Communication must be Minister Ahern's keyword


BUSINESS OPINION: Hands up, anyone who remembers that Minister Dermot Ahern deals with anything other than fish and quotas.

Oh, and RTE licences. "Communication" may be the first word in the title of this oddly-cobbled together department -- a tribute, one assumes, to the masterful sense of purpose the Taoiseach had when he finally did his famous cabinet (non) shuffle after the election. Especially the last minute thrusting of "Marine" into the title, producing the Department with the Most Letters in its Title, a.k.a. the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

But "communications" has received very little focus outside of the hoo-hah over whether RTE would get to raise its licence fee. To be fair to the Department, this is not because it has done nothing at all in this area.

Indeed, there are people whose every waking civil servant moment is spent trying to stick fingers into as many leaky holes in broadband and telecommunications policy and problems as possible. And in trying to move the whole desperate issue forward at the same time that the Department of Finance is deciding that "infrastructure" means bringing our 19th century roads up to mid-20th century standard, not supplying the crucial information highways that will at least make this state vaguely competitive in the 21st.

(One word, Mr McCreevy: "borrow". Be brave and borrow, before - despite the balanced budget -- we're back at the bottom of the European economic heap, elbowing the accession states out of the way as we beg for a little investment from the First World economies).

The Department has proven itself pretty reticent to take advantage of the fact that broadband has actually become a generally-understood business issue and is no longer seen as just a tech industry obsession. With lobby groups such as Ireland-Offline, and, life has been kindled in a broader public debate on the telecommunications issue as well. But none of this is being used to advantage by the Department to lever these issues onto the mainstream Government agenda and to shape a national economic and social vision.

Perhaps former Minister Ms Mary O'Rourke was more enthusiastic about issuing press releases on communications issues - and making sure journalists actually received them. I, for one, haven't had a single formal release from the new Department since its creation half a year ago and I'm sure I'm not the only one left off the fax, e-mail and mailing lists.

Which brings me to my list of new year's resolutions I am happy to provide, free of charge, to this seemingly shy Department.

Look hard at the first word in the Department title: "Communications" . Try some! Both with the media, which doesn't seem very aware of what you are doing in the area of telecommunications, and with industry and the general public, who are also baffled.

A good place to start would be your own public discussion forum on the Department's website, at default.asp. A public forum is a fantastic idea. But participants don't understand why no one from the Department seems to get involved in it. It took two weeks for someone official to say - sort of - why the Department doesn't join in the discussion. Certainly a bit more moderating would improve the flow and productivity of discussion, and make people feel that the Department is actually interested in their opinions and ideas.

Then, could you convey a little better to the rest of us, especially at this time of financial cutbacks and economic uncertainty, what the Department is working towards in telecommunications policy? Most of the visible projects, such as the metropolitan fibre ring initiative, came from the old Department of Public Enterprise and most people I talk to still don't really get the purpose or current standing of this major project. That's a big gap that needs to be filled for industry and the public.

You have the biggest urban renewal and enterprise project since the Haughey era under your wing - the Digital Hub in the Liberties - yet three years on it's STILL not clear what the State's vision is on this, or what its contributions, financial and policy and leadership-wise, are to be. Set against the very clear, very documented Government vision for competing digital enterprise environments in South Korea and Malaysia, this is extremely worrying, especially as this is supposed to be a flagship investment project as well.

Along with input from stalwarts Iona, HP and Microsoft on your industry advisory boards on telecommunications, get some young and small company perspective in there too. Perhaps especially from the digital media sector, given the urgency of the Hub project. The big companies don't have a monopoly on ideas. And hey - maybe the input of some of the industry's women leaders as well, for a change?

Forget 3G (for now) - wireless connectivity is clearly where the cutting edge of telecommunications is at the moment. We need clear policies on how wireless spectrum is to be made available and used. And a national policy to encourage the development of wireless "hotspots" in public areas such as libraries, airports and universities would help give the State some needed international profile. We are a small nation - this is an ideal area in which we can be a model of technological possibility, not a laggard stuck in last century's technologies.

There's more, of course - but I'll keep you informed as 2003 progresses.