Fintan O’Toole: The big hold up for rural broadband is ideology

Using the 1950s State electricity model would be a sin against the new orthodoxy

Fans of the Game of Thrones novels will understand my plight. They have been waiting year after year since 2011 for George RR Martin to publish the next volume of the saga, which is apparently to be called The Winds of Winter. But their frustration is as nothing compared to mine. I’ve been waiting since 1999 for the former Fianna Fáil minister Mary O’Rourke to publish her book on the privatisation of the State’s telecommunications company, Telecom Éireann. It would be all the more fascinating to read it right now as the debacle of the National Broadband Plan continues to unfold. The infrastructure company SSE, a crucial part of the only consortium still in the competition to bring broadband to 542,000 homes and businesses in rural Ireland, has pulled out of the process.

It was in April 1999 that Mary O’Rourke, then minister for public enterprise, told the Seanad: “Despite the fact that the taoiseach said we must not write books about our time in government, I intend to write a book about Telecom. I am writing about Telecom at the moment while the subject is fresh in my mind. In order for my job to be successful, it would not be wise for me to speak on certain matters.” The hint was that her book would eventually reveal all the dramatic secrets behind one of the greatest triumphs of Irish history, the flogging off of the public utility that could have actually implemented a national broadband plan.

Perhaps the book has not appeared because it does not have the happy ending originally envisaged. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it has no ending at all. For this is a saga of false beginnings, rambling repetitions and no end point. Government lost the plot. Since the turn of the century, it has been promising to lift all of Ireland into the realms of world-class IT infrastructure. But it has also been mired in an ideology that insists that only private enterprise can actually deliver such goals. No amount of evidence to the contrary seems to shake the conviction that government must outsource social and strategic development to the private sector – even when it is being paid for with public money.

‘Force down prices’

Here is the ever-excellent Karlin Lillington in The Irish Times in January 2002: "A State-wide, open-access broadband network that would bring high-speed internet access to the regions and force down prices steeply could be in place within two years." Here is the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern at the Fianna Fáil ardfheis two months later: "Prosperity in the future will depend on our ability to change with a changing world. In the 21st century Ireland faces a new challenge. It is the challenge to adapt to the information age. That's why I am determined to implement a new and even more ambitious programme – we will roll out a national broadband network so that every community will have access to high-speed connections to the rest of the world."

What we've ended up with after 16 years is a tendering process in which there is just a single bidder

Here is John Collins reporting in The Irish Times in May 2007: "The Department of Communications will today unveil details of the National Broadband Scheme which will seek tenders to bring broadband to the areas of the State where Eircom says it is uneconomical to offer service without Government subsidy." Here is Pat Rabbitte, then minister for communications, launching the National Broadband Plan in August 2012: "I want everyone in Ireland to have access to at least 30mbps download speeds no matter how rural their home or business." Here is his successor Alex White in 2015: "Under the intervention strategy I'm publishing today, we expect that 85 per cent of the premises in Ireland will have access to high speed broadband in 2018, increasing to 100 per cent by 2020."

All the time, the prospective bill in subsidies from the taxpayer to the private companies who are supposed to deliver these promises has ballooned from €200 million to at least €1 billion. And what we’ve ended up with after 16 years is a tendering process in which there is just a single bidder which has no experience at all of building this kind of infrastructure. Not only is there not 30mbps broadband in remote rural Ireland but a recent worldwide study of more than 63 million broadband speed tests globally found Ireland is ranked 36th among the nations, with an average speed of 13.92mbps.

Public utility

Why this failure? A hint was given by Pat Rabbitte at that lunch in 2012. He described the National Broadband Plan, not inaccurately, as"the rural electrification of the 21st century". To which a more eloquent person than myself might say: well, duh. How was rural electrification delivered? By a public utility called the Electricity Supply Board. In 1945, two out of every three homes in Ireland had no electricity. The ESB went out and erected a million poles, strung up 50,000 miles of wire and revolutionised Irish society. And it cost the taxpayer relatively little: between 1946 and 1965, when 300,000 homes had been connected, the government subsidy amounted to just £9.3 million –around €250 million in today's money. As a public utility the ESB was able to do what a State IT infrastructure utility could have done if we had not flogged it off: cross-subsidise the unprofitable areas from the profitable ones.

The clock has been stopped on this one since 2002

The irony is that the one bidder left for the National Broadband Plan is completely enmeshed in public ownership and public funding. Enet, which is now all that is left of the consortium, is 78 per cent owned by the State-backed Irish Infrastructure Fund. Its existing business consists of operating the 88Metropolitan Area Networks which were built in 94 Irish towns with public money from the State, local authorities and the EU’s European Regional Development Fund. The only upfront money actually committed to the National Broadband Plan is the €500 million being lent to the State by another public institution, the European Investment Bank.

But for purely ideological reasons, it is necessary to pretend that rural broadband is going to be provided by the private sector. It would offend the sacred orthodoxies of neoliberalism if the State were to have a public company deliver a public purpose for the public benefit. This is not just about broadband either – we have pretty much the same attitude in relation to social housing: what could be done directly in the 1940s and 1950s to meet the needs of citizens can now be done only if it is understood as the pursuit of profit.

Perhaps the Dáil might vote to take the National Broadband Plan back into direct public ownership. Oh wait, it already did. In February it passed, by a clear majority of 77 to 48, a Fianna Fáil motion to review the National Broadband Plan procurement process and consider advancing the rollout of broadband through State ownership. The Minister, Denis Naughten, refused to carry out the Dáil’s mandate on the basis that “there is no sense in stopping the clock now”. The clock has been stopped on this one since 2002. At this rate, George RR Martin will have completed three more volumes of Game of Thrones before people in rural Ireland are able to stream the TV series in their own homes.