Adrian Weckler: It’s ‘squeaky bum time’ for NBP

Communications Minister Denis Naughten has said there is a Plan B
Communications Minister Denis Naughten has said there is a Plan B

The former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson used to call the final stages of a competition “squeaky bum time”.

In Ireland’s broadband industry, there are a few backsides now squeaking loudly.

Arguably the two highest-pitched modulations are coming from Communications Minister Denis Naughten and US business mogul David McCourt.

Both have most to lose if a credible plan for the rollout of rural broadband can’t be salvaged from the SSE mess over the next few weeks.

Enet will face charges that it couldn’t keep a consortium together at the most important juncture of a critical procurement process. It may also lose credibility across Europe, with many eyes watching the Irish rural broadband experiment.

As for the Communications Minister, he will obviously face a barrage of criticism about the structure of the process and how player after player dropped out. (SSE joins Vodafone, the ESB and Eir in ditching the NBP, leaving only the smallest player, Enet.)

Conversely, both men also have much to gain if a deal can yet be pulled out of the fire.

McCourt would emerge as a fixer, someone who can deliver on a promise despite potentially critical blows being suffered.

Naughten might also emerge as an individual who held firm to tough conditions for what is arguably Europe’s most ambitious telecoms infrastructure rollout plan.

A number of in-between scenarios are also possible.

Eir may yet emerge in some enhanced co-operation role, not quite taking the place of SSE but agreeing smaller contractual issues to facilitate infrastructural build-out.

But it hangs in the balance.

Bullish statements from the Government and from Enet last week about nothing changing seem odd. SSE was in Enet’s consortium for a very important reason: it was the only entity that could actually build Enet’s network.

It seems unlikely that Enet can simply absorb SSE’s role or split it among itself and its other consortium partner, specialist investor John Laing.

The Government knows this, carefully stating last week that while it still believes the current process is on track, it is up to Enet to spell it out now.

“A formal notification from the consortium with regard to structural changes is awaited,” said a spokesman for the Department of Communications.

“The Enet consortium has reaffirmed its commitment to the National Broadband Plan and timelines around the procurement process.”

So far, no such clarification appears to be forthcoming from Enet.

It is looking at its options, telling the world that everything will be fine.

And that does nothing to stop the sound of the squeaking.

Ironically, Eir remains a critical actor in the NBP’s fate.

It still owns most of the country’s telecoms infrastructure. This means that any plan to build a new rural network will inevitably intersect or cross Eir’s infrastructure at regular points.

Enet and Eir have been in regular contact about this, sometimes amid considerable tension.

But given that dialogue is already there, many eyes will naturally turn to Eir to see whether it might assume a bigger part in the state plan with Enet.

Executives there have distanced the company from an official partnership role.

“We didn’t pull out of the NBP to go back in,” one said last week.

But there’s no escaping that Eir remains one of the few telecoms companies in these parts that has the capability and local know-how to do what SSE was supposed to do.

But Enet and Eir and anyone else in private industry will do what they do.

Ultimately, it’s up to the Government to accept or reject a modified proposal to a build a network that has been fought over and painstakingly planned for five years.

Would Government ministers have the guts to reject a revised proposal from Enet that seemed less satisfactory than its previous indications? Would it accept a proposal that cost substantially more than originally anticipated?

If one is to believe the tenor of Naughten’s assertions some months ago that the Government would not accept any old proposal and that there remains a ‘Plan B’ if the current strand collapses, then it will hold firm.

But to say that this would be politically difficult is an understatement. Assuming that there actually is no ‘Plan B’, it would be a question of going back to the drawing board.

Remember, it has taken six years to get to this point in this process. It would surely take at least two to three years to arrive at a similar advanced stage under a newly formed process.

A delay of a further few years would leave the 540,000 rural businesses and homes that were marked down for coverage under the NBP in a fairly miserable state for the foreseeable future.

That represents upwards of one million people, a fair chunk of them being in Naughten’s own Roscommon-Galway constituency.

One recent survey by Amarach suggested that a quarter of such rural residents would consider relocating to a large town or a city purely to get better broadband.

Such residents regard it as a professional survival issue – most jobs aren’t now possible without access to broadband. Education is following suit.

This all comes against the backdrop where the European Commission repeatedly highlights Irish SMEs as being the best in Europe at adapting to high speed for the purposes of ecommerce and doing business online.

For the past three years, the EU body has released results marking Irish small firms at the top of the pile, but only when they have access to broadband.

So there’s a lot more at stake than squeaking.

Sunday Indo Business