Government urged to give Satellite grant to those unable to get fibre broadband

Committee told satellite could also serve as ‘stop-gap’ solution during NBP rollout

The Government could consider providing a grant or subsidy for households in areas that will not be served by the National Broadband Plan to allow them to avail of satellite services instead, the head of the National Space Centre said.

Rory Fitzpatrick told TDs and Senators at an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday that it is cost prohibitive to provide fibre broadband in some areas.

He said the National Broadband Plan, once completed, will enable most but not all homes and businesses across the State to access high-speed internet services.

“There will remain a ‘last mile’ segment for whom it is inefficient to serve via standard fibre networks, whether commercially or via State intervention,” said Mr Fitzpatrick.

He said however that because satellite broadband can deliver services anywhere, consideration should be given to providing a subsidy to those who wish to avail of it. This would end a feeling of inequality felt by those who will not be able access services under the NBP.

“The challenge to Government to put all consumers on an equal footing can be easily addressed via grant subsidy in place of infrastructure investment for outlying premises,” said Mr Fitzpatrick.

He said a number of low earth satellite system offerings, which are more reliable than older geo-synchronous-based services are due on the market shortly from providers such as Oneweb, Telesat and Amazon. Elon Musk's SpaceX's Starlink platform is already available in beta with the company awaiting licensing. Kerry County Council and the billionaire's company reached a non-disclosure agreement in December to cover potentially providing services in the local region.

Mr Fitzpatrick added that the engagement of a satellite broadband solution with an Irish-based ground element could be used by the State to provide a secure platform to State bodies such as the Defence Force.

State contract

The multibillion-euro State contract to roll out broadband to 540,000 homes and businesses under the NBP over a seven-year period was awarded to National Broadband Ireland in 2019 after Eir and Siro withdrew from the competition. The Government has been seeking ways to fast-track the plan given the increase in remote working in rural areas that has arisen as a result of the Covid crisis.

Also appearing at Wednesday's Oireachtas committee was Declan Campbell, managing director of Digiweb, who said that satellite could provide a "stop-gap" solution for those awaiting access to the fibre services.

Another contributor, Hugo Carvalho, sales accounts manager at Poynting, said fixed wireless access (FWA) is the "true answer to overcome the digital divide.

“We believe it to be the most cost effective way to provide all Ireland’s population, regardless of where they live, equal opportunity to learn, to work and to be closer to information and to their loved ones,” he said.

FWA provides broadband services to homes using wireless mobile network technology rather than fixed lines.

Mr Carvalho said as well as being good for use in remote areas, the technology can be used on a temporary basis in urban areas on particular projects.

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist