Question hangs over rural broadband: do many want it?
Most inaccessible and most expensive to reach rural homes least likely to use service
Minister for Communications Richard Bruton says the bidder expects to get to 80 per cent take-up after five years. Some sources say this is unrealistic. Photograph: Michael Smith/Getty
With a lengthy Cabinet debate on the decision on Tuesday, heavy leaking in advance and an eight-Minister strong panel at the announcement, there was little doubt that the Government was going full-steam ahead with the National Broadband Plan.
Though there has been criticism of the plan from inside and outside Government – including an unprecedented registering of objections from officials in the Department of Public Expenditure in Cabinet documentation circulated to Ministers in recent days – the Taoiseach and his Ministers had decided some time ago that the project had to go ahead.
Partly that’s because some of them are convinced by the argument they presented on Tuesday that 100 per cent broadband coverage is essential for the social and economic development of the country – that it is, as Minister for Communications Richard Bruton said, “as important as power and water”.
Others want to make sure that investment flows to rural Ireland – “No one could object to a bit of broadband for rural Ireland”, Minister for Rural Affairs Michael Ring thundered.
But it’s also that there is an unavoidable political context for the move, too. Simply put, a decision to abandon the plan, or go back to the drawing board, or defer a decision would have caused Fine Gael – already nervous about its standing in rural Ireland – grave difficulties. Given that the decision was scheduled during an election campaign, there was only ever going to be one outcome. In fairness, politicians can hardly be expected to exclude politics from their decisions. But they have to justify those decisions on their merits too.
Costs remain a question, though the Government insists that the taxpayer’s contribution will be capped at €3 billion. There was also some grumbling about the fact the State would not own the network it had paid for at the end of the contract.
But perhaps the greatest uncertainty about the plan concerns the likely take-up of the service. In other words, the State will spend an awful lot of money to bring broadband to the doors – or at least the front gate – of the entire population. But how many of them will actually want to sign up to the service?
Last year, Eir reported that just 28,000 homes of the 200,000 offered the service in rural areas had signed up for broadband packages – a take-up rate of just 14 per cent. The company no longer publishes this data, though industry sources say that it would be expected to double as the service beds in and more people take it up. Even still, broadband providers are still looking at a take-up rate of less than half.
On Tuesday, Bruton said the bidder expects to get to 80 per cent take-up after five years. Some sources believe that is highly optimistic. Others are more blunt and say it’s completely unrealistic.
Perhaps even more relevant to the current plan is that industry sources say that there is a strong correlation between how remote houses are, and how likely they are to sign up for broadband services. In other words, the houses which are the most inaccessible are precisely the ones where take-up of broadband services will be at the lowest rate. This matters, because it is reaching the most remote 20 per cent of houses that accounts for 80 per cent of the cost, say those familiar with the costings of the plan. The bulk of the money will be spent providing broadband for the people who are, on past behaviour, least likely to use it. Research conducted for the private broadband providers bears this out, sources say.
Given this fact, it is perhaps surprising that the Department of Communications did not undertake a detailed survey of the areas and of the people on whom they now plan to spend such vast sums of public money bringing broadband. Amid all the talk of a bright new, internet-enabled future, there is a curious lacuna: the Government hasn’t actually asked everyone if they want the service or not.