The Government's plan to bring high-speed broadband to close to a million homes and businesses in more than 1,000 towns and villages across rural Ireland received a cautious welcome from the Irish Farmers Association last night. IFA president Eddie Downey said the initiative announced by Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte would be "judged on its ability to deliver a cost-effective service to all rural homes and businesses".
He said previous schemes had not reached the number of households promised, and “every house and business in the countryside must have the option of receiving a cost-effective, top-class, fibre-based broadband service”. Mr Downey added: “The proposed new scheme must deliver high-speed broadband at affordable prices for all businesses, homes and schools in rural Ireland.”
Mr Rabbitte accepted that even after the new scheme was concluded there would still be some remote pockets which would not be able to access the fibre networks. However, he said their proximity to it would give them easier and better access to alternate services.
Green Party local election candidate and communications spokesman Ossian Smyth criticised what he called the Minister's "abandonment" of the national broadband strategy after just 18 months. He said Mr Rabbitte had promised every home in Ireland would get 30 megabits broadband by 2015. "Today he has abandoned that goal and given up. Instead of a goal for broadband access, now he says he will just spend a sum of money that won't be complete during the lifetime of this Government."
In addition to announcing the €500 million scheme yesterday, the Minister confirmed that a new joint venture was being set up between the ESB and Vodafone, which would see the former's existing infrastructure of poles and pylons used to carry high-speed broadband into 450,000 homes in areas where it is now unavailable. He said the details of the new partnership between Vodafone and the ESB would be ironed out "in the next few weeks", after which a new company would be established.
Mr Rabbitte also highlighted a higher-than-anticipated level of investment across the private sector, with Eircom rolling out a €400 million investment in a fibre network which would offer speeds of 100mbps. That service is already available to 800,000 homes and will be available to 1.4 million by 2016. For its part, UPC has spent more than €500 million upgrading its cable network which has given 700,000 homes and businesses access to speeds of up to 500mbps.
“These high-speed services are possible because the networks on which they are based have a strong fibre component,” Mr Rabbitte said. “This model cannot be replicated commercially in many rural areas because the fibre networks do not exist and population densities are small.
“The Government has confirmed it intends to ensure that rural Ireland enjoys similar opportunities by ensuring an end-to-end market intervention with fibre as a core component.” He said once high-speed broadband was rolled out across the State, investment opportunities would be enhanced and the way small and medium enterprises did business would be dramatically improved.
Mr Rabbitte also suggested that many people living in rural areas, who currently have to move to urban centres because connectivity was problematic, would be able to stay at home and set up businesses or work remotely.