Comment: A figure of fudge is not enough

21 Apr 2004

Everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – think of Pangloss, or failing that, try ComReg. The former is a figure of fun in Voltaire’s satire Candide, a philosopher with an unshakeable gift for looking on the bright side. Long before anyone ever heard of public relations, here was someone who believed in the power of positive spin, compelled to put forward only the best, most optimistic view of events.

Why does ComReg remind me of first-year French? A close reading of the latest quarterly statistics from the telecoms regulator brought the good professor back to mind. At first glance, a pretty picture was painted: almost 50pc of Irish households now online! The press release issued to announce the report’s findings trumpeted the impressive growth.

In reality this figure only represents 83pc of those polled for the survey. Based on the results from all of the people surveyed, total domestic internet access really stands at 38pc. This constitutes a rise of 1pc on the previous quarter, whereas the statistic of 49pc usage – taken from the fixed-line subset only – offers the more substantial quarterly growth rate of 5pc. The press release gave the higher figure only.

The difference is subtle but telling. It begs the question, why? I’m just speculating, but could it be that by putting out figures that make the situation appear to be better than it is, ComReg is avoiding being asked tough questions about how it carries out its work? If everything in the garden looks rosy, why would you need weedkiller? An environment where internet access appears to rise 5pc in three months – sure, aren’t we great?

The fact is, looking at the total picture, internet access is still up – albeit a less impressive 1pc, but it’s growth all the same. This is the more accurate figure, as it is taken from the entire survey set, rather than a section of it.

When contacted, ComReg offered the reason that the EU and the OECD measure internet usage this way. But this simply isn’t true. The OECD’s guidelines for measuring household and individual online usage offers the following indicator: “proportion of households with access to the internet (percentage of total).”

It should be said, ComReg purposely changed its survey methodology for these latest quarterly figures in an effort to arrive at more definitive results. Amárach, which conducted the research on behalf of the regulator, conducted face-to-face interviews with a nationally representative sample instead of polling people over the phone. The advantage of this approach is that you then end up talking to people who don’t have landline phones as well as those who do. The surprising statistic, which is noted in the report but not remarked on at all, is that 17pc of households do not have a fixed line telephone connection.

What’s more, this figure appears to be rising. It needs further comment; it has implications for the way Irish people use the telephone (do the missing 17pc use mobiles only?), not to mention how they access the internet. There are alternatives to dial-up connectivity, such as wireless and satellite access, but these are still in their relative infancy in this market.

Other gems lurk in the minutiae of the report. If semantics are your thing, try this: in the quarterly report, it says “only one in six customers made a complaint about a fixed-line provider”. Only? That’s nearly 17pc of all consumers – and this in a nation where we have trouble complaining about anything apart from the weather.

ComReg also says that internet usage has improved by 7pc, but if you look closely at the statistics, you see that we are not even back to where we were a year ago. True, in the last quarter of 2003 the figure rose. There’s an opportunity for positive noises: why not say “we have halted the slide”?

There are so many indications in the report that leave this reader with the impression that the authors just want to make things look good, no questions asked.

To return to our literary flight of fancy, Voltaire’s running joke was that Pangloss’ outlook was nearly always at odds with reality. Now, does that remind you of anyone?

By Gordon Smith