November 2019 Archives

Plan B for National Broadband Plan

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Here is a summary of my Plan B for Ireland's National Broadband Plan. The full 19-page Plan can be downloaded here.

  • This report seeks to build a case for next-generation, satellite-based broadband services to be considered as a complementary technology alongside fibre for the National Broadband Plan. 

  • Up to now, use of satellites to deliver internet services has been constrained by the need to deploy geostationary satellites located 35,800 kms above the equator. This results in latency problems (delays) in signal transfers between users and satellites.

  • New solutions based on low-Earth orbiting satellites operating in large constellations have the potential to eliminate these latency problems and to bring high-speed broadband to rural areas worldwide at competitive prices.

  • The leading player is SpaceX's Starlink which recently launched 60 test satellites and plans to launch a further twelve thousand on a phased basis by the mid-2020s. Other key participants include Amazon, OneWeb and Telesat.

  • Starlink may have enough satellites in orbit to start servicing rural areas in Ireland and much of Europe by about 2022.

  • The EU has published periodic plans to assist the deployment of high-speed broadband. An initial broadband speed target of 30 Mbps for households first proposed in 2013 have been increased to target 100+ Mbps by 2025. Whilst not endorsing unproven, next-generation satellite broadband, the Commission has identified it as a possible future technology.

  • The NBP which originated in 2012 has evolved into a plan to offer high-speed broadband using fibre to every rural premises in Ireland not serviced by private sector operators. The expected cost of passing about 540,000 rural premises with fibre will be about €5 billion, including an Exchequer subsidy of about €2.5 billion net of VAT.

  • Currently, the NBP's Intervention Area (IA) is being finalised ahead of awarding a 25-year development and operation contract to a preferred bidder who is proposing to offer download speeds in excess of 150 Mbps. For an area to be excluded from the IA, prospective service providers must undertake to exceed a minimum download speed of 30 Mbps and meet other detailed technical, operational and financial criteria. The assessment process makes no provision from new market entrants such as satellite broadband operators.

  • Plans for satellite broadband are gathering momentum and have attracted substantial funding. Total funding could ultimately hit US$40 billion and up to 20,000 next-generation satellites could be providing ultra-high-speed, inexpensive broadband as an alternative to fibre-based solutions especially within rural areas worldwide well inside the next decade.

  • If these expectations are fully, or even partly, realised, then satellite broadband services could impact significantly on proposals for the NBP in terms of costs, timelines, Exchequer contributions and contracting arrangements.

  • This report recommends that an independent, expert technology assessment be commissioned by the Government and followed, if favourable, by a comprehensive review of the NBP (as was recommended by the Oireachtas Committee). This could give rise to a Plan B which integrates satellite broadband alongside fibre and next-generation fixed wireless to provide high-speed broadband throughout rural Ireland, within existing time scales and at a moderate cost to taxpayers.

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