Cliff Taylor: Ballybrophy needs broadband not railway lines
Forget the trains – rural TDs needs to work on speeding up the broadband service
Instead of focusing on a rail route used by 73 people, Alan Kelly needs to get behind the National Broadband Plan, which could improve life for nearly a million households. Photograph: Michael Smith/Getty Images
Fair play to TD Alan Kelly. Faced with figures showing the Limerick to Ballybrophy rail line was subsidised to the tune of €550 per passenger, he said in media interviews – without missing a beat – that the problem was that the line needed more investment to attract more people. It was like saying a small, sparsely-used back road would attract more traffic if it was turned into a motorway.
It would be cheaper for the State to pay for taxis for the 73 daily passengers. The official online taxi charge calculator shows that it would cost at most €400 for a trip of 250 kilometres, which would more than cover any possible travel requirements. And most of the journeys would be way shorter.
Defending local services is, of course, part of what we expect from local representatives. Whether it be the post office, the local emergency department or the Garda station, the TD will be out with the protestors. Sometimes they have a case; sometimes it is just politics.
But there is another much bigger development under way, which rural TDs should really be focusing on. Forget the railway lines – the broadband lines are what could really deliver for rural Ireland. More than 35 per cent of the population – some 927,000 households and businesses with 1.8 million people – do not currently have a decent broadband service. They are the targets of the National Broadband Plan, a state-backed initiative to deliver a minimum level of service.
The Department of Communications is currently going through tenders for the plan and liaising with the three shortlisted bidders. In terms of long-term investment it is the most important thing this government will set in train. But the signs are that it could yet take more time than anticipated to get the whole process going.
And then there is the real worry about actually delivering it, in a country where we are not good at the co-ordination required for major investments, and a legal challenge can hold up infrastructure projects. Look at the expansions to the national electricity grid, for example.
Minister for Communications Denis Naughten has underlined the Government’s commitment to the plan and there is a large team of public servants working on a very detailed process with the three bidders, Eir, Enet and Siro – the latter a joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB.
It appears that fear of legal action from a losing bidder means the process is moving ever so slowly. The controversy over the second mobile phone licence remains in the official mind. The June 2017 deadline to sign contracts with the winner, or winners, could well be threatened, as i’s are dotted and t’s crossed, with lawyers on all sides vetting every half step forward.
The departments involved are working to try to clear the way for the planning process and engagement with local concerns. They are promising local action groups to try to speed planning and assist local authorities in getting it all started. If ever there was an area for local public representatives to get stuck into it is this.
A few years ago we were talking about the “digital economy”. But the whole economy is now digital. And we still have business people driving around with dongles trying to find a signal for their laptops, or whole areas of rural Ireland where setting up a business is simply not possible due to the lack of a proper service. A Vodafone survey this week showed not far off half of rural businesses where dissatisfied with their broadband speed – and more than one third would consider relocating to an area of better service.
The figures suggest that even some areas which do pay for broadband are getting a poor service. The number of households which will be covered by the National Broadband Plan was recently increased by 170,000 to 927,000 – and the problem could be even bigger.
Broadband is now essential – for people running SMEs, for attracting foreign direct investment and creating jobs. And it is essential just for living, with key services such as healthcare increasingly delivered online. This is the future. A railway carrying 73 people a day is, unfortunately, the past.