Rural broadband: entrenching a two-speed nation

The question must now be asked whether the tender process should continue or the State itself should become directly involved in the provision of broadband

Telecommunications company Eir has withdrawn from the broadband procurement process to provide infrastructure to 542,000 homes and business premises dotted throughout rural Ireland. Photograph: Maxwells

Telecommunications company Eir has withdrawn from the broadband procurement process to provide infrastructure to 542,000 homes and business premises dotted throughout rural Ireland. Photograph: Maxwells

 

The absence of high-speed broadband across much of rural Ireland has been one of the major failures of government over the past decade. That is why the collapse of the bidding process to provide a comprehensive broadband system is so worrying.

People in Dublin and other major centres may not appreciate just how bad the position is in rural Ireland, where access to broadband ranges from patchy to non-existent. A range of factors have contributed to rural depopulation and there is little doubt that the quality of broadband has played its part in that process.

The inordinate delay in rolling out the infrastructure has damaged the ability of business to flourish across the regions.

It has also deprived citizens of everyday access to the internet, an essential part of modern life taken for granted by people living in urban areas.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney reassured the Dáil yesterday that the scheme to provide rural broadband will be in place by September but, given the unaccountable delays in the process to date, it will be a welcome surprise if that deadline is met.

The Tánaiste was responding to questions following the announcement of a decision of telecommunications company Eir to withdraw from the broadband procurement process to provide infrastructure to 542,000 homes and business premises dotted throughout rural Ireland.

Eir, which had been favourite to win the State contract, said it was withdrawing from the tender because the risks had become “too great for its continued participation”, citing “growing uncertainty” about regulatory and pricing issues. In reality a change of ownership at Eir may well have been a key factor. That decision leaves just one bidder for the scheme, a consortium led by Enet and the energy group SSE.

The question must now be asked whether the tender process should continue or the State itself should become directly involved in the provision of broadband. In fairness to Enet it should be said that while they are relatively small players they have the backing of some of the biggest providers of broadband in the world. Coveney has insisted that there are up to 80 people working for the State to get the contract right and that Enet and its backers are committed to the process.

Fianna Fáil communications spokesman Timmy Dooley has insisted that the withdrawal of Eir means that the three most experienced and establishment utility companies in the State have withdrawn from the process and there is no option left but for the Government to get directly involved.

The Government says it was only months away from approving a preferred bidder and that the decision by Eir to pull out has effectively fast-forwarded the process. If there are further delays in putting an effective system in place the people of rural Ireland will not forgive the Government.

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