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Ready, willing and cable: Can Poland's broadband plan come together with a help from TV?

Poland's ambitious National Broadband Plan is creeping closer to becoming a reality – but can its aims really be achieved?
Written by Michiel van Blommestein, Contributor

Poland's National Broadband Plan has been on the boil for several years now and, not unlike the national dish of bigos, has been periodically reheated and served up afresh.

Just before being replaced in a government reshuffle last month, Poland's now former minister of administrative affairs and digitisation, Michal Boni, managed to get the plan through the country's council of ministers. But, in order to attain the goals set out in the policy, much will depend on support from an unexpected sector: the cable TV industry.

Under the National Broadband Plan, all of Poland's 38 million people should be able to get access to a broadband downlink of at least 30Mbps by 2020, and half should be able to get speeds of at least 100Mbps — ambitious for a country that has traditionally struggled on the broadband front. Ambitious they may be, but the goals are not particularly surprising and may sound familiar:  they're the same broadband goals set out in the European Commission's Digital Agenda for Europe.

The projected cost of the plan is rather steep by Polish standards, with estimates ranging from 19bn to 26bn zlotys, €4.25bn and even €10bn, depending who you ask (telcos tend to favour higher projections).

"It is very ambitious," says Krysztof Heller, the co-founder of InfoStrategia, the consultancy whose calculations are part of the broadband plan. The company expects the eventual cost to be closer to a more optimistic €4.7bn, though Heller thinks a 10 percent margin of safety on top may be called for.

With billions of euros likely to be needed whoever's estimate is correct, who will end up footing the bill?

Heller thinks the Polish government could cough up around €1.5bn, leaving the rest of the funding to come from commercial entities.

Cost per customer

"We assumed that operators will be interested in investing when the cost falls below €750 per customer," Heller says. Naturally, expenditure will be higher the more geographically isolated a subscriber is: "You cannot install a fibre optic line just to supply a hut in the middle of a forest."

As well as the price tag for installing any new infrastructure, carriers will face other associated costs including dealing with regulatory processes and other red tape. "Civil works [digging up a road, for example] can be up to 80 percent of one's capex costs," Heller says.

Consequently, InfoStrategia reckons that while 94 percent of Polish consumers could be connected to a fixed broadband connection, six percent will end up with a wireless or satellite connection.

InfoStrategia's estimates were also based on the assumption that existing networks assets will be exploited to the fullest before any new infrastructure is laid down — if the copper in an area can theoretically provide the necessary throughput, telcos won't be rushing to install additional fibre there.

Heller concedes that a 100 percent use of existing capacity is not feasible, so InfoStrategia calculations include a 10 percent margin of error.

While the government may be setting the goals, achieving them will be in large part in the hands of industry. One particular sector now at the forefront of broadband investments, Heller says, is cable TV.

"Cable TV providers are the fastest growing broadband suppliers after the move to digital TV, and they have been investing a lot in the area [of broadband]." Currently, six million households in Poland are within reach of cable companies' networks, which currently have around two million broadband subscriptions between them.

Much depends on the TV market

"They're taking business away from traditional telcos, as they already have infrastructures in place that can reach speeds up to 320Mbps. They are already offering those kind of speeds commercially. They can go even higher if they want to and the need is there. Telecom providers rarely go above 80Mbps," Heller says.

Since the cable companies also sell TV services, they have the additional advantage over telcos of being able to offer bundled TV and broadband subscriptions. (Similar efforts by telcos to move into selling TV services over their networks have not been very successful, Heller says.)

Cable TV companies' broadband services are currently mainly concentrated in the Poland's urban centres, but they are starting to make their way into the suburbs as well, he says.

However, one potential stumbling block could be the closed nature of the market: having been able to decide between themselves who gets which region and so have few incentives to compete for customers, affording themselves customer-unfriendly policies. This correspondent found, for example, that his local provider demands a deposit from non-Poles, even if they have all the right paperwork to show they are legally resident in the country, because, according to the company, "they are more likely to steal the equipment and run off".

Unlike the case for telecoms, cable TV operators are not obliged to let others make use of their networks. "So a single decision from Brussels to start regulating such markets can change the game completely and would have a huge impact on the further development of broadband." Currently, he says, Polish regulators are reluctant to start regulating the TV market as well.

But the main challenge investment wise are not the city centres or even the suburbs, but rural Poland.

"By themselves, the cable companies can cover around 60 percent of the population," Heller says — for the rest of the country, the government will need to find sufficient incentives to get operators to fill in the gaps.

"Operating costs in rural areas are much higher, since you need more cabling to reach the same amount of households. Even if the incentives would stretch as far as covering the full capital expenses, it still might not be profitable for a company to run because of the operating costs."

Heller doesn't think LTE will solve that problem, "because capacity is limited. Operators would have to place their base stations in very dense clusters to provide sustainable transmission speeds." However, wireless technology might be feasible here, he thinks.

The verdict

The government appears at least aware of the scale of the challenges: the plan also includes details of the steps that must be taken to meet its aims — not just the financial aspects, but also needed changes in law and other regulation.

"It is very balanced and includes input from a large variety of sources," he says. "It's now an official government document, and at least there now are guidelines. Whether these guidelines will be followed and how fast the changes will come about, that's something I don't know.

"It is doable, though it does depend on whether the government can get its act together."

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