Rural broadband should be an absolute priority

Irish politicians cannot afford to delay delivery of decent connections any longer

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten announcing the broadband plan last April.  File photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Communications Denis Naughten announcing the broadband plan last April. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

The arrival of broadband won’t transform the rural economy. But without decent broadband connections, rural Ireland cannot thrive. Unblocking the delays bedevilling the Government’s plan to spread the availability of broadband needs to be a top priority for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. It is precisely the kind of long-drawn out, complicated project that risks being delayed again and again.

Fresh fears have emerged over the timeline for the project to connect more than 500,000 rural homes and businesses, under a project – the National Broadband Plan – which the State will subsidise.

Comments by Minister for Communications Denis Naughten indicate it could now be 2019 before the project gets under way. At best it will be late next year. That would be close to seven years after the plan was initially published.

If ever there was a time to advance a project to help rural Ireland, it is now

The delay, insofar as we can tell, seems to be due to the usual suspects – short-term political thinking, our perennial slowness in project-managing major projects and fears that a wrong step could lead to a trip to the Four Courts.

The public interest is in getting this done as quickly as possible. But somehow, even with something as mission critical as this to our economic and social development, this doesn’t seem to trump the other factors.

Now being Taoiseach does – or should – allow you to get things moving. Sending out a signal from the top office should not only get the public service moving, but also send a message to all the players – including the bidders – that this is going to happen.

And a new Taoiseach should have political capital in his early period in office to direct at a few key targets.

Brexit

Rural Ireland has benefited from the economic uplift, but parts of its remain in difficulty, incomes are generally lower and real threats lie ahead. Brexit threatens to hit rural Ireland much harder than the main cities, due in part to its reliance on agriculture and smaller businesses.

The cities – and Dublin in particular – will see the blow softened by new inward investment. Dublin, meanwhile, is already choking with traffic and a chronic housing shortage. If ever there was a time to advance a project to help rural Ireland, it is now.

But here’s the thing. Broadband takes time to build. And political time horizons are short. Even in a best-case scenario for the Government, the next general election may well come before many – or perhaps any – houses are connected under the State-subsidised part of the plan.

The politically-cuter strategy might be to hope that as many people as possible are connected by commercial operators in the next couple of years, claim credit for the progress and let the more remote parts of the State take their chances. But there is a real risk now that delay will follow delay for the plan and this cannot be allowed to happen.

Three bidders are in the frame for the National Broadband Plan – Eir, Siro (a joint venture between the ESB and Vodafone) and Enet. They are likely to submit tenders by the autumn and final offers probably by the end of the year.

Hopes of having a winner declared by the middle of this year have disappeared into the wind. And it has become messy, with tensions in the background over what Eir will charge the other players to use infrastructure it has built and every step pored over by lawyers on every side. Getting commercial players lined up to deliver a partly-public service is not easy.

Events earlier this year could yet trigger problems. Originally the plan was to cover the provision of high-speed broadband to 800,000 households and businesses. But Eir struck a deal with the Government that it would supply 300,000 of these premises on a purely commercial basis.

This was a clever move by Eir – opening up the prospect of quick progress – and the Government decided to accept it. After all, politically it now allows them to trumpet the extension of high-speed broadband availability from just over half of premises in 2016 to in excess of three-quarters by the end of next year.

Redo sums

But what does it mean for the remaining half a million-plus premises? The Government has said the State-subsidised plan will continue. But the two other bidders are having to redo their sums, and Siro is reviewing its involvement in the process.

If Siro drops out, the Government will have to decide whether to plough ahead with just two bidders – both of whom could win as the State could decide to split the contract – or to open up the tendering process again to ensure the whole thing remains competitive.

Any rural TD whingeing to the Taoiseach about a train line under threat should be given short shrift

This could mean – you’ve guessed it – yet more delay. At this stage even the National Children’s Hospital will be operational before the broadband plan is complete.

In the meantime, there are parts of the country where SMEs and households cannot participate in the digital world and where no new inward investor would ever dream of locating a project.

Among the regions are some around the Border, where a combination of geography and economic structure creates a particular vulnerability to a hard Brexit.

We don’t need some new body or quango to oversee this. What we need are decisions and action, pushing the broadband plan, but also looking at what else can be done. Any rural TD whingeing to the Taoiseach about a train line under threat should be given short shrift.

The political system needs to be galvanised to deliver rural broadband. This one simply cannot be allowed to slide any further.

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