A panel session at this year’s virtual Connected Ireland saw discussions around the National Broadband Plan cover everything from closing the digital divide to fine-tuning the national regulatory framework

From school children to ‘silver surfers’, nobody will be left behind
One of the biggest motivators behind the development of the National Broadband Plan (NBP) is to ensure that everyone can enjoy the opportunities that high quality connectivity unlocks. With so many rural populations, many of which are situated on islands, Ireland has a real risk of creating a significant digital divide, where entire communities are left behind.
But now, with the NBP beginning to be rolled out, this should no longer be an issue, allowing discussions around the digital divide to finally evolve beyond just network access limitations.
“We’ve been talking for the last 10 years about the digital divide,” said Fergal Mulligan, Programme Director at the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. “That was really about network availability. But now the digital divide term has now moved on to where it is now about the availability of devices, education, and training. We see that really exacerbated with Covid. There is a significant cohort of people out there who simply do not have the technology we have.”
He noted that this digital divide was not only putting devices into the hands of children who will rely on them for education, or elderly people (the so-called ‘silver surfers’) using them for telemedicine, but in training them to use the equipment effectively. 
“By 2026 [fibre availability for all] is a done deal,” he said. “The discussion will be: is it being maximised? Can people access it? Is everybody feeling included in that journey? And to ensure that nobody is being left behind.
Accelerating rollout
When the NBP was first designed, the rollout was scheduled to take place over seven years. However, with demand skyrocketing and the detriment of being left behind more stark than ever, the government is looking at ways to accelerate this plan. 
Hendrick noted that NBI had grown from 30 staff to 900 over the last year, with further plans to increase this to up to 2,000 if the rollout is accelerated. Of course, any acceleration will require the rapid development of a skilled workforce.
"There are lots of students and graduates, getting them trained under apprenticeships. Many of our industry partners have started that process and it is a critical one,"said Hendrick.
The first premises were connected to the NPB network just a few weeks ago, and the rollout is continuing across the country, with goals of reaching all 26 counties by the end of the year. 
Regulatory alignment challenges remain
But a project of the NBP’s magnitude, by its very nature, carries with it a host of regulatory conundrums. For the most part, the industry has welcomed Comreg’s decisions regarding the Plan, but there are a number of issues which still need to be addressed.
For Kevin Barrins, Director of Wholesale & Regulatory Strategy at Sky, one of the largest concerns is around price. 
“The price in the commercial area, which we see is being driven up, is the benchmark for the prices of the NBP. Do we enter this perpetual cycle of higher prices? Ireland is already among the highest prices in Europe,” he asked Kevin. He also noted that NBI’s contract would allow them to increase this pricing benchmark if they wished, which would in turn allow the government to reduce their subsidies.
“There are critical policy decisions imminently upon us and it is going to have a big impact on the market. My concern is that they don’t align with current European recommendations,” he said. 
Another issue comes in the handling of legacy, fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) networks. In many places FTTC is being driven out before the end of its useful life, which is not only inefficient but can result in a lack of price choice for customers.
For Eavann Murphy, MD of wholesale at open eir, however, fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) is the future, and the regulatory framework needs to reflect this national market shift. 
“FTTH is really expensive – it costs hundreds of millions of euros and is a long term investment that could take a decade to pay back. So we have an expectation that the regulator would not intervene, at least during the investment cycle, in any way that hampers that investment,” said Murphy. She noted that, in the UK, Ofcom has told BT that they will not introduce any related cost controls, which has helped give investors stability.
“You cannot invest for the long term with no knowledge of what will happen to your return,” she said.
She further argued that if we continue to incentivise people to remain on FTTC networks through lowering prices, then people will not make the transition. 
Barrins countered by saying that discussions are always around delivering higher speeds, but some customers simply do not require them.
“Why shouldn’t they be able to avail of price competition as well as speed competition?” he said.
Once again, it is digital education here that becomes important, increasing the population’s knowledge surrounding what they will be able to do with higher speeds.
“There’s a role for the regulator to educate people about speeds,” said Barrins, adding that retail operators are not incentivised to have this discussion with their customers, since it is in their interest to simply sell faster plans.
But despite these many challenges, the panel was optimistic around the regulatory framework that ComReg was developing.
“The evidence has shown that the public are willing to pay for a quality service,” said Mulligan. “I think we’re in a good place. ComReg will make the right regulatory decisions.”
“We are on the right path. The NBP is going to be transformative for Ireland, both now and hopefully for the next 50 years,” said Barrins. “But lets not be reckless about the policies that confront us now. We don’t want to be caught in a high price cycle. What we need to do is see those prices coming down all the time.” 
“It’s vital that the regulatory framework keeps up with the rate of change in the sector. Otherwise we won’t foster the innovation,” said Liam O’Brien, Director of Strategy and External Affairs at Vodafone Ireland.
Setting the stage for the 5G revolution
Of course, once of the most crucial aspects of this fibre rollout is the way it will support one of the most exciting innovations of this coming decade: 5G. Bringing with it not only high speeds and low latency, 5G also opens the door for a raft of new technologies, from AI and machine learning to the IoT and automation, all of which will need to be supported by a national fibre backbone.
“Fibre around the country will ultimately underpin 5G. The two intrinsically go hand in hand,” said O’Brien. “5G is more than just another G, its not about just high speed. It is fundamentally about transforming the network architecture. It will take many years to manifest themselves in ways that people can see and point to, but they are coming.”
“Without fibre, there is no 5G,” said Murphy. 
Any vision of a 5G future takes for granted the presence of a high quality, reliable fibre network.
“We are not going to make autonomous cars, smart homes, smart farms a reality without fibre,” said  Hendrick. He further noted that the network, when complete, will be capable of handling speeds of up to 10Gbps, meaning it is future-proofed for all the further technologies that may emerge in the next 10-15 years.
"Future-proofing the technology is critical," he said. “The debate over whether fibre is required as infrastructure is over. We are laying the foundations for the future. I see a bright future for Ireland.”
Want to watch the session in full? The entirety of our Connected Ireland event can be viewed online. Register here

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