The Government may be forced to extend the reach of its broadband scheme because of the large number of homes being left with sub-standard services in areas supplied by commercial operators.
Sources suggest up to 80,000 homes, not included in the National Broadband Plan (NBP), cannot be connected to broadband networks in their areas for a variety of reasons without costly interventions.
The crux of the issue lies in the difference between “premises passed” by the new technology, the phrase industry uses, and those that can be connected to it, the threshold the Government insists upon.
Companies usually run their new fibre technologies to a cabinet at street level, but not all homes can access the cabinet, either because of geography or because their original copper connections have degraded.
While providers have pledged to come back and connect these premises on a case-by-case basis, the Department of Communications, which is overseeing the NBP, fears it may be left carrying the can.
Recent figures from Comreg show that despite some extravagant claims by industry, only about 10,000 homes and premises in the Republic are directly connected to fibre broadband, the gold standard of the industry.
The NBP promises to replace the patchwork of ageing technologies currently prevailing in rural Ireland with one super-fast network. The Government's proposed intervention footprint covers 757,000 homes, but this may be changed before the final tender later this year.
“The NBP is a national plan designed to ensure that high-speed broadband is available to every home, school and business in the country,” a spokeswoman for the department said.
“For this reason, it is important that the department monitors progress of high speed broadband deployment in the commercial areas as well as focussing on the procurement process.”
She said the department commenced a further analysis of the roll-out of commercial services earlier this year, which would conclude shortly.
“It would not be appropriate to comment until this analysis is complete. Prospective bidders will be informed of any potential changes, should these arise,” she added.
Eir, the State's largest telecoms firm, re-affirmed its pledge to deliver high-speed services to 1.9 million premises by 2020, two years inside the NBP timeline.
However, Carolan Lennon, managing director of OpenEir, Eir’s wholesale arm, acknowledged there were geographical pockets in all parts of the country that require particular infrastructural enhancements.
She questioned the rationale, however, of putting these homes back into the NBP when the company had already pledged to connect them. “So they [the department] would end up giving us a subsidy for doing something we said we would do without a subsidy.”
Ms Lennon said Eir, formerly Eircom, had decided to prioritise rural broadband rollout over the completion of rollout in some individual urban and suburban locations as many of those homes and businesses have access to alternative platforms.
“Those urban and suburban premises will gain access over the next two years, which worth noting, is ahead of the current timeframe for the NBP target,” she said.
Siro, ESB's joint venture with Vodafone, which is vying with Eir for the NBP tender, said it would not disclose the number of premises passed due to commercial sensitivities, but confirmed that it is in excess of 10,000 premises. "
“It is important to note, however, that not all of these premises passed may have chosen to purchase Siro subscriptions at this point,” the company said.