The company chosen to deliver the Government’s €3 billion National Broadband Plan (NBP) has unexpectedly dropped out of the equivalent project in the North, citing difficulties with the timeline.
Granahan McCourt, the US investment firm founded by tech billionaire David McCourt, was one of three bidders for Project Stratum, Northern Ireland’s £165 million (€184 million) rural broadband project.
However, it failed to submit its initial tender for the scheme by the recent May 5th deadline, effectively ruling itself out of the process and ending the prospect that one company might oversee the rollout of rural broadband on an all-island basis.
Granahan McCourt is understood to have been unhappy that the timeline for bids was not put back because of the Covid-19 crisis.
It is said to have told the North’s Department for the Economy, which is overseeing procurement, that the restrictions linked to the containment of the virus made it impossible to prepare its bid on time.
It is also said to have complained that sticking to the original timeline conferred an unfair advantage on UK incumbent BT.
Granahan McCourt declined to comment.
The North’s scheme was funded by the DUP’s former confidence and supply agreement with Britain’s Conservative Party, which saw the North get an additional £1 billion in funding for infrastructure.
It aims to equip up to 100,000 rural homes and premises with high-speed broadband.
Similar to the National Broadband Plan in the Republic, it will involve some form of state subsidy matched by private sector investment.
The intervention areas in both schemes run along the Border and some believe it would have made sense for one company to deploy high-speed broadband in the region, which is described as “geographically challenging”.
Granahan McCourt has set up National Broadband Ireland (NBI) to oversee the rollout of the Republic’s scheme, which covers 540,000 premises. The project, which has been beset with delays and controversies from the outset, is expected to cost close to €3 billion, six times the original estimate.
The disparity in cost between the schemes in both jurisdictions is apparently explained by the stipulation for 100 per cent coverage in the South.
Work on the scheme here is continuing despite the Covid-19 crisis, NBI chief executive Peter Hendrick said in a recent interview on Newstalk radio. “We are confident that the project can be delivered under budget and certainly earlier than we have committed,” he said.
NBI said up to 10,000 homes will be passed by the network by the end of 2020, while it will have “detailed design plans” for an additional 108,000, equating to 20 per cent of 540,000 households covered by the project.
As a stop-gap before the arrival of the new fibre network, NBI is also rolling out a network of 300 “broadband connection points” where the public can get free high-speed internet access.