Government to continue 'flawed' broadband project

The government plans to continue its €225m broadband infrastructure project despite problems in the work already done and doubt over its future value.
By Emma Browne and Neill O'Neill

The government is to press ahead with its €225m broadband infrastructure investment, despite major problems being identified in the initial phase of the project and the government not having any plan as to what role the infrastructure will ultimately have.

According to the company that manages the broadband network for the government, E-net, the project needs to be changed and more money needs to be invested to maximise its potential. It also says Eircom's cooperation is required in order to fully utilise the network and at present the government has no plan on how to get Eircom onboard.

In order to improve broadband in Ireland and to offer competition in the market, the government is laying fibre-optic cables in 120 towns across Ireland. The cables can also be used by mobile-phone operators. The first phase of the project is now complete with 27 metropolitan area networks (MANs) in place at a cost of €85m.

The government now plans to go ahead with phase two, costing €140m, despite the existing troubles with the project.

The major problem with the MANs is that they do not connect up to businesses and houses directly. This means retail providers like Smart and BT must bridge the gap between the MANs cabling in each town and the houses and businesses requiring broadband. There are two ways to connect these customers to the MANs – by wireless technology or through copper cabling owned by Eircom that runs into buildings. E-net say it is possible to bring the MANs cables into the building without Eircom's cooperation but that it costs a lot of money to connect them to buildings on an individual basis.

Conal Henry, CEO of E-net, asked the government to modify the design of the MANs and provide extra funding to allow direct connection to buildings. The government is not planning to do this. As well as this, out of the 27 MANs already laid, four have no access to the backhaul network, which is used to provide a link from rural counties back to Dublin.

Eircom could provide a solution to this problem by allowing the MANs to connect to their backhaul network. E-net do not believe the MANs can ever be fully utilised without Eircom allowing their backhaul infrastructure to be used. The department said they don't see Eircom's position in relation to the backhaul as a "major obstacle".

Another problem with the network is that the cables being laid are duplicating existing Eircom broadband infrastructure in that town. In 118 out of the 120 towns that MANs are going into Eircom has an existing broadband network. The government argues that their network will offer an alternative to Eircom.

Money for the MANs is 90 per cent grant-aided by the government under the National Development Plan 2000-2006 and co-funded by the EU from the European Regional Development Fund, with the remaining 10 per cent coming from local and regional authorities.

The Green Party communications spokesperson, Eamon Ryan, has called the project "flawed" and says it "does not justify such a massive capital investment of public money. We question why the government is spending millions on this without any clear plan as to how such lines can be connected to the end user."

The government says the MANs will provide broadband speeds up to 100,000 times faster than the traditional copper-wire telephone networks, with enough capacity to serve for generations to come.

An international study carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development in June this year placed Ireland 24th out of 30 member countries for broadband subscriptions. There are 410,000 broadband customers in Ireland.

The Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources says, "The MANs are a long-term investment designed to repay over a 20-year timeframe. It is inevitable that next-generation networks will be fibre-optic-based, although the precise role of the MANs in Ireland remains to be seen."