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Ireland looks like it's outpacing Britain in the superfast broadband rollout stakes

A national fibre plan, what's that?

Comment How do Blighty’s future broadband plans compare to its Irish neighbour, which arguably has its sights on a much more ambitious target than BT?

The UK’s state-subsidised broadband deployment scheme ends next year, with the scheme on track to deliver “super fast” coverage to 95 per cent of Great Britain.

Plans for connecting the final five per cent of the UK have involved, so far, vague talk of a Universal Service Obligation of 10Mbps, with operators in Blighty having remained lukewarm about putting themselves forward.

Former digital minister Ed Vaizey has said he believes BT is best placed to meet that target by the end of the decade, without the necessity of a state subsidy.

In contrast, the Irish government's National Broadband Plan intends to ensure that between 2017 and 2022, every address in Ireland will have at least 30Mbps broadband and be “future proofed” – something that will cost €275m (£235m).

It follows the EU's Digital Single Market vision, which foresees a baseline speed of 30Mbps accessible for all by 2020 in a 25-year-long contract. The plan covers 750,000 postal addresses and some 1.8m citizens, including 1,522 primary schools, 80,266 farms, 64,440 non-farm businesses and, ultimately, 38 per cent of the working population.

Currently 1.4m homes and businesses, some 60 per cent of premises across Ireland, can access high-speed broadband, according to incumbent telecoms operator Eircom.

Plans for broadband do not automatically translate to fibre connections, however.

The original plan had been to begin procurement by the middle of 2016, bringing broadband to 85 per cent of premises by 2018 and 100 per cent by 2020. It has now been delayed until 2017, with talk now of all homes not having high-speed broadband until 2022.

Ireland’s Department of Communications blamed the delay on a complicated procurement process. After the 25-year contract ends, the government intends to privatise the National Broadband Plan network.

Celtic Tigers and paper plans

So far, Ireland’s recovery from recession has largely been focused around urban areas, and mainly Dublin. Plans to broaden connectivity to include all rural areas could give a significant stimulus to the economy.

According to the Akamai State of the Internet Q4 2015 report, the UK is 17th in the world for fastest average speeds at 13.8Mbps. In contrast, Ireland comes in at 23rd with an average speed of 12.8Mbps. With a relatively ambitious strategy to broaden superfast speeds to the entire population, Ireland stands a chance of surpassing the UK in the global rankings.

Certainly, there has been a distinct lack of any coherent strategy for Blighty in terms of what its fibre future might look like.

BT and the government have consistently argued that the priority to date has been to ensure nearly everyone has superfast speeds, rather than prioritising fibre-to-the-premises (FTTP) and leaving vast swathes of the country disconnected. Both Spain and France have much higher FTTP penetration (the UK currently has just two per cent) but lower average speeds for that very reason.

Given the size of the UK's economy, to be ranked 17th in the world isn't exactly an achievement. One has to wonder what the UK’s future rankings will look like as our European neighbours continue to deploy at pace.

It’s no secret that Ireland has been much more successful in attracting multinational companies to its shores because of its low corporation tax of 12.5 per cent.

With superfast speeds soon-to-be available outside of the increasingly expensive base of Dublin, the country might become an even more attractive proposition for overseas businesses. Not to mention the economic boost that will give to rural areas.

To be a truly competitive global economy, it is perhaps time the UK looked a bit closer at its Irish neighbour and adopted its own national broadband plan.

Otherwise we arguably risk accelerating an economic decline. ®

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