The Government’s National Broadband Plan, which I published in August 2012, aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland by ensuring that high speed broadband is available to all citizens and businesses. This will be achieved by providing: - a policy and regulatory framework that assists in accelerating and incentivising commercial investment, and - a State-led intervention for areas where it is not commercial for the market to invest.
During the preparation of the Next Generation Broadband Taskforce report, which concluded its deliberations in 2012, service providers noted the importance of planning and consent processes in facilitating the rollout of infrastructure to support the provision of telecommunications services. I would point out that the Local Authority has a strong role to play in facilitating the roll-out of the necessary infrastructure to help enable service availability throughout the Country. In the case of County Kerry, I note that the County Development Plan recommends against siting a mast within 1km of dwellings. I understand that this is contributing to difficulties in providing good quality broadband and telecommunications services generally in the county.
The Government's National Broadband Plan which I subsequently published, commits to addressing barriers to deployment in order to maximise investment by the commercial sector and assist in enhancing the quality of services. Local Authorities have an important role to play in this regard, particularly in facilitating the provision of infrastructure that supports wireless and fixed line services.
Since the publication of the Plan, investments by the commercial sector are underway and in some instances have been accelerated in both fixed line and wireless high speed broadband services. Commercial operators combined have either invested, or committed to invest, over €2 billion in their Irish networks, delivering high speed broadband to homes and businesses. For example:
- Eircom is rolling out a €400m investment in a Next Generation Access Fibre Network that offers speeds of up to 100Mbps. Service is already available to over 800,000 addresses, with planned coverage to reach 1.4m addresses by 2016.
- UPC has invested over €500m in upgrading its cable network. Over 700,000 homes can already access minimum broadband speeds of 120Mbps and up to 200Mbps. Businesses can access speeds of 500Mbps.
- ESB is engaged in a new project allowing a fibre network to be rolled-out on its existing electricity infrastructure. It is understood that discussions between ESB and Vodafone to form a new Joint Venture Company are at an advanced stage. The company has initial plans to construct a fibre network directly to 450,000 premises outside of Dublin and it is expected that details will be announced over the coming weeks.
- Mobile operators have launched 4G high speed mobile broadband services following ComReg’s multiband spectrum auction. There has also been continued investment by all operators in enhancing and broadening 3G services and network improvements.
- Fixed wireless operators are continuing to invest in high speed point-to-point wireless broadband.
- The broadcaster Sky has entered the broadband market, increasing choice for consumers.
Of the estimated 2.3m premises in Ireland, approximately 1.4m are expected to be served by these commercial next generation broadband services over the coming years.
This accelerated roll out of high speed services by the commercial sector means that the addressable area required by the State intervention has been reduced by 30% since the National Broadband Plan was launched. While the commercial developments are welcome the acceleration of investment is largely contained to cities and towns. The speeds that are available in these areas are demonstrably better than those that are available in more rural areas.
On 25 April, I signalled the Government's commitment to a major telecommunications network build-out to rural Ireland, with fibre as the foundation of its investment under the National Broadband Plan. This commitment is a clear expression of Government’s determination to address the connectivity challenge in rural Ireland in a meaningful and sustainable way.
Central to the strategy will be a fibre build-out to locations in every county in the State identified as having no existing or planned enabling fibre network. It is intended that the fibre will be delivered directly to access points for homes and businesses, where service providers can utilise the fibre to provide high speed services to end users. The fibre build-out will also ensure that fibre is deployed to strategic locations on each route such as schools, business hubs and health facilities. The fibre build out will be part of an end-to-end strategy that will address all parts of Ireland that cannot access commercial high speed broadband services.
I have published a county-by-county list of towns and villages which have already been identified for a fibre build-out. This is an indicative list and is subject to the completion of the comprehensive mapping process currently underway. Further locations may be identified as this process continues. Similarly, it may be determined that some locations on the list will be addressed by the commercial sector and will therefore not require State intervention. Currently I envisage that a total of 59 areas in County Kerry will be included in the proposed fibre build-out. The list is available on my Department's website www.dcenr.gov.ie .
In tandem with the fibre build-out, the Strategy will include measures to respond to aggregated community demand for services, and the provision of access services in the most remote areas where fibre rollout may be insufficient to stimulate commercial investment or may be cost-prohibitive.
Intensive design work is ongoing in the Department with a view to publishing an end-to-end implementation strategy later this year, together with the outcome of the mapping exercise which will identify the areas that require intervention. A full public consultation will take place once the strategy is published and EU State Aids clearance will be required for the intervention strategy once finalised. It is expected that the detailed procurement process will take place in 2015 with a view to commencing construction of the fibre network and provision of services in the areas that require intervention as quickly as possible.
The EU Commission’s guidelines on state aid for high speed broadband infrastructure preclude member states from intervening in regions in which private investors have demonstrated plans to roll out their own infrastructure within the following three years. In this regard it is noted that at least one network operator has published a programme to roll out 33 fibre-based broadband networks in County Kerry, which includes rolling out those services in Beaufort by July 2016.
I fully share the concerns of local representatives about the quality of broadband in rural areas. I intend to ensure that rural Ireland enjoys similar opportunities to urban areas by ensuring an end-to end market intervention with fibre as a core component. In committing to a fibre build-out at the heart of this strategy, the Government is acknowledging that broadband is the key infrastructure of the 21st century.