By John Whelan – 6th March 2020

Sure, there have been lots of promises and lots of delays when it comes to high-speed broadband. But a solution seems finally in sight.

The prospects of high speed broadband throughout all of Laois and indeed the rest of the country appears to be finally gathering pace and focus.

This past week a compelling, credible and constructive presentation was made to councillors and senior officials at County Hall setting out the plans, logistics and timetable for bringing broadband to Laois.

It was an encouraging and convincing pitch which impressed and all present, even the most cynical.

Making that presentation and one of the driving forces behind the roll out of the high speed national broadband plan is a Laois man.

Pat O’ Toole from Mountmellick was the man in the hot seat.

But he delivered his vision and strategy with relish and gusto and if his passion, commitment and expertise is anything to go by, well then the prospects of the lofty objectives being achieved are in good hands.

The Deployment Director of the National Broadband Plan, Mr O’ Toole was in County Hall to appraise and brief elected reps and senior management on the invitation of Antoinette Brennan who is the Council’s own broadband emissary.

Pat O’ Toole – perhaps better known in Mountmellick as Pauric O’ Toole from his involvement in local drama groups, the soccer club and schools board of management – started his own career in telecoms in the P&T, later Eircom and is now one of those driving high speed broadband roll out across the entire country.

Firstly, he accepted we’re behind the curve in terms of satisfactory broadband infrastructure in Laois and throughout the regions, in rural Ireland in particular.

This was borne out during his presentation when Cllr Aisling Moran declared: “I have no broadband where I live on the Laois-Carlow border. I’m operating off a dongle but it’s impossible to run a business from home with that kind of service.”

National Broadband Ireland’s (NBI) top man, Pat O’ Toole didn’t dispute that we are playing catch-up in Laois as elsewhere. The data speaks for itself.

12,385 premises in Laois are assessed as being without high speed broadband. That’s one third of the county. Nationally the figure is 536,000 premises without adequate broadband and it’s going to take 7 years to sort it out, although most premises will be serviced within the next 4 years.

The government will spend €49 million in Laois alone in the roll out of the high speed broadband utilising a combination of overhead and underground hi-speed fibre cabling.

It will do so through a network of 227 network exchanges, each with a tangential radius capable of servicing within a 22km reach.

Portlaoise, Roscrea and Carlow are all in the first round of hubs each with a 22km radial reach and there will be a progressive roll out through other exchanges thereafter.

Additional interim services will be provided via community hubs to mitigate the waiting times for those not in reach of the initial network provision. There will be 300 such Broadband Community Points (BCPs) provided across the country this year, including 11 in Laois, which will offer public internet access, in locations such as Vicarstown, Rossmore, Ballyadams and Ballaghmore. These are being developed in consultation with the Council’s Broadband Officer, Antoinette Brennan.

The plan is to provide speeds of 150MB download and 30MB upload. Mr O’ Toole was adamant, in Marine Corps style that no one would be left behind, everyone would be provided with a high speed broadband.

The NBI contract went live on January 9 and while the overall installation process will take 7 years to fully complete, some connections will start as early as December this year.

In response to questions from councillors Mr O’ Toole said that the NBI fibre-optic technology is future proofed and that NBI are the wholesale providers of an open access network which is guaranteed to all existing service providers. He said they are not in competition with the service providers and will not exclude anyone, big or small. NBI have a universal service obligation.

‘If it’s not installed by the next local elections we’ll all be shot’

The cost of a connection to the network from NBI is a maximum of €100 per premises and a monthly rental fee of €30 as set out in the terms of their contract with the State. How this is applied may vary from one service provider to another.

Mr O’ Toole also clarified that NBI is not utilising 5G masts or technology.

Again in response to queries he said they would be using existing ducting wherever possible but said that for coverage to dispersed regions it was not feasible to always go underground as this was prohibitively expensive and at about €150 per metre of trench, about ten times more costly than the overhead option and not affordable.

There was an overwhelmingly positive reception to the Mountmellick man’s presentation and the level of detail and clarity he brought to the subject. Cllr Paddy Bracken was proud to say that they knew each other from the time they both served together back in the P&T and Eircom.

“That was a great presentation and I’m glad to hear that you will be going down the lanes and boreens , that was music to my ears,” Cllr Ollie Clooney summed up the mood in the Council chamber, but he quickly added, “It was absolutely brilliant to hear what you had to say but hurry it up. You will have to have it in by the next local elections, otherwise we’ll all be shot.”

That resonated with all the elected reps who got it in the neck everywhere in the local and general elections about the poor broadband.

“That is a comprehensive strategy to address the broadband deficit in Laois and most welcome as to how it will revolutionise ow we work, live and do business,” observed Cllr Thomasina Connell.

“People are getting desperate out there, proper broadband is essential and it’s as important as the roll out of the electricity connections by the ESB during the rural electrification programme back then,” contended Cllr Catherine Fitzgerald, who hoped that blackspots like Clonkeen and Roskelton would now be finally resolved.