IrelandOffline’s NBP Delay Primer
As we enter the sixth year of planning for the National Broadband Plan and with much speculation about another hold-up, we thought we’d have a look at some of the key mis-steps that have added significantly to the time taken so far and what might yet delay the project. These delays are not all cumulative; some of those from the past overlap significantly, but there are still headaches ahead.
Early days and the Mobile Wireless lunacy
It’s fairly easy to forget that the NBP actually started in mid 2011 with the Next Generation Broadband Taskforce and was due to complete by March 2016. For three years the Department was planning a prescriptive mobile wireless solution. It was both batty and illegal. Eventually It was dumped, in or around 2014. They then had to start again.
Delay: 36 months
The National Broadband Scheme (NBS) – forgotten but not gone.
The NBS of 2009 may seem now like a bad dream, but its capacity to do damage lingered on. The Department was contractually prohibited from applying more State Aid in the NBS intervention area (40% of the national territory) until the term of the NBS contract finished in August 2014.
Delay 24 months
The €75 Million poison apple.
In order to get the €75M ERDF funding from Europe the Department had to set the download speed at least as high as the 30Mb/s target in the Digital Agenda for Europe (DAE 2009 – 2020). But it couldn’t set it any higher than that either, otherwise – as the logic goes – Europe would be subsidising Ireland to leap ahead of the other 27 Member States. The result is that the key performance condition is nominally constrained at a minimum of 30Mb/s. The €75m must be spent by 2020/2021 or it is lost forever.
The consequences are that all procurement processes, documents, environmental assessments etc., must be produced and worded on the basis that any technology capable of delivering 30Mb/s is a potential allowable NBP technology. That includes Fixed Wireless, Mobile Wireless and even Satellite although as most Satellites are excluded on latency grounds it is possible that someone will launch a low orbit satellite that satisfies the latency conditions, most unlikely but possible.
Writing consultation and procurement documents in a technology neutral way adds hugely to the workload even though the ultimate outcome may be the same; universal FTTH – we hope.
Delay: est. 18 months
Having accepted that wireless technologies could theoretically do the job, suitable radio spectrum had to be made available otherwise wireless providers would accuse the Department of constructive exclusion from the NBP both as a potential contractor, and in their ability to claim blue-zone protection as an NGA service. As ComReg had no plans for release of the 3.6MHz band until 2017 they had to condense a spectrum release process, which sometimes takes four years, into 9 months. They are currently about six months behind the new schedule.
Delay: 6 months
The SEA Procrastination
The Department knew before August 2014 that it would have to carry out environmental assessments, but delayed starting. The process eventually got going in earnest late last year and they consulted in Spring 2016 on the ‘scope’ of what the report would cover. As of now a report from the consultants RPS is still outstanding.
This (rather large) report must in turn must go to public consultation and the consultation results must be included in an amended NBP tender pack so that bidders know their environmental obligations. Preparing such a report on a national scale has never been done but not doing so leaves the department liable to serious consequences.
Delay: 18 months
Regulating the Other 96% of the Country
Given that there are to be two lots, the winner(s) will have a near monopoly NGA in the intervention areas. This means that complicated open-access regulation has to be written into the NBP contracts from scratch. Once again ComReg’s revulsion for all things rural meant that little work had been done on this prior to February 2015.
In terms of premises, the network will cover around 40% of all the premises in the state, a number which is a bit larger than the unregulated UPC network in Urban areas. Comreg said they would come back to the issue in 2019 or whenever the network is complete ( whichever is latest). So the Telecommunications Regulator for 96% of the area of the state…on the most sophisticated network, will actually be the Department of Communications not ComReg. Though that may come as a relief to many.
Delay: 12 months
The Department have produced a detailed map based on an internal database that includes eircodes. IrelandOffline consider this mapping exercise to be of a very high standard overall and again commend the Department for its very thorough work in identifying have and have not areas. The problem is that the NBP bidders have not fully integrated eircodes into their own customer databases and such integration is not expected until 2017 some time. The initial documentation sent out to interested parties, of whom 5 sent in an initial bid, was prepared before Eircodes were belatedly launched in July 2015.
Infrastructure Sharing Regulations
Sharing of information by open-access wholesale networks is the cornerstone of the NBP, but at the moment only eir are subject to regulation of their physical network. The infrastructure sharing directive of 2014 was supposed make that a common obligation and was to be law by January 2016 at the latest. To date Siro (ESB and Vodafone) have ignored the Department’s Infrastructure Register and ComReg’s capacity to get this proud and obdurate national institution to treat eir as an equal is doubtful. If ESB don’t act “nice”, litigation from eir can be expected.
Eir may find themselves at the end of a reciprocal request from the ESB. It’s in everybody’s interest to settle the ground rules for co-existence as early as possible.
Delay: 12 months so far
The Blue Lines
Eir’s blue cluster bomb is still more threat than reality, but the Department invited this type of tactical behaviour from eir and other bidders by leaving the map open to amendment for way too long. So far, DCCAE have resisted putting these blue lines on the map. But unless eir win the whole contract, it is in their interest to argue that all their blue lines should be excluded from state-aided competition.
If they don’t win the whole contract, it is in their interest to litigate, and in the process give themselves more time to secure the commercially attractive parts of the intervention area, while making the business case less enticing for the remaining areas.
Delay: potentially years
The Fantasy Roll-Out
As eir have released circa 1000 exclusively rural premises in the year since they publicised the Blue Line Map, a reasonable person is entitled to question how such delivery performance per year could be considered grounds to take eir in any way seriously, save for Fibre-to-the-Press-Release and obfuscation.
Eir’s dismal performance in URBAN areas in the past year where they only released 1,000 fibred premises, on average, to market every month, and eir’s rollout of 1,000 marketable premises in the 6 months since they announced their first tranche of rural FTTH exchanges in March 2016, does leave us all with one major conundrum.
At the rate that Eir are actually releasing “blue line” areas to market (1,000 premises in 6 months or 2,000 a year) it will take 150 years to complete the Blue Line rollout to their target 300,000 premises. Eir cannot be taken seriously as an NBP bidder if they do not rapidly demonstrate the ability to release 10,000 fibre premises a month to market.
The math is simple. There are 927,000 NBP premises, the NBP is SUPPOSED to take 4 years to complete. That’s a rollout rate of 232,000 a year or almost 20,000 premises a month.
Delay: potentially years (and years and years)
State Aid approval
While the European Commission might be in favour of a sober, future-proof investment such as the NBP, it will still insist that all European law and policy is complied with. That includes technological neutrality, infrastructure sharing, sustainability, meeting DAE targets, environmental assessments, and minimising market distortion i.e. all the above. Without final EC approval, there will be no NBP.
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