Expensive and challenging broadband rollout will be worth it
In 10 years’ time people will ask: why wasn’t this done sooner?
“The National Broadband Plan will ensure that every home, school, farm and business across the country has access to high-speed broadband, the vast majority of it delivered through fibre.” Photograph: Michael Smith/Getty Images
As Taoiseach, it’s my job to imagine the future and think about what it’s going to look like. When I do that, I think of things such as homeworking. Already some multinationals employ a quarter of their staff from home. They require high-speed broadband and secure connections.
At the moment, many people living in rural Ireland are excluded from that opportunity. I have seen students in small rural and island schools being able to study subjects like physics by video link to a larger school. This will be even more common in future. In fact, it will be essential. Without broadband, these schools will be less viable and students will have fewer choices.
As a doctor, I am fascinated by technological developments in healthcare. Remote medicine is emerging all over the world. Patients wear devices that monitor their heart or diabetes. We can’t allow people with healthcare needs in rural areas to be left behind when it comes to these developments
That’s why the Government’s decision to choose a preferred bidder for the National Broadband Plan is a significant day in the history of our country. The plan will ensure that every home, school, farm and business across the country has access to high-speed broadband, the vast majority of it delivered through fibre.
The plan recognises the opportunities that digital technologies offer to all of us, and unlocks this potential for all parts of Ireland.
Whenever our State faces a major financial decision there are always two costs to consider: the cost of doing something, and the cost of inaction – the lost opportunity cost.
When it comes to extending broadband across our country, when it comes to the digital economy, when it comes to connecting our people to the world, we must pay the price of progress now, or we will remain trapped in the past forever.
Our State has existed for almost 100 years. During that time it has faced many challenges and it has had to take on many financial burdens, including the cost of providing electricity to every home, free travel to every pensioner, and free education to every schoolchild.
For almost a century, we have risen to the challenge of independence, taking to the skies with our own airline, to the airwaves with our own television station, and meeting the cost of connecting our cities with motorways. At every time, we have been forced to make a decision about whether the cost of doing something was too great, or whether we could afford to do nothing.
Each time we acted – and each time the decision proved to be the correct one.
Providing high-quality broadband to the entire country is about connecting all of Ireland to the world. It’s about making sure that, this time, rural Ireland isn’t left behind.
However, this isn’t only a decision for rural Ireland. Access to broadband affects many parts of Ireland, and it requires a national solution. There are parts of my own constituency in Dublin West that are affected, just as there are pockets in constituencies all across the country.
It’s what makes this so expensive. But it is also what makes it worth doing. In 10 years’ time people will not ask about the price, they will say: why wasn’t this done sooner?
High-speed broadband across the country unlocks the potential of new technologies. So that we can have more working from home, a better work-life balance, fewer car journeys, and fewer CO2 emissions. So that we can connect with the world, with family members, with businesses, with new ideas and new ways of doing things.
It will mean that every school in the country can access digital technologies for teaching, and that healthcare professionals can check in and monitor patients remotely no matter where they are based.
Broadband will be the biggest investment ever made in rural Ireland. People will be able to set up and run a business anywhere in the country – and access international markets from rural locations.
We are only beginning to see how the world is being transformed by digital technologies and we cannot be left behind.
Stripe, founded by two brothers who grew up in Co Tipperary, has four engineering hubs across the world – Dublin, Seattle, San Francisco and Singapore. They are about to establish a fifth one. It’s called simply: Remote. It recognises that the jobs of the future are possible today thanks to high-speed connectivity.
Price worth paying
This week’s Government decision means that no part of Ireland will be left behind when it comes to the jobs and the opportunities of the future. No part of Ireland will be cut off from the potential of the new digital economy. We are paying this price to connect our country, because it is a price worth paying.
Before we came to this decision, I looked back at how some of the decisions I mentioned earlier were made, and the arguments on both sides.
Ardnacrusha, for example, cost nearly 20 per cent of GDP, the equivalent of €30 billion today. It could have crushed our fledgling State. Instead, it powered it.
Rural electrification, for example, was discussed and debated for many years. At the start of 1939, Seán Lemass was frustrated with the slow pace of progress and demanded we take decisive action. There were many obstacles along the way – not least the outbreak of the second World War a few months later. Some baulked at the cost. But Lemass knew how important it was for Ireland’s future.
It was expensive. It was a massive challenge. It was worth doing.
We have the same message for the National Broadband Plan. It’s worth doing and it’s worth doing now.