National Broadband Plan Roll-out: Discussion

Today's meeting is part of the joint committee's examination of broadband and related matters, including phone connectivity. The committee is particularly interested in discussing the role of the national broadband plan as well as regional and rural access to broadband. With the increased numbers working, studying and socialising remotely, this issue is becoming more important than ever. I welcome from National Broadband Ireland, NBI, Mr. Peter Hendrick, chief executive officer, Ms Tara Collins, chief marketing officer, and Mr. T.J. Malone, chief executive officer, NBI deployment.

Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person or entity. If the witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that witnesses comply with all such directions.

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 Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I invite Mr. Hendrick to make his opening statement on behalf of National Broadband Ireland.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

It is our pleasure to be welcomed here today. I am the chief executive officer at National Broadband Ireland. I thank the committee for the invitation to speak to it. I am pleased to introduce my colleagues, Mr. T.J. Malone, who heads up the deployment of the NBI network, and Ms Tara Collins, our chief marketing officer overseeing all stakeholder and community relations. Our chairman, Mr. David McCourt, has asked me to extend his apologies as he was not able to attend today.

On 19 November last year, NBI signed contracts with the Government to deliver the new fibre network under the national broadband plan, NBP, which is widely recognised as one of the most ambitious projects of its kind globally. On 9 January this year, the contract came into effect and we commenced with boots on the ground.

The vision of the NBP is clear. It is about making sure that every home, business and farm in Ireland has access to vital services. It will ensure rural communities get the same access to opportunities offered by high-speed broadband as those in urban areas. This includes offering the same connection cost and benchmarking the same quality and speed of service for rural communities as urban areas.

This is a project of tremendous size and scale. It will serve over 1.1 million people in Ireland with world-leading, future-proofed, high-speed fibre broadband. There will be approximately 544,000 premises available to connect to high-speed broadband, including homes, schools, businesses and farms. At NBI, we are incredibly proud to be delivering the fibre network under the national broadband plan, which holds such significant national importance. Our passion for delivering Ireland’s new high-speed broadband network is what brings everyone at NBI together. We believe that better broadband networks promote social progress, equality and sustainability. With equal access to local, national and global opportunity, every person, community and organisation in Ireland will be empowered to achieve more.

Having commenced activities in January, NBI has made significant progress in mobilising our team and subcontractors in the deployment of the NBP network, all of which has taken place during the most difficult circumstances presented by Covid-19 restrictions over that period. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us the way we live, work and educate has changed forever, and access to reliable, scalable, high-speed connectivity is vital today and for generations to come. Over the course of the last few months, we have seen unprecedented adoption of new technologies and applications which rely on access to reliable connectivity. For so many of us, it will have been the first time we have ever worked from home. Zoom, which was just a word nine months ago, is now synonymous with communication. It does not end there, however. The way our children have accessed schooling, the way vital healthcare services have been delivered and the way in which we purchase food and goods have all been fast-tracked to move online.

We strongly recognise that Covid-19 has accelerated demand for reliable, high-speed broadband. We assure the committee that NBI takes this very seriously and I will discuss our efforts in this regard shortly. Our commitment is to be part of Ireland’s recovery.

The pandemic has created challenges for NBI in a number of areas. Key contractors have restricted operations and in one case, a specialist UK contractor was forced to postpone its Irish operations. Accommodation for contractors to work across the country has not been available. Access to certain premises and locations, including the islands, has not been possible for long periods. Equipment and material supply chains have been impacted from overseas suppliers. The recruitment and integration of personnel as we and our subcontractors scale our operations has undoubtedly been more difficult. However, I am pleased to be here today reporting that as a result of the mitigation measures that NBI has put in place to minimise the impact of Covid-19 delays, we have been able to progress our roll-out and hit significant milestones.

To put this into context, as of today over 800 people are now employed to work on the national broadband plan project. We have boots on the ground in 26 counties. We have 132,000 premises surveyed and detailed designs conducted for 92,000 premises. We have commenced network build on the first 19,500 premises. Our first fibre-to-the-home services will be delivered this year. We have 200 broadband connection points across 26 counties that are now connected, including 36 schools. We have signed up 33 retail service providers which will provide services to consumers and businesses on the NBI network, creating competition and choice from day one. Last month, we were delighted to launch the first 50 of the 200 broadband connection points, BCPs, working with the former Department for Rural and Community Development and the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. The BCPs represent a major milestone in the roll-out of the NBP and will provide free public access to high-speed connectivity at community facilities in every county.

NBI's priority is to keep operations on track. Despite the challenging environment caused by Covid-19, the progress made to date and the recovery strategies we have put in place, where necessary, give us confidence to meet the future milestones and put the project in a strong position for acceleration. I assure the committee that we are exploring every possible option to accelerate, and it remains the clear ambition for NBI to deliver the fibre network for the NBP in the shortest feasible time. We spend a great deal of time engaging with local communities and we see at first hand how essential and urgent connectivity has become. NBI has committed dedicated resources to independently evaluate the opportunities for acceleration and to formulate our plan. We continue to work closely with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications in this regard.

I will put this project into the context of what is happening elsewhere in Europe and also give some context to our commitment to future-proof the NBP network, which has been a critical objective of the project since its inception. Broadband connectivity is of significant importance for European growth and innovation for all sectors of the economy, as well as for social progress. As a result, the European Commission strongly supports initiatives which align with its digital agenda. As a result of its national broadband plan, Ireland stands to lead the way in Europe in the provision of high-speed broadband. Ireland is currently ranked in the top five fastest growing markets in Europe for delivering high-speed broadband networks. Over the next 24 months, the NBP network will reach in excess of 200,000 premises. To put this into context, Ireland will have almost 90% of premises across the country with access to high-speed broadband. In addition, the NBP network will launch with a minimum service of 500 Mbps, megabits per second, exceeding the digital agenda for Europe target, which has a goal set for 2025 to provide at least 100 Mbps to all European households.

Finally, meeting the needs of a digital economy has accelerated significantly over the last 12 months. This network will place Ireland years ahead of other European countries in the provision of high-speed broadband and will empower a truly limitless Ireland. I welcome the opportunity to take questions from the members.

I thank the witnesses and Mr. Hendrick. I have a question specifically related to the implications of Covid-19. I appreciate that it is almost the worst-case scenario. Demand is now more geographically dispersed and intense, but NBI's ability to deliver on that is constrained by Covid-19. Mr. Hendrick mentioned a number of milestones that have been achieved, which are welcome. Are there milestones at this juncture that were intended to be hit but because of constraints or for other reasons have been missed? Will Mr. Hendrick address the implications of Covid-19 for the cost of the project compared with that initially planned and for delivery timelines? Is there contingency? Mr. Hendrick referred to mitigation. How will NBI contend with the challenges of cost and delivery dates and milestones missed?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I will hand over to my colleague, Mr. T.J. Malone, who will give a more detailed update on the build programme. In any project when one lays out one's plan for a programme, one builds in what risks there are and the implications of risks. Every day we have to mitigate against some of those risks to ensure we deliver on our milestones. I am happy to state that we will deliver on our milestones and we are confident we will continue to deliver on them with the objective of accelerating.

In terms of the overall cost of the programme, with what we are seeing with the programme as it stands, we are confident of coming under the original budget of the programme. We do not see any significant increase in costs as the programme is developing today. I will ask Mr. Malone give a more detailed update on the build programme.

Mr. T.J. Malone

To address the question related to Covid-19, it might help if I give an overall view of the different stages involved in building out a network. There are four different stages before we get to finally connect a premises at the end. We have a survey to start the first part of it. That would lead in to the design of the network, which would then give us the information we need to build the network. Once the network is built, we can connect the homes.

The survey is the first part. That means we literally have to walk every metre and kilometre around the country to get an understanding of the condition of the existing network. We are trying to utilise as much existing network as possible to get the delivery as quickly as possible to people. The survey was the first part to do. We did have problems or issues at the outbreak of Covid-19. We had concerns about trying to get accommodation, as Mr. Hendrick mentioned. There were no hotels available and there were no toilets or facilities available on the road. At that stage we had intended to use one contractor to do the design of the full network, but we quickly mobilised two additional contractors. We increased our workforce across the board, therefore, by getting three contractors. As Mr. Hendrick mentioned, we now have 132,000 premises surveyed. That equates to approximately 16,000 km of road and about 250,000 poles tested. Although we were behind earlier in the programme, we have now caught up and surpassed on the surveying. That is 25% of the total 544,000 premises - we are a quarter way through the entire intervention area - now surveyed and we are running at a run rate of about 17,500 premises per month. We have caught up and are ahead. That leads in-----

Where did NBI anticipate to be at this time?

Mr. T.J. Malone

At the end of the year, we would hope to have in the region of 115,000 to 120,000 premises, but we had always intended to be ahead so that if we met complications on the build at any stage down the road in any area, we would have a number of different designs on the shelf that we could just pick, move or change so they would not impact on the programme. We did not intend to be at the run rate of 17,500; it would have been a lesser run rate. We are now well ahead from the survey point of view.

That leads into the design. Again, we were late getting there, but we have caught up. The design is late starting. We are now at 92,000 premises, which is well ahead of schedule as well. When I say 92,000 designed, what happens is that our design partners take the information gathered from the surveys, analyse it and come back to us with detailed designs. When that comes into NBI, we look at it along with our internal engineers and designers, and there is back and forth between the designers until we get what we believe is a quality plan with which we want to proceed. There are 20,000 of them and 19,500 are currently under construction across five different employment areas. We believe that by the end February, we will be at a run rate of between 7,000 and 10,000 homes being ready for connection, where we have built ready for connection. By the end of 2021, we will be at between 105,000 and 115,000 premises. We will have caught up on the build at that stage as well.

While we had initial problems, we have caught up on the first two parts of it and we are catching up on the build as well.

The programme for Government and some media reports indicate that NBI might be able to fast-track and come in ahead of schedule.

We are hearing that we are coming on budget or under budget, which would be welcome news to the taxpayer. Has the ambition to come in ahead of schedule in the roll-out of the programme overall been affected by Covid-19 or to what extent is it a realistic proposition?

Mr. T.J. Malone

It is very much our desire to bring this in faster. Covid-19 is an issue but the faster we can get the roll-out done, the better. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, and departmental officials have approached us and asked us to consider looking at how we can accelerate the plan and bring those houses that may be in years six or seven into an earlier part of the programme.

To put some context on this, the seven-year programme was very ambitious and 144,000 km of fibre must be installed in that time. In saying that fast it does not seem like much but putting it into perspective, it is like circumnavigating the globe three and half times. There is a significant challenge and build ahead of us over the next seven years.

That said, we are very conscious about this and we are looking into it. We have assembled a team that is specifically for looking at every single possibility of accelerating the programme and no stone will be left unturned in that way. We are looking at everything. Two of the critical lead time factors in any acceleration are survey and design. If they are not done, the build cannot be accelerated. We have taken the initiative to go ahead and accelerate the surveys and design, as I mentioned, so when it comes to a point in time when we may be able to accelerate the build, we will be able to catch up.

The survey and design is very much in our control and something we can gear up to but the build has a number of other stakeholders and factors involved. There are infrastructure access providers, local authorities and licensing and permits that must also be dealt with. All these areas and constraints have been looked at right across the board. There are several bodies being worked on to ensure we can try to accelerate the process. It is very much our desire to do it.

The witnesses have spoken about accelerating the process. Is the figure of 544,000 premises correct? The only figure I have seen as a target is 115,000 premises connected by the end of next year, which is 2021. Will the witnesses give an indication of specific targets per year beyond that? The programme is currently seven years so how quickly could it be fast-tracked? Could it be brought back to five years? The chairman of the group, Mr. McCourt, is on record with Reuters saying he is confident it could be pulled back. I will put that to the test today.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I can comment and Mr. Malone can add some colour. As he described, with such projects we start with survey and design and looking to get them accelerated. Once we start on the build programme, it is industrialised and it is about building efficiencies into it.

The first deployment of 19,500 homes is under active construction right now and there are 76,000 premises given to contractors to start the build programme. We are making good progress into the 2021 and 2022 programme. That will build up as contractors mobilise and we go from having 800 people today on the project up to 1,800 people over the next 15 months. We will add 1,000 people to the programme in that time. That extra resource will help us get to the steady state industrialised programme of build. It is our desire, ambition and experience from other projects that once we get our systems and processes industrialised, we should be able to make some acceleration just in the normal course of a build programme. In addition, we are looking at other opportunities and alternatives for acceleration.

Are the witnesses as optimistic as the group chairman, Mr. McCourt, that it can be brought back to five years?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I am optimistic that we can certainly deliver somewhere between the five and seven-year programme. We will have further updates.

There is a big difference between five and seven years. Could it be done in five years?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

There is. We have confidence we can start to achieve a five-year programme once we get the entire workforce mobilised.

What are the specific targets per year from 2022 onwards?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

If we look beyond 2022, as Mr. Malone said, we are looking every month at approximately 7,000 to 10,000 homes passed. We are looking to achieve somewhere between 90,000 and 120,000 homes per annum once we get to steady state. The sooner we get to that mobilised state where we have 1,800 people on board, we can hit that number faster.

Is it fair to say the project is looking at approximately 115,000 on average per year over the period?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Correct.

I represent Limerick and north Tipperary and I have a letter from people living on both sides of the border. The big issue is the blue connection. These blue connections are to be serviced by Eir and other fibre broadband connectors but a large number of people have written to me who live perhaps 200 m from a blue connection. They are wondering when they will be connected.

Will priority be given to people near existing or blue connections? There may be a road where houses are connected to existing broadband providers such as Eir at one end but at the other end, the houses are not connected because of the existing roll-out. When will there be a system on the National Broadband Ireland website where people can input an postcode and know when they will be connected? As of today, how many premises are connected to the NBI network?

I agree with the comment that this is akin to the electrification of Ireland and in ways I almost regard it as more important. Rural electrification brought light and allowed people to function better but, in many cases, people will not be able to work unless they have increased fibre capacity. It is about balanced regional development. NBI is playing a part in the second wave of a rural electrification programme. It is an important feature. When will NBI have a "traffic light" system on its website so people can see via their postcode when they will be connected?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We must start in locations where we can connect to existing infrastructure. We are starting in locations where there is sufficient space for the electrical equipment for power and there is existing fibre back to the main networks to the Internet. We have started in locations where the infrastructure is available to quickly mobilise and develop from there. Over the next 12 month,s we will be active in every county. As we start to build out, we are servicing a significant number of homes close to the blue areas.

Are they being given priority?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

it is not necessarily that they have been given priority. It is just the design criteria of the network. We must start in locations that are typically urban or in towns that have fibre backhaul. There is colocation space there where we can put the electronic equipment that creates connectivity to the home. We start in those locations and build out. It so happens that many of the commercial operators happen to be in those locations and there are premises in those areas that do not have high-speed broadband. It is not that such cases are prioritised but because of the design criteria, we will start to pass those homes earlier in the programme as opposed to towards the end. It is a critical part of our roll-out plan.

Regarding the communication of that, where we have produced designs and tasked subcontractors with building, we have announced on our website the townlands in which we are going to build in 2021. They can be seen on our website today.

But not beyond.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

That will grow every month. I will explain that. Equally, if one enters one's postcode on our website, one can find out exactly the stage of the programme in which one is due to be connected. First, one will be able to determine the areas being built in 2021 and, second, when a home will be ready for service connection. Every month, as Mr. Malone's team completes the design activities, we will update the notification on our website announcing towns and townlands that are available for connectivity. If one enters a postcode, one will see exactly where it is in the programme. Over time, we expect this to broaden in terms of the number of townlands on the timeline. Typically, our build programme looks ahead 18 months. We have done our surveys and examined the designs and infrastructure required. That might mean building new backhaul, co-location or putting in new passive infrastructure, poles and duct. We start to map out when exactly we are going be available to build the network to connect the homes, and we have started to share that visibility. We are providing information as soon as we can make it available.

How many have been connected to date?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

There are two sides to our programme in 2020. One is connecting the broadband connection points. We have 200 connected today across 26 counties. The build programme is under way to pass 19,000 homes. We will be starting to connect homes in the coming weeks within Carrigaline, Galway and Cavan. The Chairman must remember that there are 33 retail operators on board. NBI is a wholesale operator and does not sell directly to consumers or businesses, so it has to bring on board the retail operators, testing our network and their network-----

As of now, no customer has been signed up.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

As of today, the 33 retail operators signed up are proactively preparing customers to sign up in the relevant regions.

What is the position on Limerick and north Tipperary? I am aware that there has been infrastructure rolled out in some of the areas, including Patrickswell, Castleconnell and Caherconlish. Is that the up-to-date position? Are the delegates seeking to fast-track in that area in any way?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Again, we start on the inside and move out. Construction has started in Limerick. When we say "Limerick", we do not just mean within the county; we mean a 30-km radius from what we call our point of handover, where our active equipment is. Although we say Limerick, we do go into the other counties. For next year, Limerick, Clare and Tipperary certainly will be part of the build-out programme from where we started today.

I welcome the witnesses. I apologise in advance as I must leave in a few moments to attend a meeting of the health committee next door. We will be talking about the national children's hospital. We all know what that means: overspending. It is in this regard that I want to start today. The NBI contract is massive and extremely important. It is all the more important given the Covid pandemic and the fact that so many people are working from home. Overall, the cost of delivery is estimated to be about €3 billion over many years. Since there is a multi-annual programme and since, by the delegates' own admission, there is still a lot of legwork to be done to determine what the network really requires on the highways and byways, what is the likelihood of overspending, perhaps not this year, which has already been covered, but next year or the year after that? To what extent has the NBI factored in overspending and having to come back to the Government stating the programme will cost a lot more?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

If I were to describe the cost of the programme, I would break it down into three areas: the construction and building of the network; the rental of passive infrastructure, including poles, duct, backhaul and co-location space; and contingencies and VAT in terms of the Government subsidy and quantities. If the cost of building the network is approximately one third of the cost of the subsidy – the total subsidy number is the cost of the build – let us examine the position we are in today. We have subcontracted the work on 76,000 homes to our subcontractors to date. Based on the cost associated with that procurement activity — which concerns resources, equipment and materials — we are confident about the direction of travel for the remaining 400,000-odd homes in addition to the 76,000. Over time, there will be changes affecting materials or labour rates but all of these are built into what we consider in terms of contingencies. Today, we have confidence about the total construction cost, based on our experience with the first 76,000 homes.

On the multi-annual roll-out, homes that are to get broadband this year or next year will get current technology. Will a home having broadband installed in four or five years get the industry standard at that point or will it get what its neighbour a mile down the road got way back in 2020 or 2021?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I am happy the choice we made in 2018 on the technology to plug into the fibre, the underlying infrastructure, results in technology that supports speeds of 10 Gbps to the home. What I would call the core network equipment that we have in the co-location facilities supports 10 Gbps per home but the customer premises equipment we are installing in every home will cover up to 2.5 Gbps. The vision we had to build into the programme related to the infrastructure supporting the long-term demand. In 2018 and 2019, we were considering launching with 150 Mbps in this regard. Before we started construction, we had to move that to 500 Mbps because we are benchmarked against urban areas. Today, we are supporting 500 Mbps to each of the homes connected to the network. That was originally envisaged as being a year-ten requirement. Therefore, the network will support 10 Gbps. If the demand in urban areas increases beyond 10 Gbps — it seems like an outrageous number today — the passive infrastructure, which includes the cables and the infrastructure we built, will support it. We have considered the vision for this beyond 25 years. We can meet the vision with the passive infrastructure. At times throughout the 25 or 35 years, we will have to upgrade the active equipment, but it is an easier upgrade. When we are doing it at the co-location facilities, we can swap out cards and can send an engineer to site just to replace a box on the consumer's premises.

What really concerns people is the question of when their homes will get broadband. I realise it all revolves around Eircode postcodes. At a previous meeting of this committee, I highlighted that in most cases postcodes are generated only on a quarterly basis. Quite a number of people have come to my office stating they have missed the current quarter's capture. Therefore, some will not get a postcode until February. They cannot fully engage with the NBI's system and website because connecting a home to any network is very reliant on its having a postcode. We believe there is a disadvantage in that regard.

As others have said, there may be a blue connection at one end of a road and another cable half a mile down another road. There are many gaps. People despair when they see NBI staff drive away from a crossroads at which they have been working and not come back because they are going to another community. It is a matter of filling in the gaps. This is what people really want to know about. I would like to know about the Eircode postcodes specifically.

The delegates have has said NBI is doing quite a lot of work in Limerick. I have seen NBI vans in Cratloe, County Clare, not too far from my own home. We need to know a little more about where the infrastructure is going to be rolled out at county, townland and road levels. In Clare, there are a number of cables in the ground that NBI is not allowed to tap into. Perhaps the delegates could comment on this. Ballygirreen in Newmarket-on-Fergus strikes me as an example. The Irish Aviation Authority has its radio centre there to capture air traffic coming in from the Atlantic. At its own cost, the authority laid state-of-the-art cabling through fields with cattle and rushes. It is fabulous but it bypasses homes that desperately need it. In many cases, NBI is encountering cables that have been laid by airports, schools and Garda stations but which it cannot tap into. Perhaps the witnesses could cover some of those topics.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

On the Eircode postcodes, I totally appreciate there is a three-month period between An Post updating the addresses and handing over to Eircode, and then a delay of a month in getting a postcode. On our side, we will seek to connect homes based on addresses. We will not delay for the four-month period; we will accept an update in terms of addresses on our system.

With regard to surveys in the blue area, we totally appreciate and understand the demand for broadband, particularly because of people working remotely owing to Covid. Regarding awareness and communication, if a van is seen in an area it means we are at the stage of a survey, which means that within a number of weeks or a short number of months, we will move towards design.

Once the design is completed, that goes into a build programme and we can then share that information. When one starts to see National Broadband Ireland vans in one's area, one can have confidence that at least one will get visibility soon in terms of when the network will be built and we can share that information. Once one sees the vans, we are not just driving off. That information is being taken back where we can do low-level designs and then inform a build programme.

National Broadband Ireland is like the ESB in rolling out a large nationwide network. At this time of the year, when ESB cables are down, it has a large team to get the networks back up again. National Broadband Ireland has many overground cables in its network, some of which will come down over the winter due to storms. With a workforce of 800, boots on the ground, has it an equal capacity to that of the ESB to enable it to patch up the network?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We have two separate teams. We have a team that is purely focused on the build of the network. Then we have a team focused on preventive maintenance and maintenance of the network. During the build phase, we are testing all of the existing passive infrastructure such as testing poles and clearing ducts. As the programme is happening, one will see a number of poles replaced around the country. Currently, over 2,000 poles have been replaced and that will continue. That is purely build.

On the maintenance programme, if there are any outages on the network, we have key performance indicators that we have to meet. If we do not meet one of these, we will get a penalty under the contract. We have to resource our operations team to support the network in a steady state as soon as we pass and connect a home.

How are roll-outs going in Clare?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

In general terms, the programme is going well.

Mr. T.J. Malone

As Mr. Hendrick said earlier, just because we started in one county, it does not mean it is the only county. We bleed in across the boundaries. South Clare is up and running with 1,300 premises under construction in Clare. We feed back into Clare from Gort. In May next year, we will start to roll out in Kilkishen.

We have 4,500 premises in Clare. Overall, there is approximately 22,000 premises across Clare which fall into the intervention area. Within the next six months or so, we will have 4,700 of those premises under construction.

It is important to note that we are trying to bring every county together at the one time. We have a mandate to be in 26 counties over the course of the first two years. No county can feel it is being discriminated against or left to the end. We are bringing the entire country as a whole together. We cannot go in and just finish one county at a time. We will go in and do one area, come back out and keep rotating around the country.

On that point, will all the blue areas be prioritised for surveys? That is a significant issue. People look over a ditch and see their neighbour is connected but they are not.

Mr. T.J. Malone

As we are building out the network, we cannot just specifically pick pockets or individuals around the country. We are building a brand new network. That network is an inward-outward network. We have to move out from where the backhaul network is there, and as we pass them, we absolutely will. To use the analogy, it is like putting a light on top of a Christmas tree. One cannot turn it on, unless one has power to plug it in. There is no point in building them unless we have something to feed it back to turn it on and connect them.

We feel the pain of the people affected. I have been around the country and met many of them at local authority meetings. This issue keeps arising. We will bring them on and serve them as quickly as possible. We cannot, however, specifically take individual pockets and give them priority.

That is very hard for people to take.

The way we live, work and educate has changed utterly during this pandemic. Broadband could not be more important to people. I welcome the opportunity to have the company before the committee today to get this information out there to people. There is an absolute information deficit in this regard. National Broadband Ireland's website could be so much better. I welcome the fact the company confirmed it will update it today. We are living in a digital world but this website is from the Stone Age, however. People do not know where and when they will get broadband.

Going back to the point raised by the Chairman on gaps, why is there not a unit in National Broadband Ireland to address them? I can give several examples of areas in County Clare which experience these gaps. With just a small bit of work, they could be connected and could engage in the world in which they now find themselves.

I welcome the fact the company has moved on in terms of the broadband connection points, BCPs, four of them in County Clare. Three of them have been connected, namely, Cree Community Centre, Loop Head and the Michael Cusack Visitor Centre and one is planned for Stonefort, Caherconnell. That information is on the website and people are encouraged to get access to that broadband.

Last week, I gave an example to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of a broadband gap in Ogonnelloe. All the houses in the area have broadband except for three in the middle that do not. There should be a unit in National Broadband Ireland to identify such problem areas and fix them. It can be easily fixed because one can build the network out to those three houses. The same issue occurs in Mountshannon. Again, on a whole section of road, broadband is not available but a short distance away, it is available. This happens across County Clare and the rest of the country. It is ridiculous and hard to stomach.

I welcome that the company explained the process of surveying, design, build and connect. There needs to be more information about National Broadband Ireland as a wholesaler, engaging with 33 different providers. The important message to get out to the public is that one can know when one will get broadband. The witnesses have explained the challenges that have been presented by the Covid-19 pandemic but the information deficit needs to be breached and people need to be given hope. This is a most positive project into which a lot of money is going, as broadband is now a necessity.

I wish National Broadband Ireland well in its work but it needs to improve on getting this information out to the public.

Mr Peter Hendrick

I appreciate the Deputy's feedback. The BCPs are critical for delivery across the country. We have a team which is dedicated to looking at acceleration of the programme and its opportunities. Equally, the team is looking at BCPs, what works well and are there other locations or more schools we can add into the programme. Similarly, it is looking at how we can deliver connectivity earlier to some of those locations that we believe will be further out in the programme based on this inward-outward process.

Deputy Carey had two specific points.

When will there be an information system on the website so people can find out when they will be connected? Will the witnesses explain, technically, why the existing blue connection points cannot be used as part of the build-out of the broadband network? It is unacceptable and there appears to be a fundamental flaw whereby people could be waiting four to five years for a broadband connection when the neighbour they can see over a ditch has it. I ask Mr Hendrick to deal with these points.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I will. Where I was going on the acceleration point is that we intend to update everybody on a local level but also on our website on the acceleration programme and the broadband connection points. Over the next four to six weeks, people will start to see a lot more information on our website. As of this week, we have started to see the build programme for the next 12 months where we are passing premises. Equally, as we on board these 33 retail operators we will start putting that information on our website. These will be the retail operators from whom people can buy services and the types of services and bundles that can be bought, including TV, broadband and voice. We will make all of this information available now so people will have better access and visibility.

If I look at the blue premises, while we are not prioritising specific areas, it is a natural build programme and as we come out of the urban and town areas, we will pass many of these homes that have been stranded between the blue areas. We are coming out from where there are commercial operators because that is where the infrastructure is and the backhaul, space and power. I can say with confidence that over the next 12 to 24 months, we will start servicing a majority of those homes that are close to high-speed broadband and do not have it today. Over the coming weeks, people will start to see the retail operators starting to sell to those homes because they are already providing services to their neighbours. The fact we have all 33 operators on board, and we are accounting for 98% or 99% of the retail operators in the Irish market today, means they are actively going to be selling services on the national broadband plan network as they do on other commercial wholesale operators.

Is it National Broadband Ireland's view that someone who is near a service and can see it across the road will be in a position to be offered that service by a commercial operator?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

That is correct. We will notify which operators have on boarded and gone through all of our systems tests. When consumers go to that operator's website and inputs their address or Eircode they will be told a service is available, such as that 500 Mbps is available. Depending on the retail operator, it may state it is National Broadband Ireland or another operator but the service will be available. As we pass over the blue areas, any homes left behind will benefit from our roll-out programme because we are starting from the inside out because of the topology of the network. People will be able to go to the websites of the retail operators and place an order and determine whether they are in or out. Equally, if people input their address or Eircode on our website they will be able to determine whether they are in the intervention area or the commercial excluded area.

Will National Broadband Ireland be able to break down on its website the retail operators offering this service by county and by townland?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Correct.

This will be encouraged. When will this happen?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

It will happen over the course of the next three to four weeks. Right now, approximately six operators have gone through the on boarding process. Some of them are large operators and some of them are more regional-----

Is Eir one of them?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

It is one of many. Equally, we have regional operators that have existing customers, such as businesses, consumers, farms and schools, in these areas. To date, we have five operators providing services in the broadband connection points. They provide the actual Internet service and Wi-Fi connectivity in schools throughout the country under the broadband connection point programme. As we roll out in each of the areas, and we speak about Cork, Galway and Cavan, we have different operators with a presence and customers today in these areas. In many cases there are coming to us and stating they have 200 customers on a particular network and asking whether they can get connected. We are engaging with the end users but they are also engaging with them and telling them the plan and how they want to migrate them from what would be a low-speed broadband service to a high-speed broadband service on our network.

I have a question about County Clare and 4,500 premises were mentioned. Will they be connected this year or will they only be surveyed?

Mr. T.J. Malone

They have already been surveyed so they are going through the design process. The first 1,300 of these premises are under construction. When we go into construction it can take between six and nine months before they are ready for connection. The first 1,300 of them are now under construction and that started a couple of months ago. They should be ready for connection in June next year.

Are they in Cratloe and Meelick?

Mr. T.J. Malone

Yes, some of those areas.

A figure of 4,500 in Clare was given for this year. How many are predicted for next year?

Mr. T.J. Malone

The full 4,500 will become available for connection throughout the course of 2021 and at the very start of 2022. By the end of 2021 and into the first quarter of 2022, we will have 4,500 customers available for connection.

I thank the witnesses for their presentation. They do not need me to tell them the importance of broadband to the rural areas of this country and the areas that are not covered. This has been brought into even sharper focus by the pandemic. People who might have liked to have had high-speed broadband now absolutely need it, and those who absolutely need it are in absolute distress because of the impact it is having on their lives. The witnesses are well aware of this so there is no news there.

The only question anyone who wants broadband has to ask is when they are getting it. It can be done by postcode, address or whatever flagging mechanism National Broadband Ireland wants but it is absolutely incumbent on NBI to produce a database of facts at the earliest opportunity. The company should give its best guesstimate. It is a year in operation, albeit with all of the constraints of Covid, and I accept this absolutely, but it has done 25% of the survey with 132,000 homes surveyed and 92,000 premises with design, and it is working on the network build for 19,500. In terms of an initial sampling exercise, this should provide the company with the raw data it can use to extrapolate a master plan for installation. Of course there will be issues and concerns but a resident in County Clare only wants to know when. As others have said, there is nothing on the website that is in any way helpful in guiding this.

It is expected the programme will be fully delivered within seven years. I could say to people on the phone that it will delivered in between five and seven years. These people are planning their lives. A lot happens in a year or even six months. This will dictate whether people return to build, purchase or get a job in a particular area. It is part of their life planning. Some people will decide to move, quite frankly, because of the changes that have been brought about by Covid.

I accept there is always the hazard when projecting when something might be done that it will not be done in that timeline, and I have no doubt that if National Broadband Ireland sets a date, Mr. Malone, who I see is smiling, will respond that I would be the first to hold him to that target if he missed it. It is better to set it out and give the best guesstimate. National Broadband Ireland has the contract now and it does not have to big up any more. It is now getting on with it and I, more than anyone else, wish it well in making that happen. It has a job of work to do for citizens. This will impact on its business because it has the contract and needs to get the plan rolled out whenever it can. I know its targets with regard to key performance indicators but there is also a requirement that the people who will get the service know whether they will get it in year one, two, three, four, five, six or seven. I have found in my role as a public representative over 18 years that when I get back to people, even if it is not with good news, that knowledge - in this case, a best guesstimate - allows them to plan.

If things get better, it is fair enough. If they get worse, it is a question of the degree. I appeal to NBI to put in whatever resources it can as early as possible in order to give people some certainty.

Other members referred to the gaps that exist. People find it impossible to understand why NBI cannot build out to three, four or five houses or a little estate that falls outside. Did I understand Mr. Hendrick to say that NBI is building the network out from the exchange, meaning that it will traverse the same ground that is already covered with existing fibre? Am I right that in those blue areas it will not splice into the end of that but will go all the way back to the exchange and string fibre on poles and through ducts alongside existing fibre?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I will start with the question about building over existing commercial networks. Looking at the capacity requirement over 25 years, we need to build in the scalability and the amount of cables that are required. In each cable, there could be 144 separate cables. We need to splice into that. We need to account for the 544,000 homes and businesses that need to be connected. We then need to account for growth, not just in terms of speed, but also new homes and businesses that will be added to the network over 25 years. We have built all that design into our infrastructure. While we will always seek to leverage the existing infrastructure that is available, it is difficult to build our capacity requirements into a network whose dimensions have been based on existing or historical demand. We will always use infrastructure that is available and that can meet our demand expectations.

However, NBI is building out from the exchanges.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We are building out from where the infrastructure is fit for purpose to meet the demand for the people in the intervention area.

Does NBI never link into existing broadband providers' fibre cable?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We do where we can and where it makes sense to do so from a capacity and cost perspective.

So it does.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

For example, we will plug into available fibre networks that can bring us back to other regional points of handoff or back to Dublin. We will also use other networks that are available, whether passive or active, that fit into our demand requirements in terms of uptake and also new homes that come into the intervention area. We built this to meet the scale of demand for 25 years and beyond. That has been a critical part of our design criteria on the network. There is plenty of infrastructure we could use, but we need to ensure that we can meet the benchmarking of urban areas in the intervention area for the future. That has been a critical part of our assessment in designing the network.

On communications, we fully understand that people just want to know when. The work that is now under way for the first 76,000 premises will give people confidence that the programme is under way. We have 800 people out there building the network. We will add another 1,000 people. Every month we will add homes to that plan. We will take on board the idea of breaking this down into phases giving people a better understanding if their premises will be done. It is easy to say today who will be connected in 2021 and 2022. We have discussed internally showing that people are in phase 2 or phase 3. They might move and our ambition is to bring people forward. How we communicate that is critical. I would like Ms Collins to give a few minutes-----

Before we move on to that, I want to cover this because it is technical, and all marketing people do their best to sell what the technical people give them. Does NBI have a plan in place to extrapolate data it already has on the timing from initial survey through to construction and ultimate connection? Is it doing that modelling and extrapolating it over a wider geographic base? By the middle of next year, it should be possible for individuals to enter their Eircodes and get an indication that they are within six, nine or 12 months from being dealt or if it is going to be later that - even if it is 2023, 2024 or 2025 - it might get better. That would be very helpful in addressing the needs of the people we try to represent.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

As we come out of what we call the exchanges, we need to make decisions based on the surveys and designs. We created what we call a protected ring that goes around. We are coming from each of these active points and going out 30 km. When we come out of the exchange, we are building multiple smaller exchanges, but we create a ring. We create a ring so that we can provide the highest availability and reliable service. When we start doing our first surveys and designs, we need to decide if we go left on the ring or right on the ring depending on the condition of infrastructure.

When will NBI have the database that Senator Dooley has asked for?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Over the next 12 months we will be in every single county and many of those unknowns will become known. As we go through 2021, we will be able to give a much clearer view as to when we will be in each of those active points around the network. Each month over the next year, we will get better visibility allowing us to indicate to people that while they might be in phase 2, it will happen in a specific quarter. We can start to give more certainty on the timelines.

I have a question for Ms Collins on marketing. Perhaps because we engage with issues like this every day, we come to believe that the national broadband plan has been signed and is on the way. In the past week, I spoke to two people who should know but they do not. They were still asking when Eir would extend the four poles to get to their home. It needs is a big campaign, with NBI, in consultation with the Government, reiterating what it is doing. A big part of that is giving people certainty on the information.

Ms Tara Collins

The Senator is right, and we are acutely aware of the need for information. I will not outline our entire communications strategy. We have been actively communicating since January. The people want to know when they will get it, and we understand that.

I would like to spend a minute to bring the committee through what we have done to date. We have been working incredibly hard to ensure we communicate with all our stakeholder groups. In January we set up the website. I take the Senator's point and we are looking at improving the information on the website, explaining the gaps which might not be gaps that NBI could fill, but information as to why a house in the middle of a road is not covered under our plan and is not being connected within a certain timeframe. We are working on various animated explainer-type videos which are on our YouTube channel. Along with the website, we launched all our social media channels in January and we launched the interactive maps shortly after. The map had the end user in mind and is on an individual Eircode basis. We recognise the need for the higher-level detail. Members are getting questions every day from their constituents and we need to be able to field those.

When will the database be in place so that anyone in the country will know when they will be connected?

Ms Tara Collins

The database is in place, as is the interactive map.

It only covers the next year.

Ms Tara Collins

It operates on a rolling 18-month basis. As Mr. Hendrick said, we are committed to try to bring it to at least a two-year rolling update. We have tried to bring it up to a higher level without the need to enter an Eircode. The website nbi.ie/rollout gives a list of the first 21 deployment areas where we are active. It will give estimated dates of when connection can be expected. That information is there now. We know we need to provide more granular detail, and we are working hard to do that. The information beyond 18 months is not there yet. Obviously, when Covid hit, we could not do any of the plans we had for this year, such as roadshows, town halls, pop-up shops and demonstration centres.

We have done door drops for the first five deployment areas. Carrigaline, Galway, Limerick, Cavan and, next week, Ballinasloe are all getting door drops. They will be told when they can expect to be connected. Soon after that, we will go with a nationwide campaign. We had planned a nationwide one a little bit further down the line but given Covid and the need for information, we will be door dropping to 544,000 homes over the next eight to ten weeks.

It is ridiculous to conclude any ideas about doing a national door drop to the 544,000 unless National Broadband Ireland can give everyone some guesstimate. If I am out there and National Broadband Ireland has me in mind for year 7 or somewhere between five and seven years, and I receive one of those, it will encourage me to go back and establish it. Even if it is to say that my location is in phase 4 and phase 4 is 2025-26, I will accept it. I will have no choice. But if I go in again and it just goes to a pit somewhere and I am none the wiser at the end of it, it is problematic.

Can Ms Collins take that on board?

Ms Tara Collins

Absolutely. There are a number of different phases to the information that we are sending out. We will do a national campaign so that people know where to get the information and they know where to sign up so that we can target them with specific information relevant to them. However, soon after that, when we are in the area and we are building, we will be door dropping again to let them know when they can expect to be connected. As soon as we have the information available to us, we will be sending that out to the end users.

I refer to the gap between the engineering side and the marketing side. It is the people who fall outside Ms Collins's immediate focus who will cause us, National Broadband Ireland and themselves the most difficulty.

First of all, I welcome the witnesses today and thank them. It has been useful and informative. In fact, many of the questions I was about to ask about information have been answered by Ms Collins.

This contract is without doubt the most important ever placed in the history of the State since rural electrification. I am happy that I was one of the people who supported this contract. Some of the people who are looking for action now were the very ones who were anxious to kick this to touch and go back to stage 1 again, which would have been detrimental to the people in rural areas.

I have a couple of questions. Is the company satisfied that its contract is solid? Is it satisfied that its contract is deliverable? Is it satisfied that funding will be available to complete this project? I ask that in the context of a number of people who are down the line in terms of connections who are concerned whether NBI will be still there, whether there will be funds and whether this process will be completed.

There were a number of issues I was to raise but I will not be repetitive. I will stick to one issue to reinforce what other members have said and that is this problem that we have with gaps. I am a public representative. We deal with the public on a wide variety of issues but I have never received as many complaints or queries as I have in terms of the gaps with broadband. There is a question to be asked here in terms of why, when this contract was made available, there was not some clause in it that would make it possible for a greater degree of co-operation between Eir and NBI. All of us here have cases where there is broadband within 200 m, across the ditch, across the road and up the road, and then there is this big group of houses, including, farmers and business people, which have no access to broadband. There was a time when broadband was optional. It is now an absolute necessity. I have a case of people 250 m from broadband. They need it for their own business. Their son is employed here in Dublin. He has to work from home and he has been told, because of the broadband access, his job is in jeopardy. That is the kind of situation that we are facing.

I also have a company that is literally next door to where the broadband is. This company employs 40 in a place called Templederry in Tipperary. The company does not have broadband access and it is hugely damaging to the company's ongoing business, particularly in marketing its business. Taking the different places where the broadband is, the surveys, design and cabling are done. Obviously, because there is a competitor, NBI does not have access to it. What can we do as a committee in terms of communicating with the Minister and the Government, and obviously, the Department? Is there anything that we can do to try and get these black spots prioritised and cabled? I know it will need co-operation from Eir. We have Eir in here next week and I think this will be our biggest bone of contention. I will give NBI an example of that. I have issues everywhere across Tipperary - my neighbours in Holy Cross, Boherlahan, Horse and Jockey, Clonoulty and Templederry.

One of the biggest examples I have is Terryglass. Terryglass is a beautiful village. It is on the lake. It attracts a lot of tourists and visitors. This is a good example of broadband issues in Tipperary. In March 2018, Eir put fibre broadband into the village. The broadband infrastructure was 90% complete. Then, in 2019, when NBI was granted the contact, Eir walked away from the area and never completed the works in Terryglass. One would have to ask the question-----

We have to be careful. It is sensitive. We will couch it.

What I am trying to figure out is what level of co-operation there is. In Terryglass, for instance, the infrastructure is in place. They left the site. I looked recently to check where Terryglass was on NBI's website list in 2020 and it is at the bottom. It makes no sense to have all the work completed and that this important facility is not available to that village and to the residents of that area. There are several examples of this. What can we do to help NBI bridge these gaps and give connectivity to the people who are effectively next door to where the service already is? Is there anything that can be done? What are the technical problems?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I thank Deputy Lowry. I will start by giving an update in terms of the contract. I can tell the Deputy today that the contract is solid. We have all of the funding committed and in place for the project. We have established a contract liaison board with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. We have proactive engagement on a daily basis with the Department in management and oversight of the contract.

We are meeting all of our contractual milestones, which have real meaning in terms of contract governance and contract oversight of the project. At the end of the day, people care less about the contract and more about whether we are building, and connecting homes. We would not be building the network if we had not met our first critical milestones in the contract. With confidence, I can say the contract is solid.

Moving on to the gaps, when I look at this project it is about partnerships. It is about collaboration. It is not only about the 800 people we have on board. It is about our infrastructure partners, and Eir is a critical infrastructure partner. That programme is working quite well with Eir. Eir has fully mobilised and we are working together in terms of access to and use of its infrastructure and making sure our teams and our subcontractors are aligned.

It does not stop with Eir. It equally means our engagement with the local authorities. Perhaps I will hand over to Mr. Malone.

Has NBI access to Eir's fibre?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We have access to Eir's passive infrastructure.

In layman's term, does NBI have access to the fibre? For instance, in the blue areas which are the gap areas, has NBI access to the fibre? Could NBI, in the morning, go to Eir and say that it wishes to link up with its fibre which is running alongside the gap areas?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

No. We are not utilising Eir's fibre today. There are two parts to that.

That is the nub of the issue. What people cannot understand is the cable is there. The infrastructure is in place. Can NBI tell me the technical or financial reason? What can we do to overcome that?

Many committee members would like these gaps to be filled in as a priority. Doing so should be easy. Why are they not a priority? Is there a technical obstacle or an access obstacle from a competitor? Is there a funding obstacle? Can something be done to bridge the gaps?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I will describe it in three parts. When the Department started the procurement process, it undertook a mapping exercise. It went to the commercial market and looked at what the retail and wholesale operators' programmes were for building networks over the seven-year deployment period. Over a number of consultations, the last of which took place in September 2019, the Department received an update on where networks would stop.

When designing the network, we have to take into account not just today's need, but the need in three, ten or 15 years' time. We consider the capacity requirement that is available and design our network and build our infrastructure on that basis. Plugging into someone else's network might seem simple, but it is not from a technical or operational perspective.

Is NBI looking to build a broadband fibre network that will be able to cover every household in five or seven years' time? Is it building a network that is independent of Eir and other providers?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We are building a network to service the premises in the intervention areas. Some of them are in towns, others are more regional, for example, peninsulas.

Will NBI have cable running in every area of the country? I know it will serve the intervention areas.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Correct. Our network will cover 96% of the country's landmass. Consider the connections between Europe and the US. There are a number of transatlantic fibre cables because of the capacity growth that is required and that growth's specific needs. The infrastructure providers that build the networks wholesale them to retail operators, but they are built to account not just for today's capacity, but capacity in five, ten or 20 years' time. Our network-----

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I am sorry, Deputy. Our network is scaled for that capacity.

I understand that one has to factor in future demands and expansions when building a new network, but I am not getting an answer to my question on the black spots that are serviced at both ends by Eir's fibre optic. There is no need to conduct a survey because there will be no further expansion. These are settled communities and we have planning laws that do not allow for expansion in their areas. There is a missing piece in the middle. What can be done to give connectivity to these people? Homeowners, people who are working from home, farmers and business people are caught in this no man's land. It is frustrating for them. In fact, people are angry about it. From what Mr. Hendrick has told me, nothing can be done about this until NBI goes through the same process that Eir went through, that being, to survey, design and then table a plan. Why can that not be prioritised? Why can the existing network not be used and an agreement reached with the provider to supply the connections? Can that be done?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I am not saying that it cannot be done. The issue is the way in which we are future-proofing the network for these homes. We are designing to meet not just the immediate broadband requirement-----

No. A specific question was asked. Under the contract, could NBI go to Eir in the morning and come to an agreement to connect to the latter's fibre cables in order to service the gaps?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Under the contract, we have to commit to a service that has a minimum speed and service-level agreement. Equally, we must commit to supporting that service for 25 years with speeds and service availability. In doing so, it is not easy to leverage anyone else's network. We have to provide a future-proofed service. Do not get me wrong - I appreciate and understand the frustration felt by those caught in the gaps. Under the way we will roll out our design and build programme, they will be some of the first people to have access to the national broadband network.

That is not an adequate answer for us. The main queries we get about broadband are from people in gap areas. Mr. Hendrick has still not answered the question. Under the contract that NBI signed with the Government, could it prioritise the surveying of the gap areas and then do a deal with Eir, which is the main provider of commercial fibre cable, to link to its fibre broadband so that the people in question could have broadband connections within a year? Mr. Hendrick is talking about the road, but can NBI do this under the contract?

I will outline our problem so that Mr. Hendrick will understand where we are coming from. People in gap areas approach their public representatives. We go to Eir, which is the provider with fibre in the ground very close to the people seeking access. Eir gives us a simple answer. It tells us clearly that it is no longer the provider because it has completed the work in the area and it is not going back, and that the matter is for the new operator, NBI. The Chairman and I are asking Mr. Hendrick something. He actually gave me some encouragement, as I had not realised that there was a level of co-operation between NBI and Eir. In light of that co-operation, could NBI not sit down with Eir and come to a commercial agreement to expand the existing service to allow black spots to be connected, thereby closing the gap? Surely that is possible. Please, do not complicate this by telling me that NBI has to future proof. These areas are finished and have settled communities. There will be no further development or expansion in these black spots. Will Mr. Hendrick go away and think about this or talk to Eir?

Explore it under the contract.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We are examining how to accelerate the process. I appreciate the frustration. I am hearing it as well from people who are 100 m or 200 m away.

Will NBI examine what Deputy Lowry and everyone else suggested to see whether it can reach a commercial arrangement with Eir to fill in the gaps?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We will examine how to deliver to those homes as part of our acceleration plan.

I thank Mr. Hendrick.

If NBI requires the committee to make a recommendation or intervention or to do something else, we would be happy to do so.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I appreciate that.

This is a major priority.

I thank the witnesses for participating. The crux of the matter has already been addressed in the many questions that have been asked.

Some 132,000 premises have been surveyed, there have been designs in respect of 92,000 premises and network is currently being built for 19,500 premises. What are the possible timeframes from survey and design to build? In terms of the build phase, it was mentioned that NBI was considering accelerating the timeframe. When will that happen? Although information on timeframes for areas is lacking, I welcome that there will be a figure in four to six weeks' time.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I will let Mr. Malone take that question.

Mr. T.J. Malone

Regarding the build, we are actively working on accelerating the process. We meet the Department to discuss it weekly. There are various options for us to assess technically and commercially. That work is ongoing. We are looking to revert to the Minister in early 2021 with a view on whether we can accelerate and to what degree.

That relates to survey, design and, in particular, build.

Mr. T.J. Malone

Yes. We are happy that we can accelerate the survey and design phases ourselves. They are within our remit. In the previous exchange with my colleague, Mr. Hendrick, committee members asked what they could do to help accelerate the process and so on. There are constraints on us. We must build a network under the existing local authority guidelines. We are engaging all over the country. To be fair, local authorities have, to a person, been fantastic in that engagement. However, we are working on a programme of a scale that has never been seen in the history of the State.

That is accepted, and everyone who wanted it wants it even more now.

Mr. T.J. Malone

Yes. We are working within local authority guidelines that are not suitable for the scale and nature of this project.

When we talk about looking for help and support around the country, that is an area we could look at. We could look for help in getting this built faster. When we are out on the road and we come across areas and systems that require licences and permits, instead of standing down crews and losing time, we could do with support to help us accelerate the process and continue to work and build.

In fairness, if we could have more information on that, particularly with regard to permits, that would be good. Mr. Malone spoke about technical and commercial obstacles. Are there other obstacles in the way at the minute?

Mr. T.J. Malone

That is a prime example. Do not get me wrong; the local authorities have been fantastic so far. They have been extremely engaged because they know their own constituents are crying out for this. They are working very well with us but one area we are looking at is trying to get national agreements across the board so that we are not going into every local authority looking for permits. We are working with the roads management office, which has been very good but these things just take time.

If we could be kept up to speed on anything with which we could help, that would be very useful. Mr. Hendrick said that within 12 months we will have a notion but if we could have an area timeline for roll-out, including the worst-case scenario, that would help and it would be all the better if that gets improved upon. We will have some idea of where we stand in early 2021 but we are talking about another 12 months before the company can give us a general battle plan of the entire roll-out. While I accept that things can change, is that correct?

Mr. T.J. Malone

Exactly, yes.

I have a question but I am not sure if the witnesses will be able to answer it. There have been two state aid complaints to the European Commission regarding the national broadband process. Does the company anticipate that this will cause delays or operational changes?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We are aware of the state aid complaints. We are not involved in that process so from NBI's perspective, we are executing to the contract. That is something that the Department and the European Commission will deal with directly. It does not affect our programme. We are executing to the contract and the programme.

We spoke about short-term fixes and a number of people spoke about the fact that it might be possible under the contract to look at those. The Department probably needs to examine that and determine whether there are technological short term fixes. I do not know if that falls within the remit of the witnesses but if so, I would be grateful for an answer on it.

The broadband connection points are a matter for them. On 30 October, I was told that 187 sites had been installed by NBI. I understand that 59 of these publicly accessible points are live. I seek exact details on this, including why they are not all live yet, although I accept that some of the issues involved may not necessarily be the responsibility of the organisation. The witnesses also mentioned school broadband connection points. On the same date I received a response to a parliamentary question to the effect that approximately 74 schools will be provided with high-speed broadband but to date only six have been connected. There is obviously an issue there. Are the witnesses aware of the details and what can be done to expedite the process?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

On the broadband connection points, just over 200 are physically connected. Following that connection, the retail operator provides the Internet and Wi-Fi infrastructure in the community centres. It comes along after us and test its infrastructure. We provide the connectivity from the premises all the way back to a data centre, where we hand over the service. The operator connects into us in the data centre and it has to put its infrastructure in the location where it will be launched. There is a programme with the Department of Rural and Community Development and the retail operator on the broadband connection point programme, Vodafone -----

So in regard to the broadband connection point programme and also to the schools, NBI's piece of the work is done.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Our piece of the work is done when we provide the connectivity. The retail operator comes along then and installs the router and Wi-Fi access points in the buildings and provides the service.

We need that to happen as quickly as possible.

Like other committee members, I get constituency queries regularly. I have had queries from constituents in places in Louth that are just outside Dundalk, including Kilkerley, Sheelagh, Knockbridge and parts of the Cooley Peninsula. Some of those areas will have access between August and October 2021 via National Broadband Ireland. I am hoping we can set our clocks by those dates. While I accept that problems can arise that are not necessarily foreseeable, I want to make sure that those dates are reliable.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We are definitely more confident about the dates as we have mobilised the team. Much of the impact of Covid-19 has been about getting that mobilisation started so that we can have confidence in terms of the numbers for 2021.

Does the company foresee any issues arising regarding staffing capacity? There are issues with regard to permits and so on, but at this point, there are no major issues other than the size of the contract-----

Mr. Peter Hendrick

The fact that we have brought in more contractors than we originally envisaged in the programme helps us to mitigate that risk.

Within 12 months, we will know more. Is that correct?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Correct.

Senator Buttimer is next.

I thank all our witnesses and wish to reiterate what Deputy Lowry said. Certainty is very important and if this committee can help to progress the national broadband plan, it is important that it does so. Many of us have issues with the blue and amber areas. I genuinely want to applaud NBI for its honesty today, for the work it is doing and for its engagement with committee members, outside of formal meetings, when we make queries or representations.

With regard to the map, I am interested in place such Heatherfield and Earls Well in Waterfall and Matthew Hill where there are significant issues with connectivity. The map says that premises in these areas are not in the intervention area because other service providers operate there and therein lies our difficulty. Our difficulty is with Eir. I know that the Chairman said that we should not mention that company because there is no one here representing it but there is a fundamental difficulty-----

The Deputy should try to mention the company in a nice way.

I am trying but there is a fundamental difficulty with that service provider. If we learn nothing else from today, it is that there needs to be a synergy between NBI and other providers. Members of this committee are being parochial in referring to particular areas and I can list Matthew Hill, Douglas, Ballinora, Ballyphehane, Glasheen, which are predominantly urban areas in the middle of Cork city. They are not out in the middle of the Wild Atlantic Way, bordering the Atlantic Ocean. They are in the middle of Cork city with no real access to broadband. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications mentioned Carrigaline and one of the witnesses also referenced Carrigaline in his remarks. I hope they can give us certainty regarding the situation in Cork.

The Chairman is correct in his analysis. The issue is the blue connection areas and being able to piggyback from the exchange. Premises that are 100 yards away from their neighbours have no connection. Reference was made to the future and this is about providing certainty and connectivity. More and more people are working from home. A survey published by Pure Telecom this morning indicates that 37% of workers in Munster have issues with poor broadband. I appreciate where the witnesses are coming from and thank them for being here. We are all citizens of a republic and we want connectivity and good customer service. We want to be able to get answers and timely interventions

The committee will write to NBI on a number of matters. Mr. Hendrick has confirmed that under the contract, the company has scope to look at filling in the gaps with a provider, possibly Eir. It may be able to come to some commercial agreement. NBI was set up to deal with the intervention areas. As part of that, it has to build out the network and in five or six years, it will have a nationwide network that will be able to compete with other service providers, not just in the intervention areas but in other areas as well. That is what I understand from today's meeting. National Broadband Ireland was set up primarily to deal with the intervention areas but there are critical areas that must be addressed. There are people who can look over the ditch at their neighbours with high-speed broadband but they will have to wait for four or five years for a broadband connection.

That is wholly unacceptable. We will write to NBI and our guests have given us a commitment. Am I correct in saying that nothing in the terms of the contract prevents NBI from engaging in discussions with Eir to come to a commercial arrangement to deal specifically with the blue gap areas? That is a "Yes" or "No" question.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

There are terms within the contract that NBI meets and we are allowed to look at any infrastructure, whether that of Eir, the Irish Aviation Authority, fibre-----

I want a "Yes" or "No" answer.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We are allowed to look at any infrastructure.

So the answer is "Yes".

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Yes, we are allowed to look at any infrastructure.

Good. We as a committee will write to NBI in that regard. We want to work with NBI and to get broadband rolled out in Ireland as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, we would like an assurance from NBI that, within that remit, it will prioritise the surveying of all blue areas now as part of that undertaking. We will write to NBI in that regard and it will tell us if it needs us to assist it in any way, which we will do. We wish NBI well and want to work with it. That is our role as a committee.

In summary, will NBI examine the issue, respond to us and engage with Eir to link in to its broadband connections next door to these blue areas? As part of that, rather than examining it on a geographical area-by-area basis, will NBI carry out a survey of all the blue areas as part of that priority?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

We will. What I can say, and we will take this away as an action, is we will look at the blue areas that are caught up in amber areas, that is, where their neighbours have high-speed broadband. We will examine them and see when they will be delivered under the programme. I believe that the majority of them will be passed in the early phases of the programme. A big frustration, which we are aware of, is that people who are not in the intervention area, because the benchmark is 30 Mbps, feel they are getting less.

We are mindful of that but we are also open access and equal opportunity for the retail operators. All the retail operators will sell on our network at 500 Mbps. The objective of the national broadband plan under the programme for Government was to benchmark against urban areas and to consider the commercial operators and their commercial deployment. The expectation is that those networks will have to increase to the same scale as the very urban premises and the national broadband plan.

We will write to NBI and engage with it about this. We cannot have unintended consequences from a national roll-out such that there is a nationwide network but one of the last locations to get a broadband connection is someone living beside an existing blue area. That would be wholly unacceptable and would run contrary to what the intervention is all about.

That is what drives people berserk. Information, no matter how good or bad, is critical for people. I appeal to our guests to give people information. They mentioned a leaflet drop or whatever, and that is great, but they also need to use social media, whether Facebook or any other platform. They need to engage with people and tell them. What drives people berserk is both a lack of information and what the Chairman outlined.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I totally appreciate that.

I thank the Chairman and apologise for being late. I thank our guests for appearing before the committee and for their submissions. My questions relate to mapping anomalies, civil engineering and the construction of the network, and rights of access across private properties.

Other members talked about their constituencies. In my constituency of Wicklow, I have received correspondence from people who have looked at the map, found that their property is outside the area, and tried to engage with NBI about it but have not got a response. They have come to me, and I have engaged with NBI and got a response. That process of engaging with the public and, if possible, leaving us out of the loop would be helpful.

We will be left unemployed.

It would be helpful if that could be dealt with. I do not know whether it is a common theme that has arisen but it is certainly a theme in Wicklow. There is a great deal of anticipation and excitement about getting broadband, but when people look at the map and see their area is missing from it, there is considerable disappointment. Will that be addressed?

Our guests spoke earlier about building out the ring of the main fibre backbone. Presumably, that will be all underground-ducted to various nodes. For that last bit, where a number of houses may have to be served, is it proposed to underground-duct that service, or is it proposed to use the existing poles network that may exist, whether ESB networks or the old Department of Posts and Telegraphs poles? When fibre is put on a pole across open countryside, does that leave it more susceptible to storm damage than if it were underground-ducted? Following storms, large parts of rural Ireland are commonly left without power. My view is that the cause of much of that is that an overhead wire fell out and, obviously, overhead wires are more susceptible to storm damage. When there are power outages, people will become more dependent on their fibre, provided they have power to use the device.

In Bray, the most urban part of Wicklow, when fibre was being rolled out by fibre providers to a terrace or string of houses, the owner of one house might not give access to allow the fibre to go across the face of that house to the next house. In some cases, fibre was rolled out to two or three houses but the last two houses could not have it because a third party had said it could not go across their property. Has that issue been addressed or can our guests see a way around it if it arises?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I will start by giving an update on reliability and Mr. Malone might talk about the construction and rights of way. In line with our programme, part of the reason the build is taking so long is we are making the existing infrastructure fit for purpose. We are replacing a significant number of poles throughout the country. We are bringing into account what the network needs to be for the next 25 or 35 years and beyond. Poles, typically, will stand for anything from 40 to 50 or 60 years. We are testing those poles and have tested more than 250,000 to date. We are replacing poles in each deployment area as we go and we are thinking about high availability because there will be penalties if we do not deliver a service that is comparable with that of an urban area.

While today, in parts of the country, storm damage tends to take down telecommunications networks, there are two parts to that. There are the poles that have been there for a significant number of years and there are copper networks. In the latter case, an electrical signal is sent down a copper cable, whereas with fibre it is not. Fibre is much more reliable in terms of technology and the connection boxes. There are no electrical signals in the connection boxes. We use connection boxes that are expected to last for 30 years and beyond. Because of that network refresh, we have calculated the availability of the overall network to be far greater. As we have built those rings to protect what we call an east-west network to each of the connection exchanges, there is a much higher availability than people would traditionally have got with the service they have today, no matter what broadband or voice servers they have.

I will pass to Mr. Malone, who will give a more detailed view of the build and rights of way.

Mr. T.J. Malone

On the point of whether it is underground or overhead, the speed of rolling out the network is critical to us. We use existing infrastructure. If there is underground duct, we use it, while if it goes overhead on poles, we use that. We are building new infrastructure only where there is a lack of existing infrastructure. I am very familiar with examples such as the one the Deputy gave, where one house owner would not allow a cable to transition across his or her property. That will not be the case with us because we are building on roadsides. As a result, we are not running across houses or feeding from one house to the next. We will be on the footpaths or the roadways. In the event that we will need right of access to get across a property, we will look to go around it. We will not, like some operators in the past, transition across houses. That is the technique they use but we are adopting a different technique.

I thank the Chairman and the committee for allowing me the time. I thank NBI for the update. I want to speak about this matter because I come from east Galway. I am particularly interested in the area comprising Roscommon and east Galway. In 2019, two of the schools that had the worst download speeds were in east Galway - that is how shocking it is. The witnesses are fully aware of the disadvantages involved and how difficult it is to attract investment to areas which just do not have the same access to broadband and broadband speed.

NBI has €3 billion, so there are huge funds. The witnesses referred to 140,000 km of fibre cable, 1.5 million poles and 15,000 km of underground duct networks, so it is a huge project. In Galway alone, we are talking about 38,000 premises. I am one of the people who lives in one of those properties. In Ballinasloe, right beside that area, I had just 7 Mbps and because it took 4 Mbps for me to download my virtual private network, I could not get onto my Oireachtas email. I am renting a house and sharing with two others, and I was one of those who could not physically work from home. This is crucial right now. This is the speed available, and it is why I am talking about acceleration. NBI has the funds. We know the time limits have to be shortened. It was five years and now it is four. What measures can NBI take to ensure we deliver this as soon as possible to the areas affected? Many amber areas are affected and people cannot work from home.

What measures can NBI take in terms of project management and increasing resources for contractors? When will the fibre to the home network start? The recent announcement suggested it will start soon but when will the first homes be on this network? On the BCP connections to school and community areas, do the witnesses have a figure they can give me to suggest they are up and running? What work can be done with regard to improving broadband for the marts?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I will give an update on the BCPs and the schools programme. Obviously, we are making significant progress on the BCPs and we are also looking at the schools. There are 634 schools in the intervention area where we are looking at possibly accelerating those premises as part of our acceleration programme. We have talked in depth today about the premises that are close to the blue areas. As Mr. Malone said, we have a dedicated team looking at acceleration and nothing is off the cards, whether it is utilising other infrastructure or other technologies. We are also looking to see how we can develop efficiencies into the programme, whether it is to do with engaging with local authorities, how we are building the programme or how we add more subcontractors into the programme. We have accelerated in terms of the surveys and the designs by adding more resources. We are absolutely focused on ensuring that we accelerate equally around some of the critical connection points, such as schools, but also all of the homes in the intervention areas. We do not want to leave anyone behind in terms of that acceleration review.

I ask NBI to work with the local authorities in respect of acceleration. It is crucial and I cannot emphasise that enough.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

To answer the question on the number of homes connected, we have homes that are physically being built at the moment. We will be offering them a service before Christmas, and we will be talking about which homes and how we bring on board the retail operators. We have to manage those 33 retail operators that are on board. We have all had varying degrees of customer experience in regard to utility services. Customer experience is at the forefront of what we want to deliver. There is no point in building a network without it. The customer experience during the connection and in life is critical.

Will Mr. Malone provide an update on the position with regard to Limerick and north Tipperary? Can Mr. Hendrick say who are the four retail operators that have been signed up to date and when will the full 33 be in place? Mr. Malone might comment first on the situation in Limerick and north Tipperary, particularly at Newport, Ballinahinch, Birdhill, east Limerick and Limerick.

Mr. T.J. Malone

Without getting into the different individual townlands, Limerick is one of the first five. We split the country into 227 different deployment areas in order to speed up the roll-out. The first five are active and up and running, and Limerick is one of those, I am glad to say, as is Ballinasloe. That is part of the first 19,500 premises in Limerick and, as I said, it will feed into all of the other counties as well.

When will the 19,500 be connected?

Mr. T.J. Malone

The 19,500 that are ongoing at the moment will be passed and available for connection over the course of the next nine months. They will come at various different parts.

In the next nine months, they will all be connected.

Mr. T.J. Malone

They will be available for connection.

What about north Tipperary?

Mr. T.J. Malone

In north Tipperary, we have Clonmel and-----

I am talking specifically about Newport, Ballinahinch and areas running into east Limerick. Will they be included as part of Limerick?

Mr. T.J. Malone

I cannot be extremely specific on the different townlands where we are working. There are parts of Limerick that bleed into it. In County Tipperary, Clonmel and Roscrea have both been surveyed and are both being designed at the moment as well, and they are actively being got ready for construction as we speak.

I ask Mr. Malone for a 30-second update on County Meath. I want to ask Mr. Hendrick an open-ended question. The committee has spoken with one voice today and despite the fact we might have been starting from different positions, we all want to end up in the same place. NBI has a responsibility for the intervention areas and it can see there are significant problems in the non-intervention areas. How does Mr. Hendrick believe that should be resolved? Do the Department, the Government, NBI, Eir or the other providers have a role? How does Mr. Hendrick believe it should be resolved?

I had also asked Mr. Hendrick a question on the four retail operators that are there and when the full 33 will be in place.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I look at this from a European perspective. The digital agenda for Europe is that every single home in Europe should have access to 100 Mbps by 2025. That is where the test really has to happen. It has to come from Europe and that it is being driven from Europe.

We have to be out of the room in a few minutes so I ask speakers to be concise.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

I see the focus as being on 2025 and everyone having 100 Mbps. We are not going to get there by starting in 2024. That objective has to start now across the entire country, moving towards a gigabit future where everybody has access to 1,000 Mbps.

I asked Mr. Malone about the situation in County Meath.

Mr. T.J. Malone

We have about 18,980 premises in Meath that fall into the intervention area, which is roughly 3.5% of the overall intervention area. Dunboyne and Clonee are the first areas in Meath in respect of which we have already undertaken a survey. They are packaged and ready. They are one of the first 20 packages that have been agreed and where the contract has been awarded. We are looking at the build starting there in either late December or early January, with a view to connections coming online somewhere in the third quarter, around September. The number of premises is roughly 4,100 or 4,200 in those areas.

I asked about the four retail operators and when the full 33 will be in place.

Mr. Peter Hendrick

My apologies that I did not answer that earlier. Of the 33 operators, we have four operators today that are connected and offering services.

Who are they?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

They are Vodafone, Viatel, Ripplecom and Airspeed. The remainder of the operators go through a six-stage process of coming on board, and most of them are probably at stage 3 or stage 4.

Will they be in by the end of the year?

Mr. Peter Hendrick

Depending on the area in which they are going to launch, we have set a plan that will bring them all on board between now and the end of March. On the marts, we know there are 16 marts in the intervention area and we are looking to see if they can be accelerated.

Could I have an update on County Louth?

Mr. T.J. Malone

We are working in Dundalk and Drogheda in County Louth. In Louth, we have 8,245 premises in the area. Dundalk and Drogheda have both been surveyed and both are ready for construction, representing 7,176 premises between the two. In Dundalk, Drogheda and the surrounding areas, therefore, a huge number of the houses in the intervention area are already ready to go.

I thank the witnesses for attending and for engaging with the committee. We will be writing to them, in particular on the blue areas and engaging with Eir.

I offer my best wishes to Sarah O’Farrell, who is moving on from her position as research officer to that of clerk. I thank Pádraig Grant and Anthony Larkin for all the work they have done as clerks.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.30 p.m. until 11.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 November 2020.