Irish approach to broadband was wiser in 1998 than it is now

Net Results: State ultimately failed to fund the excellent proposals of Mary O’Rourke

Close to two decades later, we are facing a mess that never had to be. Photograph: Michael Smith/Getty

Close to two decades later, we are facing a mess that never had to be. Photograph: Michael Smith/Getty

 

My apologies for weighing in so late on the national broadband debate.

The reason why, is because I weighed in so early on the national broadband debate. I weighed in early and often. For more than 20 years. 

To end up where we are, after two decades, is so exasperating, so misguided, so idiotic, so stupidly aligned to the fact that almost no one in government, from any party, has ever taken this issue seriously or viewed it intelligently. 

“As a narrowly focused debate continues over the Republic’s broadband capabilities and the telecommunications network’s ability to handle the growing range of bandwidth-demanding data applications over the Internet, the relevant issues, vital to a healthy, competitive business climate, still have not been addressed.” 

I wrote that in a column in 1998.

Just think: babies were born in the month I wrote that column who have by now thrown their 21st parties, voted in elections and watched every season of Game of Thrones. And yet that sentence is as true right now as it was in 1998. 

Come on: this is appalling. 

We’ve ended up with no competition to build a network that will cost billions, and won’t be a State asset. Taxpayers will pay for it to go places it really doesn’t need to go. We do not need full coverage to every single home everywhere. Why should taxpayers have to subsidise poor local council decisions to grant planning permission to remote one-off houses? Many of them holiday homes? It’s crazy. 

As perhaps the only person remaining in journalism who was writing regularly about national broadband plans in the 1990s, I can tell you that the Irish broadband situation has always been appalling. And that covering this topic, then and now, involves a constant sinking of the heart and a losing of the will to go on. 

But I’ll go on. Mainly because I wish to highlight where we could have been except for absurd decisions. I have a large box of such absurdities, because from the late 1990s on, I saved press releases, reports and other documents which I felt might be of interest some day, when we could all look back from our highly connected homes, schools and businesses and laugh lightheartedly at the way we were. 

But, as that 1998 sentence makes clear, we are still the way we were, because the State ultimately failed to fund excellent proposals made by, in particular, one good minister and department. 

O’Rourke’s road

Almost all of what we did right – or attempted to do right – was instigated by Mary O’Rourke as minister for public enterprise in the 1990s and early noughties, under the guiding hand of her ingenious department secretary Brendan Tuohy.  

What they tried to do was nothing short of visionary, and at an international scale. Back then what they were proposing was seen as a global model. 

O’Rourke established, in the late 1990s, an extraordinary Advisory Committee on Telecommunications, which included people such as Vint Cerf, even then referred to as the “father of the internet” for work done with fellow researcher Bob Kahn. The committee hit the ground sprinting, met intensively three times to get input from industry, business and community representatives and then published a smart, concise report. All within five months in 1998.  Despite frustrating indifference, O’Rourke managed to squeeze through several of its recommendations, including a groundbreaking, €15 million public-private investment with telecommunications company Global Crossing, which connected Ireland directly to the internet “backbone” by an undersea fibre-optic cable. The government bought half the cable’s capacity and sold it at a steep discount to encourage the growth of e-business.

If that one project had not gone through, we’d be in an utterly different Ireland, with greater economic uncertainty. For years (because of the telecoms crash soon after), we’d have struggled with weak internet connectivity and been of declining interest to international business, especially the tech sector.

Yet much of the report continued to be ignored by the State as a whole and was never implemented.

Facing a mess

In 2000 O’Rourke reconvened the committee, which reported in 2002. It proposed that by 2005, Ireland “will have switched to a low-cost, open access, always-on and national broadband information infrastructure, available to all citizens”.

Some key elements of the report were achieved, such as increased connectivity for researchers and schools, and backing for regional broadband developments. But proposals for broader public-private partnerships and the provision of a special revolving State-backed investment fund and tax incentives for joined-up broadband development across the country were never fully supported.

Close to two decades later, we are facing a mess that never had to be.

Thanks to O’Rourke’s Global Crossing deal, we have the international connectivity that made Ireland an international business and technology hub.

Just imagine the difference if the State had implemented more of the reports’ recommendations.

Then, alongside Ireland’s strong international broadband connectivity, we might have had a national broadband network that gave the Irish people, schools and businesses the incalculable benefits that went, instead, almost entirely to multinational businesses.

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