Thursday, 24 January 2019

Questions (12)

Eamon Ryan


12. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the status of the tendering process for the national broadband plan. [3265/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

I know that the Minister has returned to this issue on several occasions, but I am keen to be given a broad update and ask some specific questions. Perhaps it might be outlined in the second phase of the plan, but will the Minister comment on the specific infrastructure he is considering using to roll out broadband provision? Are ESB poles being considered to bring fibre optic cable to homes, or will it only be done using telephone poles? What percentage does the Minister estimate will not be provided by fibre optic cable but rather will be wireless? They are the details I am looking to tease out to help to inform our discussion on the issue.

I will not reiterate the data I have provided for the Deputy, but, suffice it to say, we are at the final stage of evaluation. A few nights ago we had a debate in which many concerns were raised. The reason the work is ongoing is we wish to tease out the issue of the robustness of technology and so forth.

On the use of technology, bidders had access to the entire network. There is an intention to use the networks of both Eir and the metropolitan areas. Therefore, existing infrastructure is being used where possible, although delivering fibre optic cable to homes will require substantial new infrastructure.

In the vast majority of cases fibre broadband will be delivered to the home. The approach envisaged throughout the process has been that up to 2% could be provided for otherwise than by fibre broadband to the home, with a request that it could go to a higher number on agreement. However, in the vast majority of cases fibre broadband will be delivered to the home.

I wish to tease out one issue. It seems that one of the options is to use ESB, rather than telephone, poles. The thinking behind it is why in the long term would we maintain two mechanisms for delivering cable to a house? We know that every single house has an electricity connection. If the ESB already has the capability, working with Siro, to wrap fibre optic cables along electricity wires, it would be much easier to provide access that way. There are difficulties with it as the cables run across fields, rather than along roadways, as telephone poles tend to do. I question the overall strategic logic of maintaining the network of ESB poles in the country, as well as 2 million telephone poles. A long-term strategic saving must be available if we were to use this opportunity to double up and use the same infrastructure, although I know it would not be easy. There are lots of difficulties in negotiating with farmers and so on, but it would be a missed opportunity if we did not think strategically at this critical stage. I am interested in knowing about the use of ESB poles and where the process is at.

It has been a competitive dialogue. As the Deputy knows, we had a number of them entering the competitive process. Bidders could look at different approaches. The ESB was one of the bidders at an earlier stage. Clearly, they had to choose which approach to take in making their bid, but they are making use of existing infrastructure, both State and privately owned. The mix is for the tenderer to set out. It was an open technology-neutral tender. There was no State direction on particular approaches that should be taken. They were the terms on which the tender was developed.

I was aware that the ESB had pulled out, but that does not preclude the use of its assets by the winning bidder. The Department does not have to stand back completely. It is good that metropolitan area networks, MANs, are being used. It was obvious that they would be, given the history of the bidders. The bidder may also use Eir poles. However, it is my understanding the bidder was very keen and open to entering into negotiations with the ESB with that as an option. I am keen to get some sense of whether that is now dead. The Minister mentioned using existing infrastructure. Is he precluding the use of ESB poles? Is that likely or unlikely to happen? Surely the Department must have some idea of whether it is in the mix where final delivery is concerned. There is a State interest in the network we are building and its degree of efficiency.

The State has not precluded any approach in the fulfilment of this requirement. Obviously, the bidders had to negotiate on the option they felt suited them best. That required them to negotiate privately with other providers where they were going to use that network. It was up to the bidder to come forward with what it regarded as the best approach in delivering at the least cost. That has been the approach throughout the process.