Eir broadband deal leaves rural customers facing rollout lottery

Did the government achieve a major milestone in rural broadband rollout this week? Or has it caved to pressure from Eir, putting the wider project at risk?

There are considered views on both sides of the argument.

For those who missed it, the Government agreed a ‘contract’ with Eir to remove 300,000 rural homes and businesses from the list of 840,000 targeted for the state-subsidised National Broadband Plan. Instead of getting broadband from the State-subsidised process, these 300,000 homes are now to get it on a normal commercial basis. The agreement between the Government and Eir requires Eir to have this completed by the end of next year. If it isn’t, the government says that it reserves the right to re-enter the districts concerned into the National Broadband Plan footprint and make Eir pay any costs.

Communications Minister Denis Naughten is presenting this as a milestone reached in its wider rural broadband goal. Some critics, though, are sceptical of Eir’s ability to deliver such an ambitious target, citing the company’s mixed record to date.

The big unanswered question, though, is what this means for the remaining 540,000 rural homes and business left in the National Broadband Plan map. What is the timetable for that rollout? When will construction on the network begin? Is there a date by which the Government hopes to award a contract for it?

Unfortunately, the Minister now has no answer for these basic questions. The Eir deal may have skewed the whole process.

Mr Naughten’s problem is that taking 300,000 homes out of the intervention area footprint leaves bidders for the scheme with the more difficult, harder-to-reach rump of 540,000 homes. That means they’re a lot less attractive to bid for, even if there is a subsidy involved. And that means that the Government may face further delays in teeing up the tender contract as the three bidders (Eir, Siro and eNet) reassess how they would go about connecting these premises, the cost and complexity.

Indeed, this is exactly what they are now saying.

“We will now take time to review whether this changed scope impacts the viability of Siro’s participation,” said a spokesman for Siro, the joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone which is one of two rival short-listed bidders.

Mr Naughten believes that Siro and eNet will stay in the bidding race and he is probably right. But to keep them involved, the Government may now have to increase the effective subsidy on offer for each rural home. This may even result in a larger overall taxpayer bill than serving a greater number of homes, as bidders may have been willing to risk more themselves for access to scale.

It looks increasingly unlikely that a winning bidder will now be announced this year. That would mean construction is delayed until next year and connections put off until late 2018.

So it looks like we’re in for another bout of delays and another wave of disillusionment.

It is, of course, possible that the Government didn’t have much of a choice but to do its deal with Eir. If the telecoms company really was about to start building its broadband rollout into a third of the Government’s stated intervention area, the Government would risk breaking EU state aid rules. That could have halted the entire initiative which, ironically, would not have hurt Eir anywhere near as much as other telecoms firms or the Government’s credibility.

To be fair, this deal with Eir may indeed mean that there are 300,000 rural homes which will now get broadband on an accelerated time frame. Indeed, a cynic might pick Eir over the Government’s rollout timetable at this point.

One of the criticisms of the contract the Government has signed with Eir is that it has been taken on by an entity with a poor track record of delivery. While there is some justification for that view, the company can be fairly said to have responded to market and industry pressure in rolling out a much larger broadband network now than its fiercest critics would have allowed for, and most evidence points to it being somewhat serious about rolling out fibre, too. It is undoubtedly true that much of its motivation for doing so has been drawn by a combination of initiatives from UPC (now Virgin Media), Siro (Vodafone and the ESB) and Government intervention plans. But it does now have a genuine broadband footprint, even if a large portion still falls short of fibre-era standards. In this context, it may be unduly harsh to charge that the Government has been sold a bag of magic beans.

One can’t blame Minister Naughten for spinning the Eir announcement of 300,000 homes as a sort of adjunct to the National Broadband Plan. In a fog of delays and ongoing contract “complications”, it’s a sizeable chunk of rural Ireland that otherwise might have been mired for years waiting for a tender to be issued.

But it’s the remainder of the homes and businesses to be connected – 540,000 of them – that now face an even more uncertain future.

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Independent

Vodafone admits and apologises for overcharging Irish customers

Vodafone has admitted that the company has overcharged a number of customers in Ireland.

“We are aware of an issue with duplicate credit and debit card payments for some customers caused by a processing error. Customers will be fully refunded over the next few days,” Vodafone said in a statement.

“All impacted customers will also receive an SMS with confirmation of their refund. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.”

The company has had issues with overcharging in the past: in 2015, the telecom giant was fined €10,000 at Dublin District Court for charging customers too much.

In October of last year, UK regulator Ofcom fined Vodafone a record £4.6m (€5.5m) “for serious and sustained breaches of consumer protection rules”.

Vodafone said that under 4pc of its Irish bill pay customers have been overcharged.

The company has around 2.3 million Irish customers across its mobile, broadband and TV offerings.

However, Vodafone said it could not specifically comment on the number of counts that had been affected for “commercial reasons”. The company said the overcharging was identified over one monthly billing period and that the money would be repaid in the coming days.

Irish Independent

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Independent

Don’t tell farmers to apply online when they have no broadband coverage

Don’t tell farmers to apply online when they have no broadband coverage – Martin Kenny TD

Sinn Féin spokesperson for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Martin Kenny TD, speaking after the Government announced that Eir would expand broadband service to the easy to reach properties, said that the Department of Agriculture would want to take note, before asking farmers from his constituency to make Basic Payment Scheme applications online.

Deputy Kenny said, “Any expansion of broadband services in Ireland has to be welcome, but allowing cherry-picking by providers, so that they can ignore areas which are not commercially profitable, means that large sections of the West are left without proper broadband coverage.

“The announcement of the roll-out of broadband has been nearly a monthly occurrence for the past few years, but it is still not happening for many rural areas. This is another example of Government lack of understanding of the reality of people’s lives. One Department is allowing commercial interests to dictate who gets broadband while another Department is demanding online applications.

“More and more functions are moving online. I hope the Department of Agriculture is taking note of the situation in this part of the world before asking farmers to apply online for their Basic Payment Scheme.

“Rural areas of Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, and Donegal have the lowest level of broadband in the country and are quickly being left behind. The fear is that this is a long term issue as the Government has shown no political will, despite lots of lip service, to redress the imbalance between the urban and rural.”

 Catch the full article here on the Leitrim Observer

Enforced digital detox turns rural dream into nightmare

Lack of landline or internet connections and ‘apathetic’ Eir ruin move to new Offaly home

After years of renting, saving and dreaming, my partner and I finally moved into our dream home with our two children on St Patrick’s Day.

We were finally free of the rental trap, our kids could play out in the garden without fear of passing cars and there would be space to grow vegetables and tend to a garden.

The house is a one-off new build. It is located around six kilometres from the centre of Tullamore and about 3km from the house we previously rented on the outskirts of the Co Offaly town. Although close to the town, it is located down a boreen off the main road and is free from both light and noise pollution.

All of this seemed idyllic to me and in my naivety I did not anticipate any major difficulties. This was before I had the misfortune of dealing with Eir. They were contacted prior to the move for a landline and internet connection but on inspection their engineer said a pole was needed so we cancelled the order and made a fresh request. Eir had supplied eFibre to the old house and credit where credit is due, the service was perfect, too good perhaps.

Even though the new house is near our old address we may as well be in a different galaxy. On two occasions Eir couldn’t find the house and they even cited data protection as the reason they couldn’t ask locally for directions (so much for your Eircode Alex White), presumably because God forbid someone might discover we wanted a phoneline.

When their engineer eventually arrived, it was the same man from before with the same message – we need a pole and there must be a pole request. This was infuriating as we had informed Eir of this on countless occasions. When informed that my livelihood was on the line, the engineer was sympathetic and said he would contact his manager, outline the urgency of the case and put in a pole request. Eir say we might now have a line at the end of April.

Modern-day retreat

Eir cannot be held responsible for the location’s mobile phone signal. It is almost non-existent on both major networks. I imagine years from now there will be people seeking out the exact conditions that prevail at my new home. It is a digital-free oasis impervious it would appear, even to radio waves. The enforced digital detox might actually one day become a viable business model, a modern-day retreat, impenetrable to potentially harmful radiation from the modern world outside – if only there was a way of letting people know about it.

After the move the full implications of digital-free living became all too apparent as my income dried up. Even my radio conspired against me in a fiendish way. It permits radio stations to be tuned in but the moment you walk away from the device the signal dies.

As a freelance reporter it is difficult to think of a more challenging environment to operate from. In the past I have had days of frantically driving up and down country roads in search of a mobile signal all the while knowing that there was an irate editor waiting impatiently in some far away newsroom. That is challenging but at least mobility offered the prospect of a solution.

The sheer frustration of dealing with Eir is something entirely different. The irony of trying to force customers to communicate through online chats appears lost on the company. The apathetic call-takers on Eir’s community forum seem incapable of grasping the reality of someone having no mobile phone coverage.

Recently I acquired an internet dongle from Vodafone. The service works intermittently. I am informed that should I get landline broadband I could get a device that would boost the mobile phone signal in the house. At the moment one windowsill offers two bars of 3G phone reception. My phone is in constant need of charging as it is exhausting itself trying to find a signal. It has also developed a worrying habit of falling from the windowsill when the odd call does come through.

I am acutely aware that my problems fall squarely into the first-world category. I know citizens are being massacred in Syria, children are dying of starvation in Yemen and there is a very real homelessness crisis here in Ireland. I know too that many people feel that if you choose to live in the countryside then you should accept the consequences.

Incapable

While I take this on board, I wonder what hope have the people of rural Ireland in starting up any business in this digital age. As for Eir acquiring 300,000 new rural broadband contracts at the behest of the Minister for Communications, frankly I despair. They seem incapable of dealing with the customers they have.

Having been told by Eir that I could now expect to wait a further three weeks for a landline or internet connection, I drove to my old address and in a state of complete exasperation and frustration emailed both the Denis Naughten and the chief executive of Eir. A lot of what I said is outlined above, but there was one more point that I believe is probably most relevant. What will I do if my partner or either of my young children require an ambulance or urgent medical attention? As expected neither the Minister nor the chief executive responded.

In jest, I informed the news editor that he could expect this piece in the post. It was only after the phone call ended I remembered what is happening to our rural post office network.

 Catch the full article here on the Irish Times