Source: The Irish Times
Author: Arthur Beesley

TJ Malone points to hoops of pristine white cable hanging from telegraph posts as he drives up a narrow boreen near Blessington, Co Wicklow, with grass growing in the middle of the road.

The cables are a sign that this sparsely populated rural district will soon be connected to superfast broadband: “It’s a massive task,” says Malone, who is in charge of delivering on the promises made by National Broadband Ireland, the company responsible for the project.

“It gets right down into every single village, every single home and any peninsula, including the islands,” says Malone about a project that will eventually cover all the parts the State – 96 per cent of the total landmass, in fact – where subsidies are need to make broadband delivery possible.

With State funding of up to €2.6 billion in play, it’s big money. Private investors have pledged €175 million and additional sums if needed that would bring the total to €223 million. So far, the investors have paid in €120 million, including €20 million of it in December.

There is no shortage of critics but NBI, whose chairman is Irish-American businessman David McCourt, is confident that it can complete the job under budget.

Work has begun on supplying 151,000 homes and businesses. In time, it will rise to cover 554,000 locations – connecting the residences of 1.1 million people, 54,000 farms and 44,000 businesses in a system that will be seen on virtually every metre of every rural road.

Fibre-optic cables stretching for 146,000km will go overhead for 89,494km – connecting 1.47 million telegraph poles, and those cables will run underground for 15,057km. And all of this is being done with the promise that the service will be “future-proofed” for 25 years, and capable of being expanded by a quarter.

Despite complaints about the pace of the rollout, work is now under way in each of the 26 counties. In Dublin, some of the vast industrial estates at Ballymount on the city’s highly-developed western edges have been included.

Strange as it may seem, such locations are not deemed commercially viable by market operators, thus bringing “rural broadband” within the bounds of the M50 motorway around the capital, in sight of the Red Cow roundabout.

The delivery of broadband offshore is a different challenge entirely. A symbolic moment looms in coming weeks when the NBI system goes live on in four small Atlantic islands: Collanmore, Co Mayo; and the Donegal islands of Eighter, Eadarinis/Inishcoo and Rutland.

“We are still the only country in Europe that has said that we will serve every single premises,” Malone says. “The Department [of Communications] have said that no matter where you are, no matter how rural, no matter what it is, we will serve you.”

Rural depopulation

If successful, it will be the spearhead of efforts reverse generations of rural depopulation, as important in the 21st century as rural electrification was in its day, reviving sleepy towns and villages of the countryside.

Rural broadband was needed before 2019. But the pandemic has changed the way people think and the rise in demand for working from home requires superfast broadband to make it a reality.

“The social and economic development of rural Ireland is integral to the wellbeing of our country as a whole and to our quality of life. Ireland’s economy, heritage and culture is heavily dependent on the contribution of rural areas,” said a Government policy document last year.

“The availability of high-speed broadband services in rural communities will have a transformative effect, even in the most remote parts of the country. It will ensure equality of access to online services for people in rural areas.

“It will create potential for improved social cohesion and economic growth and will allow people to pursue their careers without the need to relocate, as well as offering the potential to attract new people and businesses to rural locations.”

If all of that points to pressure on National Broadband Ireland to get the rollout right, the project has proved contentious. Government approval in 2019 for the came in the face of forceful resistance from the Department of Public Expenditure. The Department opposed it on grounds of cost, affordability, value-for-money and Exchequer risks and it expressed concern that the State will not own the network once it is built.

In addition, TDs and Senators are unhappy with coronavirus lockdown delays that left the project six months behind schedule. More recently still, the company and the Government dismissed outright media claims that an investment hedge fund had quietly taken a majority stake in the project, insisting there was no ownership change at all.

“Bringing a private company on board to actually build it was the right decision,” insists Peter Hendrick, chief executive of National Broadband Ireland.

Asked about criticism that the deal is too favourable to private investors, he points to “clawbacks” that give the Government a share of any savings on construction costs and an upside share of NBI revenues above certain targets.

“The protection mechanisms they have in terms of clawbacks will provide all of the comforts that actually there isn’t an unlimited win here for shareholders,” he says.

“Because the tender process went on for so long there’s very little ambiguity and every single scenario has been thought of. I would say the biggest winners here are probably all the law firms.”

Technical complexity

In chilly Blessington this week, workers were busily installing 571km of cable to connect 5,006 premises in the area that do not already have broadband.

Although the expansive lakes nearby and the imposing Wicklow mountains in the distance make for striking scenery, they add to the technical complexity of connecting the hinterland of a bustling country town that is near enough to Dublin to be in the city commuter belt. The number of premises ranks among the largest for connection by NBI in a single area, but Midleton in Co Cork will the biggest.

The work now under way in Blessington is but the final part of a project in which everything has to be worked out in advance.

“You don’t know until you dig,” says Aidan McWeeney, a national broadband worker who seems to know every single manhole in the Blessington area. “These are areas that haven’t been touched in decades unless there was a damaged cable. So it’s a huge unknown.”

The planning includes route maps into individual homes and schedules for tree-clipping to make way for cables overhead. The need for detailed records means that each tree is photographed, before and after the cuts, meaning NBI has thousands of pictures of trees on file.

All told, surveyors examined more than 20,000 Blessington “assets” before any construction work started on the ground. The aim was to set out what exactly needed to be done at each site, quantify the materials required, identify any environmentally or archaeologically sensitive sites and ascertain the wayleaves and consents needed to traverse private and public property.

It turns out that numerous homes in the area could not be connected without an agreement with the ESB to run cable along a bridge it owns near Poulaphouca reservoir. “Until we get access there we can’t finish out the 1,000 premises we need to do. Most of work will be done to it and it’s a case of just getting that done,” Malone says.

Similar consents were required from CIÉ for 600 rail crossings around the State. Work cannot be done on national roads without the approval of Transport Infrastructure Ireland; and the consent of local authorities is needed to work on other roads. That can take up to 12 weeks, eating further into precious time.

Then there is the unpredictable. In spite of all the effort to start installing cable in Blessington, someone took a chainsaw to a row of six poles on one roadway. The matter is with the Garda.

Progress has also been hampered by procedural “teething” problems. Malone tells how, in the early days of the project, NBI encountered a rejection rate “in the region of 40 per cent” when applying to some local authorities for licences to erect individual telegraph poles. That “tortuous” system has since been streamlined, but it took practically a year to establish new guidelines to speed the process and boost predictability.

“You pick up these learnings in the first year-and-a-half of a project,” he adds, arguing that the tricky groundwork done in the early enables the project to “snowball” as momentum builds later. “We spent two years to get 37,000 premises built and in the next three months we’ll get another 25,000 built.”

The aim by the end of this year is to have the build completed at 127,000 premises, with the build commenced on 220,505 premises, and surveys complete for more than 380,000 premises.

Making up for lost ground

A couple years into the project, NBI is now in a race to make up ground lost during the first lockdown.

The closure of hotels and other services interrupted NBI’s ability to carry out physical surveys of remote townlands, or to examine poles and cables. Only then could it be established what remedial work and new network infrastructure was required.

The disruption was like heavy snowfall, says Malone, very real, but very quickly forgotten by those demanding faster action: “In the early stages of this we had guys who were travelling all around the country who had to go home at night. Then you had contractors who weren’t mobilised because they couldn’t get even facilities for somebody on the road to go to the loo. It’s as simple as that.”

NBI has not been hit with financial penalties for missing targets, thanks to “reliefs” for the impact of communicable diseases. When the contract was drawn up, the fear was that something like foot-and-mouth could occur. Nobody then thought, or knew anything about, a pandemic such as Covid-19.

But with coronavirus still not beaten and many broadband contractors absent this month because of omicron close contacts, the upshot of it all is that NBI now finds itself without any time to lose. Still, Hendrick insists the job can still be finished by its original 2026 deadline.

After the Government pressed last year to accelerate the project, could the job yet be done by 2025? “We still have a chance,” Hendrick replies. “We’ll get it in on seven years if we’re aiming for something less and our objective is to aim for six.

”There’s promotions happening now. So we would see the take-up being considerably higher than where we would have thought it was a couple of years ago.”

But there are mountains still to climb. As of January 7th, the grand total of premises using the NBI service was 5,122. That number will have to grow and grow and grow for years to come.