Slow broadband speeds are Ireland’s national disgrace

Urban and rural industry and citizens need faster internet. But should State keep out?

Past visions of the future: Then minister for public enterprise Mary O’Rourke launches the world’s first internet television, Mitsubshi’s netset. Photograph: Maxwells

Past visions of the future: Then minister for public enterprise Mary O’Rourke launches the world’s first internet television, Mitsubshi’s netset. Photograph: Maxwells

 

A report revealing pathetic broadband speeds in Ireland frayed tempers in business sector bodies this past week, which warned of potential job losses and continuing damage to economic growth in rural Ireland.

 Both Ibec and Isme rankled at news that an analysis of 63 million broadband speed tests internationally by broadband speed comparison site cable.co.uk placed Ireland only 36th among a range of countries. We trailed 25 European counterparts. Oh, the shame.

Business concerns are, of course, spot on. That we are trailing rather than leading – a situation unchanged for far too long – is a national disgrace.

Many must wonder how we can be a tech and internet economic powerhouse yet score so low in international terms. But here we are. Yes, this needs to change. But we are where we are in large part due to an unfortunate array of historic circumstances that successive governments have never adequately addressed.

Nearly 20 years ago, the future had seemed more promising, thanks to the government’s Telecommunications Advisory Committee.

Tech luminaries

Somehow, the government of the day – this was 1998 – managed to lure an international group of telecoms and tech luminaries into volunteering, without pay, for this advisory body.

Included in the group was Vint Cerf, then senior vice-president of telecoms giant MCI but better known these days as chief internet evangelist for Google, and as “the father of the internet” for his joint role (with Bob Kahn) in developing the key technology by which computers on the net communicate with each other.

Then, among others, there was Brian Thompson, then vice-chairman of telecommunications giant Qwest Communications; Don Heath, then president and chief executive of international body the Internet Society; Douglas Karp, then managing director of telecoms company LLC; and Ray Smith, then chairman of Bell Atlantic Corporation.

The committee was to prepare a report for the then department of public enterprise and its minister, Mary O’Rourke.

These were the days before Ireland had any significant global profile as a centre for technology and internet companies. And, this was well before it was clear to anyone that the country might be heading into a sustained period of vigorous economic growth.

Nonetheless, Vint Cerf was genuinely intrigued with what was happening on the ground in Ireland. I interviewed Cerf at the time.

“Until I came out there I hadn’t realised the extent to which Ireland has created a strong technology-based economy,” he told me in an interview. The committee, he said, was pushing “to create an environment where Irish entrepreneurs have an environment to capitalise, literally, on their ideas for information technology.”

Flagship project

When the committee’s report was produced shortly thereafter, it emphasised the need for investment in broadband infrastructure. At a briefing, committee members stressed the opportunity this would present not just for the main cities, but for rural Ireland.

With 10 broad recommendations for the restructuring of the State’s telecommunications infrastructure, the report resulted in the flagship project of a then-£15 million State investment with telecommunications company Global Crossing, which connected Ireland directly to the US and European internet “backbones” by an undersea fibre optic cable.

The government then bought half the cable’s capacity and sold it at a steep discount to encourage the growth of what was quaintly termed “e-business”.

The importance of that investment and that cable simply cannot be overstated. We might be complaining about download speeds right now, but if that State investment hadn’t happened at that moment in time, Ireland could have remained an agriculture-based economy, with a handful of tech multinationals with low-level jobs thrown in for diversity.

The report also influenced spending of the then-£150 million for broadband development in the regions.

Unfortunately, development began to lag, as noted by a reconvened advisory group in 2002, comprising many of the same members.

‘Squandering’ gains

In its report, it noted that without “fresh vision and leadership”, the state risked “squandering” the gains it had made in technology policy. Again, it pushed for broadband development, especially in the regions.

But the major roadblock – which has never really been overcome – was made clear via Freedom of Information requests I obtained later that year.

The four companies controlling the bulk of Ireland’s fibre networks had either changed hands or collapsed. As ownership shifted, visionary agreements with the State became nullified. Ironically, Ireland entered the new century with a plethora of underground fibre, but now in private hands and left “dark” – unused.

Thus were starkly exposed the risks inherent in then-popular public-private partnerships.

Some argue the State should now build and take ownership of a nationalised broadband network. That argument has some merit: the Government could then ensure networks embrace the full country, rural and urban, and could determine network speeds and tariffs.

The downside? The State would have to ensure networks embrace the full country – rural and urban – and would determine network speeds and tariffs. And manage the whole affair.

Think health. Think water.

Yes, something needs to be done, fast, about broadband. But what?  I’m not so sure a State-run service is the answer.

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