I thank Mr. Bolger.

I call Deputy O'Connell.

Deputy Farrell is in a hurry. As I am in no rush, I am happy to hang on.

We are on the topic of broadband and have representatives of Imagine here.

I only missed the bit in the time it took me to come here from my office. I thank Mr. Bolger and Mr. Kickham for coming. I have found much of the discussion very interesting. I worked in the industry well over 15 years ago, but it is still fascinating. I have one question, the answer to which perhaps even Mr Bolger might share. Which "G" will provide an alternative to fixed-line broadband? I do not think it is 5G, but we are not too far off it. Mr. Bolger touched on the originators of 5G - Huawei. There are some global security concerns about the company. I do not have sufficient information to make a judgment call on whether having those concerns is warranted, but I know that it is something that is under consideration. Would the witnesses like to offer a view?

Mr. Sean Bolger

To clarify, 5G is a global standard and Huawei is not the originator.

It is, however, a provider of the service.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes. It is important to understand, however, in respect of future-proofing, that 5G is a global standard of technology under the International Communications Union and that Huawei is just one company that provides the service. My response to the security concerns is the same as that of the Deputy. There is insufficient information available at this point to make a judgment. We work with Huawei, with which we have had a strong relationship for many years, as we do with many other vendors. We are working with 12 vendors in our network. Huawei is a provider for nearly every telecommunications company in Ireland and probably the vast majority of companies in Europe. At this point-----

The jury is out.

Mr. Sean Bolger

It is a case of choosing one’s own facts.

We do not yet know, which is perfectly understandable.

One of my key questions is about how Imagine fits into the national broadband plan. My interpretation of what Mr. Bolger said in his opening statement is that the national broadband plan envisages 100% fixed-line fibre broadband connections to all homes and businesses in Ireland. That is what I picked up from what he said, but I do not think that is accurate. I think the national broadband plan envisages that about 5% of homes and businesses in the State are not connectable. They are in locations that are too far down a boreen to have any level of commercial or State interest in connecting them. That is where wireless service providers step in. For my own peace of mind - I appreciate-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

May I-----

That was a statement, rather than a question. For my own peace of mind, the service provided by Imagine is really welcome.

Mr. Sean Bolger

I will clarify that I was referring to the intention. We do not know at this point if there are homes and premises that will require a wireless solution. From the outside, the focus has been on having the vast majority - 100%, if possible - of homes and premises connected. That is and has been the intention. The figure may turn out to be less; we just do not know.

I am pretty sure it will be less.

Mr. Sean Bolger

We expect that to be the case. To that extent-----

I do not think it is possible to connect 100% of premises to the network, whether private dwellings or otherwise.

I just do not believe it is viable. It is not viable anywhere, as the witness correctly said. It is not viable elsewhere and it is not viable in the future. Imagine Communications Group is a commercial operator and the best of luck to it. It is a service provider in terms of the service to those rural parts of the country 13 km from its transponder, for want of a better description. That is absolutely fantastic. However, there are certain places in rural Ireland where I have a personal interest. In one that I go to regularly I am not connected to broadband.

Mr. Sean Bolger

The Deputy can join the list of people who are asking me when they will-----

I may well avail of the service or that of another wireless service provider in that part of Mayo. From my perspective, the big issue is wireless service providers, particularly when the service is being provided on a large scale, which I presume Imagine Communications Group intends to do. How many customers does the company envisage being able to reach with this €300 million investment?

Mr. Sean Bolger

The initial roll-out is for coverage. That is to make it available to as many people as possible. That will cover, or make it available to, approximately 1 million premises. Some 400,000 of that are currently-----

They have a line.

Mr. Sean Bolger

They do not have a line. They are the customers in the most remote areas.

Mr. Derek Kickham

The 540,000-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

That is just the coverage.

That is really positive.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Each one of those sites will have a limitation to the number of customers on the site. That is what makes this different. What we will do is add more sites based on demand. To give a practical example, we are not talking about what we are going to do as we have already done this in Kildare. We built a site and then we had to build more sites in Longford and so forth. We only had a trial of 50 in this case. We will expect to build many more sites based on demand.

How does the company deal with penetration to areas that might be hilly, forested or have other natural or man-made obstructions? In the mapping of the 540,000 Mr. Kickham mentioned, has the witness identified homes in that 540,000 or in that geographical band that will not be able to get service from the existing transponder sites? How does he propose to reach those homes?

Mr. Sean Bolger

First, there is the initial nominal plan. When rolling out a network on a national basis we develop a nominal plan. That will identify all the topography - mountains, hills and so forth.

Has that exercise been done?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes. That is a very detailed process. It is fundamental to designing the network. Then one puts in masts strategically to fill in those gaps to the maximum extent one can. The masts are done on a probability basis. One tries to make sure it is highly probable that people will get a service. That is how one mitigates, by building out masts. One is building one site to service an amount of customers. If they can see the site that is fine. When one is building out a network at the density we are doing one ends up getting multiple sites that one can see. However, we are not going to get everybody. We are not going to cover everybody. That is not what we are saying. We are saying that as a commercial investor and operator on the market this is what we are doing.

I am not casting any aspersions on what the company is doing - it is a commercial operator as Mr. Bolger said from the start and it provides a good service and so forth - but would Mr. Bolger accept the statement that by providing a service to potentially 1 million customers or 540,000 people in predominantly rural Ireland where the State is going to go with the national broadband plan and provide that service at great cost to the Exchequer, taxpayers and businesses throughout the State, the competition might dissuade investment in certain areas?

Mr. Sean Bolger

By whom?

By commercial operators in the first instance. Ultimately, we are providing the lines. Somebody else will have to provide the service. Commercially speaking, if Imagine Telecommunications Group is operating a 5G network and it is giving line speeds of five, ten or 15 Mbps or whatever - I believe Mr. Bolger mentioned up to 50 Mbps-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

Absolutely not. It is 150 Mbps. Today we can do 300 Mbps and it will be-----

It is 150 Mbps. I presume that is-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

We need to clarify this-----

I presume that is somebody who is quite close to the mast.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Absolutely not.

Will Mr. Bolger explain that?

Mr. Sean Bolger

We are talking about a completely different scenario here with 5G. 5G is massive capacity. We are not talking about something theoretical but what is working now today. LTE was at 100 Mbps and the reality in the market would have been about 70 Mbps. That is why when we did a trial we did not say up to 100 Mbps, as many people would have done. We said it was up to 70 Mbps. Right now we can do up to 300 Mbps but we are not saying that. We are saying that, on average, people will get 150 Mbps. Probably 95% of people who have fibre get 150 Mbps. The evolution of the technology is not something we are saying but is a global technology and global standard. We had the chief technology officer, CTO, of Ofcom with us yesterday at the launch. These trials and roll-outs are happening all over the world. We must be clear. It is a very high speed broadband service and it is future-proofed given that it is a global industry with billions being invested in it. The current standard for 5G is 20 Gbps. In fact, Ofcom says it is 50 Gbps. It has gone beyond practicality at that point in time. That is the reality.

What about contention? What is the ratio on a mast? Mr. Bolger mentioned that there will be a limited supply and, therefore, the company will have to put in more.

Mr. Sean Bolger

People throw around phrases such as "limited supply". The service is unlimited.

Forgive me, but I misunderstood the witness. Is there a limit on what each mast can take in terms of capacity?

Mr. Sean Bolger

There is a capacity on the mast which one then decides, depending on the quality of service one wishes to deliver, is the dimension of the network. One decides on how many customers one uses. One decides on the number of customers per use based on the actual usage and profile of customers, which on every network is basically demand. Not everybody is using it at the same time, and in the evening people are doing a host of things.

Mr. Sean Bolger

We have the knowledge and understanding of exactly how that is dimensioned. It is standard telecommunications; it is standard industry. We look at the actual demand on the network. Most people do not demand a lot at the time and that then leaves capacity.

What if there is an event that is online and everybody is on the telephone and getting connected to the service? What is the capacity of the site?

Mr. Sean Bolger

That is where the Deputy might have gone slightly off track. It is not telephones. This is a home broadband service. The maximum number of people-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

Let us say there are 200 people-----

The network is poor but the Wi-Fi is not and they are using a Wi-Fi in their home. I am using that as an example.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Okay. Let us say there are 200 people and they are all watching some television. Then it is about how much capacity there is for everybody to do that.

That is my question.

Mr. Sean Bolger

That is fine. There is no problem at all.

It should not-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

There is absolutely no problem. If people are watching television and streaming it is probably 4 Mbps.

Mr. Derek Kickham

Yes.

Mr. Sean Bolger

It does not actually work like that anyway.

I understand that.

Mr. Sean Bolger

One must look at it in terms of the ability-----

It is still a legitimate question in terms of capacity. I know from years of horrible experiences that if one has a contended line and sharing with other people it can be a disaster. I accept that it is getting better as line speeds improve. Ultimately, however, this is a shared service.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes, absolutely.

Therefore, there will always be that element of contention. My question is, what will the capacity be?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Today, the capacity of 5G is substantially beyond what normal demand will be. By that I mean heavy users and everything they want to do.

That is good to hear.

Mr. Sean Bolger

If one looks at the roadmap for that, it is dimensioned to be way beyond that. We are talking about a shift here in what previously would have been considered as fixed wireless, the unlicensed spectrums and the legacy technologies.

We need to put this in context. No one in the world is spending billions building out 5G fixed broadband networks that are not future proofed. We would certainly not invest the kind of money we are investing if it was not future proofed. Future proofed means it will always meet the demands of the customers. One cannot put this kind of money to work in a market and think one will not keep up to standard and speed when something else such as fibre to home is coming. We must be clear about this. We are not saying not to build out the national broadband plan. We are saying it should be built out. We are building out a network in parallel commercially and we will not do that unless we are 100% confident that the service our customers will get today is seriously faster than what they currently experience - that is why they will choose it - and it will continue to meet their demands. The industry expectation now is that we will have 1 Gbps by the end of this year. When we see it, trial it and it is tested, I will believe it. The next thing is 10 Gbps. Nobody is building these networks for the short term. This is a major shift.

I presume the next step for Imagine's business plan, after investing €300 million, is dependent on uptake, that is, the number of customers following the investment. Will it then move on to additional sites and scenarios that its mapping exercises will have identified where there might be an area with a couple of hundred houses that it cannot penetrate because of topography or other barriers to the provision of services, whether man-made or otherwise? Alternatively, is Imagine rolling out services in a particular region and trying to capture everyone in it before moving on to the next region? What is its business model?

Mr. Sean Bolger

The business model is to make it available to as many people as possible. That is the first objective. By definition, we are investing commercially, which is very important. What makes it possible is that the technology allows us to make a commercial investment in areas where previously others would not have made that investment. Our objective is to cover as many people as possible, make the service available and then meet demand. That means that in each area we will have customers take on the service. If they do not take it on, we will not add more capacity and if they do, we will put up more capacity. That means we will put in our 5G fixed broadband equipment on more masts. It may start with a certain amount of coverage and a certain number of customers and when one exceeds a certain number of customers, more capacity is needed. To do that, we will build more base stations and reduce the coverage of each base station to service the customers.

I assume that from a cost perspective Imagine will seek to retrofit its service onto existing masts, as far as it can.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes, as far as we can.

Does Imagine have an idea of the number of new sites it will need in its network?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Initially, we will probably not need any new sites for the initial coverage. We already have access to a large portfolio of sites. We bought the two biggest wireless companies in Ireland in 2009. We have been working on this project for a long time and we have access to a large number of masts.

Mr. Bolger covered upload and download speeds and the contention issue insofar as it pertained to the comparison with the old style network I raised. Is a maximum capacity known for the 5G network or is it constantly evolving?

Mr. Sean Bolger

We want to be very clear that we have not come in and said we will solve the whole problem and connect 1.6 million people and they will get 10 Gbps broadband tomorrow. 5G is a journey. It will continuously evolve. I have been in the business for 30 years and seen 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G. People will talk about 6G next. The bottom line is that the wireless technology, which is backed by global industry, has now got to a starting point of very high capacity. This makes it an alternative to other high capacity fixed networks. It is not going to go backwards. If one chooses to use that technology for mobile, that is great. If one chooses to use that technology for a mix of mobile and fixed, that is also great. However, it will not work as an alternative to a fixed broadband solution. We are providing a fixed broadband solution. People probably do not know a great deal about this because Ireland was the first country in Europe and one of the first in the world to release the 3.6 GHz spectrum, which now happens to be the pioneer spectrum for 5G. We have worked with industry, regulators, governments and operators who come to Ireland to look at what we are doing. It is very new and we are very proud of that and of being an Irish company. As the committee heard earlier, Eir is also trialling fixed wireless as a solution. Vodafone is using it in other countries and Three is using it in the UK. It is the biggest driver of business investment. So many masts will have to be built for the 5G network but the handsets to get there will not be available in large numbers, whereas today there is a deficit in infrastructure for fixed broadband. That is what is making the commercial investments possible. The reason we were successful in raising funding and bringing this project is that the infrastructure funds and banks around the world now see this as a real alternative. These are the same people who invested in fibre. It is not better; it does exactly what fibre will do in a different way. It is just new. We have been clear that this will raise questions but we are putting a large investment into this.

Yes, and I welcome it.

Mr. Sean Bolger

I would say that we are fairly confident that it will work.

It is a large amount of money, which will create many jobs and facilitate the creation of many other jobs. I have one final question.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Can I make one point?

I have a question on the contention issue.

Mr. Sean Bolger

I would like to make one point so that we are clear. One of the objectives of the national broadband plan is to ensure that people get the service. We think that is critically important. If we do not deliver, we know that everyone else is coming behind us.

That is fine. My question refers to a transponder, a mast or an antenna or whatever one wants to call it. I am sure there is a technical term that I am not aware of. If Imagine is broadcasting at a particular mast, what is its capacity or maximum number of users? At what will Mr. Kickham call Mr. Bolder and tell him another mast is needed in Ballygowherever? What is the number?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Technically it could be 1,000 or 2,000 but we do not do that. It depends on the configuration. We need to achieve different configurations of coverage. We cannot go out and blast this everywhere and get as much coverage. We have to use different radio plans-----

Yes, I heard Mr. Bolger's answer to Deputy O'Connell.

Mr. Sean Bolger

We have to use different radio plans and each one of those defines the maximum number of customers that we would allow. Once we get to 70% capacity, we would say we need more sites. As we roll out the network, we will have far fewer on each mast because of the rate at which we are building it out.

Mr. Derek Kickham

I will make a point that might be helpful. We talk about it as though there is a constraint or capacity limitation associated with fixed networks but all networks have constraints and contain within them design assumptions relating to how much capacity to put in at certain points. A fibre network is the same as any other network. We use a lot of fibre ourselves. When we refer to a mast, it is not a singular entity. Mr. Bolger said that there are several configurations but a particular bay station could be configured to have three, four, five, six, seven, eight or nine cells. The answer is that one deploys capacity where it is needed.

That is what it means. It is not that there is only one of these things and that is it. This is really about putting up what is needed to meet the capacity for which there is a requirement.

Mr. Sean Bolger

It is highly challenging. The network has load balancing, which means that if, let us say, the area in which one's house is located gets busy, one will switch to another sector. It is very complex. That is what makes it possible. The concept of limitation is being lifted. The cap is off with technology.

I thank both of our guests.

Mr. Sean Bolger

No problem at all.

I appreciate their answers.

To be absolutely clear, we have effectively been almost an hour behind schedule all day. We are stopping in ten minutes, one way or another. The others are an hour behind schedule also. I ask the members to be as brief as possible. We have another player coming in.

I thank Mr. Bolger for attending.

Mr. Sean Bolger

No bother.

My understanding from reading the evidence - clearly, Mr. Bolger probably will not agree - is that fibre-optic cabling is more effective in terms of future-proofing or upgrading the network. I do not want to twist his words but my understanding is that Mr. Bolger claims that perhaps when the national broadband plan was being developed, there were limitations but that it has evolved to a point now where he would see it as an alternative. Am I misinterpreting what Mr. Bolger is saying or do I have the gist of it?

Mr. Sean Bolger

That is the gist of what I am saying. This is not me. This is not Imagine. It is the technology that we are using, which is 5G.

I never mentioned Imagine. I have read it all. I am only trying to understand what Mr. Bolger is selling. That is all.

Mr. Sean Bolger

We are not selling anything. We are here just giving information. It is the technology. It is at that level.

Mr. Bolger is before an Oireachtas committee. Does he believe it is internationally accepted that his product is an alternative to fibre-optic cable?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Do I think, as a commercial alternative-----

Get rid of the word "commercial". My remit, as an Oireachtas Member, is to ask Mr. Bolger questions. I want a broadband plan for the people. I have no vested interest in this. Leave the commercial out of it. In terms of providing for the people of Ireland and leaving money out of it, is it true to say that Imagine's product, wireless fixed, is equal now in terms of evolutionary status to fibre optic?

Mr. Sean Bolger

As stated, 5G is on our roadmap. It is on our journey. The standard that it is at is way above what is required today. It is similar to the speeds that are being provided commercially in the market, the vast majority of which would be 150 Mbps. The reality is that in places like Jersey, where there is 100% fibre penetration, the customers do not take more than 150 Mbps. Fibre is being built for the future. That is important. We need to compare like with like. If we are building for the future, at a point in the future somebody will need 1 Gbps. I am telling the Deputy that the standards for 5G by that time will be at 1 GHz. It will actually be beyond-----

Mr. Bolger is basically looking into a crystal ball and predicting that if wireless progresses continuously on the same trajectory, it will be as good in the future as fibre optic.

Mr. Sean Bolger

I can tell the Deputy now that it is already delivering 1 GHz processing-----

No, no. I really need to deal with this because it is the crux of the matter. Mr. Bolger is stating that 5G is evolving, on a journey to evolve, etc., but he is really predicting the future in terms of technology. He cannot guarantee that wireless fixed in a few years' time will be equal in effectiveness to fibre-optic cable. Can he predict that?

Mr. Sean Bolger

What I can tell the Deputy is that the world industry, the United Nations International Telecommunication Union, ITU, third generation partnership project, 3GPP, standards providers will all say that it will provide the kind of capacity we are discussing.

Perhaps the committee could do with this information. I have not seen any of it.

Mr. Sean Bolger

I have no problem with that at all. In fairness to the Deputy, we are quite advanced in this. As a result of the fact that we had the spectrum, we have been involved in this for many years. We are recognised as being one of the most advanced companies in this particular area. We have no problem in providing the service. There is a very good reference site that we can give the committee, putting it not wrong but in plain English, which is the UK Government website which basically sets out their expectations and strategy for their network. That would be probably a good source for the Deputy, if it was helpful.

Excellent. Mr. Bolger is stating that Imagine has enough masts already as a result of what it bought as part of the two previous transactions and from piggybacking on other masts and adding bits on. Imagine has enough without building any more masts to provide wireless to the number of people to whom it wants to provide. I want to clarify that Mr. Bolger does not want to build any more masts.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Right now, the critical issue for us commercially is to deliver high-speed broadband in the network that we have designed. Commercially, we have to do that. We are in a challenge against everybody else who said they were going to do it. We will only survive if we deliver and connect.

How many customers does Imagine have at present? We are under pressure for time.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Our network is designed specifically on existing sites. We will not need to build any new sites to do what we have already released. As for the number of customers on the network, we have a trial network that we have run for two years which has circa 19,000 customers.

Mr. Derek Kickham

It is 19,500.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Something like that.

How do those customers break down in terms of business versus domestic?

Mr. Sean Bolger

We did not distinguish between business and domestic. It was a mix of everybody.

Has Mr. Bolger no data to distinguish between them?

Mr. Derek Kickham

We only marketed the service to residential customers. For the trial service, that is all. The product we announced just yesterday is a separate small business and residential offering.

I suppose what I am getting at is that Imagine's market share to date has been residential, not business, customers.

Mr. Sean Bolger

We did not launch the service. We only launched it yesterday.

Still, what I said is true. Imagine has not yet had an existing business customer base.

Mr. Sean Bolger

We have not.

Has the company dealt with that sector, yes or no?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Is there-----

Has the company dealt with it?

Mr. Sean Bolger

I am sorry. If the Deputy asks me a question, I need to answer it.

I asked Mr. Bolger a question.

Mr. Sean Bolger

If Deputy O'Connell wants me to give her an answer-----

I would like the answer. I am not asking what Mr. Bolger did yesterday. I did not go to its-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

The Deputy has asked me-----

I do not know anything about what Mr. Bolger announced yesterday. I am here sitting at a committee.

Mr. Sean Bolger

I do not want to be argumentative. I do not want to be misrepresented either.

I refer to the company's 19,000 customers out of a total basket of customers of 840,000. Prior to yesterday, Mr. Bolger has only marketed his product to domestic customers. Is Mr. Bolger entertained in some way?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Sorry?

We are at a very serious part here. Mr. Bolger has 19,000 customers, all of whom are domestic.

Mr. Sean Bolger

On a trial.

How does Mr. Bolger know if his product is good enough for business customers? It is the customer who will tell him.

Mr. Sean Bolger

We have a lot of businesses on it. We know that business is using the product. We did not market it as a separate business product. Business customers use it for business. We have not distinguished between them. This is a trial network that we have run. We did not expand it. When we launched the trial, the facts that we know are that it meets the demands and needs. We have business customers. As for the normal usage that we would expect on the international works, we have tested all of that. We know that 20,000 people wanted the service in those areas. However, it was a trial network and, therefore, we did not connect to anybody else. We were not in a position to do it. This is very important. We could not make this announcement and investment because at the time we had not secured a spectrum until 2017. It was only when we had the spectrum - we secured it at a cost of €10 million - that we were able to make the plans to roll out the national network. We could not do anymore more than the 50 sites, just to be clear.

I will have to let-----

No, I will call time on this session. Did Deputy Connolly want to get in, briefly, in fairness to the next group?

I thank our guests very much. This has been helpful. They are here in a voluntary capacity and I appreciate that. It is good to get the views of all the delegations that have been before us.

I have read the material and I will go back and read it again. Is Mr. Bolger stating that he agrees with the national development of broadband and wants to work with it-----

Mr. Sean Bolger

Yes, absolutely.

-----but that fibre to the home is wrong from Imagine's point of view?

Is he stating that the latter is not necessary?

Mr. Sean Bolger

Not for everywhere. That is purely our opinion.

Mr. Sean Bolger

It does not interfere with asking anybody to change the national broadband plan.

I am only trying to understand what is here so that I can-----

Mr. Derek Kickham

I am very conscious of the time but if it would help - and I hope it does - I want to point out that sometimes people talk of the national broadband plan as though it is all one thing. It is helpful to look at it as the two components that it really has. It has a backhaul requirement, which everybody agrees is required. Everybody also agrees that this has to be fibre and that it has to be extensive. There is no dispute about that. Then there is what we call the "last mile", which is the access piece. There are different views about that.

And different solutions.

Mr. Derek Kickham

The cost of doing the last bit in fibre is very high. It is horses for courses. There are a number of last-mile solutions such as fibre, copper or wireless. We think that we should absolutely be doing the backhaul phase extensively and as quickly as possible because everybody needs it. Then it should be horses for courses for the access.

In a phased approach.

Mr. Derek Kickham

Correct. They are two different things. It is not as though one is for or against fibre. It is a horses for courses situation.

That has been helpful. I will finish on this. In the third paragraph on the first page of the statement submitted by Imagine Communications Group, reference is made to 400,000 out of the 540,000 premises . Are these the same premises we were talking about at this morning's session with another group of witnesses? Are these the 540,000 premises-----

Mr. Derek Kickham

Yes.

-----under the national broadband plan? Is that right?

Mr. Sean Bolger

That is correct.

Eir informed the committee that it could deal with 150,000 of those but Imagine is indicating us it could cover 400,000 of them.

Mr. Sean Bolger

That is correct.

In what timeframe could it do so?

Mr. Sean Bolger

That service will cover those 400,000 premises by June 2020. We have given a commitment that by June 2019 we will have 155 sites covered. We have given clear points at which we will deliver on this.

Mr. Derek Kickham

It would be 18 months.

The logic of what we are hearing now is for the national broadband plan for rural areas, not the whole State. The rural area cover started off as 850,000. Eir has already done 300,000 from that total and we are now down at 540,000. The Department has looked at that. Eir has confirmed that it is now going to upgrade its existing network from copper to fibre and that it is going to take another 80,000 of the 540,000. This means the number will have dropped to 460,000. Eir has confirmed that commercially. It will be done without a penny of State aid or taxpayers' money. Imagine has stated that it can do a large chunk of the 460,000 remaining premises, although I am not tying anyone to a figure.

Mr. Derek Kickham

That is what we will do.

It raises the question-----

Are they not providing a different product now?

That is correct. Fibre to the home is not being provided for the final section. That is correct and we must be clear.

There is an important distinction there.

Some people do not care about having to sit on the same couch to watch television but others wanted the connection to the home.

This is the big question we must ask. The State embarked on this broadband plan in 2015 but today there are commercial operators. The representative from Eir made it very clear that if she got permission from her board to invest another €100 million she could take more out of this.

As a committee we need information. When we have witnesses in to the committee who have a product and when there will be a budget for that product, we as a committee have to be very aware of the facts. I read a lot of documentation on fibre optics last night and today it has been discussed as an evolving sector, whether it is equal or not and that it is an alternative in Japan, in Jersey and in the United States of America. This morning, however, we heard that Eir has announced €500 million in fibre investment and a further €250 million in respect of the rural fibre programme. We are not getting the right information or non-biased information. It is very important for the committee to have some sort of expert advice on this.

Today, we are listening. We do not have to agree 100% with everything that is said. Part of the purpose of this meeting is to increase the bank of knowledge for us, and for the members of the public who are watching, such that when we come back to the Department, we will be far better informed. At that stage, we will see about assessing where matters stand. I agree with the Deputy.

We need non-biased-----

We are not accepting-----

We need legal advice. We need to have advice from the industry leaders and from universities.

We are not accepting everything as gospel.

Yes. I would not. I am sorry but I put it to the Chairman that I run a business and when a rep comes in to sell me something, I start by not believing a word he or she says. However, I then end up believing some of it. I see this as a glorified version of that, with respect, and I believe we need to be very conscious of where the industry is and the science behind it, as well as the factual information.

There are a lot of questions left about 5G and nothing to do with any of our business today.

Absolutely. Some of us might not be convinced at all. I am not suggesting we are.

Mr. Sean Bolger

Can I address that? We are not looking for anything. All we are doing is coming in to the market. We think the national broadband plan should go ahead. They should make sure that we deliver on it. I ask that people be careful because some of the conversation is about "Eir is doing this" and "Imagine is doing that". The bottom line is that we have to prove that we can do it. Right now, the important thing for the national broadband plan is to make sure that we do it and that it should go ahead. The most efficient way to do it is in a two-phased approach. If one concentrates on fibre backhaul we will do our job and connect the homes. If we do not, then the rest of the homes can still be connected: it is fine. We are not looking for anything and we are not selling anything. We will have to sell to our customers, which, in fairness, is what we do.

We thank Mr. Bolger and Mr. Kickham for being at the committee. We are learning. It is a slow process. When we go home this evening we will be far better informed, which was the purpose of this session. The witnesses are here voluntarily and are running their own businesses. I wish them well in their own businesses, and they say best of luck to the national broadband plan also. There is no conflict, we are just gathering information. We will distil it in due course and test it.

Mr. Sean Bolger

We are providing everything to the Department to figure out the best way to do this.

I thank our guests. We shall suspend while the next group of witnesses take their seats.

Sitting suspended at 4.37 p.m. and resumed at 4.42 p.m.