As Finland plans universal 100Mbps by 2015, is Ireland’s broadband plan just another M50?

1 Nov 2012

Finland is three years into an ambitious programme to provide a 100Mbps universal broadband service by 2015. Finland also famously declared broadband access a basic human right. It makes you wonder if we here in Ireland take the infrastructure question seriously enough.

Come to Ireland and the evidence of the potential benefits of the internet economy on a small country is apparent for all to see. Companies ranging from Google to Facebook, Intel, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and many more are all here and the local operations are punching above their weight.

Let’s not forget, this country provided half the world’s supply of Pentium processors in the midst of the PC revolution. Now we are at the heart of the cloud revolution because we are no longer on the periphery of Europe but the last stepping stone between Wall Street and the European Market – this puts us at the heart of the action.

In my little village 48 or more kilometres outside Dublin nearly every third person you meet or their spouse is employed in a household-name tech firm.

In west Dublin, Google, Amazon and Digital Realty Trust are constructing their newest data centres – the engine rooms of e-commerce as I call them – and Microsoft’s US$1bn data centre in Clondalkin is fully operational. There are 30 of these massive data centres dotted along the western fringes of Dublin.

In a country stricken by 14.8pc unemployment, there are 5,000 job vacancies in tech companies.

Keep parish-pump politics out of strategic decision-making

So we did well out of technology and will continue to do so. But ask any mealy-mouthed TD or local town councillor with an eye on the parish pump rather than the national pulse about the digital imperative and broadband infrastructure and you’ll get vague platitudes about how important it is, of course.

In recent months, an out-of-touch councillor in the west famously warned that all people will do if they had broadband is watch YouTube. Yeah, right.

But where’s the broadband? A plan that may or may not deliver 70Mbps-100Mbps to half the population and at least 40Mbps to a further 20pc pales insignificantly beside Finland’s goal to bring 100Mbps access to within 2km of all homes (including those up there in the Arctic Circle) by 2015.

According to an article on Ars Technica this morning, Finland is exceeding the minimum requirements of the EU’s Digital Agenda to bring a minimum of 30Mbps to all citizens by 2020. Most of Denmark already has 32Mbps wireless coverage.

The core of the Finnish plan is to ensure that 100Mbps access is within 2km of all Finns no matter where they live, even if they live in the permafrost.

The Finnish government will invest €66m in the plan while €25m will come from the EU and €40m will come from individual municipalities and towns.

However, the plan will not be without its challenges. Major Finnish telecoms operators can’t be drawn into the plan, despite a 67pc subsidy by the government.

But while the plan will face challenges, it’s a more ambitious plan than the list of targets the Irish Government has put forward.

Where’s the ambition? Where’s the vision?

What Ireland lacks is vision. This is the country that foolishly built a spanking new motorway with a toll booth along the western spine of its capital city with only two lanes, only to have to add new lanes once it became apparent the motorway was no longer fit-for-purpose.

This is the country that has ducts for fibre under its motorways but a stubborn National Roads Authority is dragging its heels to open these ducts up to telecoms operators.

This is the country that thinks wireless 3G infrastructure is OK to keep us comfortably within the EU league tables without any notion of foresight as to what proper digital infrastructure might mean for the generations that will follow this one.

Here’s another case in point. This morning, Ireland woke up to the news that its national telecoms operator Eircom is to lay off 2,000 people out of its 5,700-strong workforce.

Before the State made €7bn out of Eircom’s IPO in 1999, the telecoms operator which should be a jewel in the nation’s infrastructural crown (but isn’t) employed 14,000 people. It went into examinership this summer with debts of €3.7bn after seven different owners and a decade-long spate of asset stripping. In 18 months, this company, which in the late Nineties led Europe in terms of its modernisation programmes, will employ less than 4,000 people. The mind boggles.

The gift

At a time when the nation needs it most, the technology industry is a gift for a country no longer on the periphery of Europe. This gift intermingles with other vital industries, such as financial services and biopharma, and will be crucial for other sectors, from SMEs building export businesses to the agricultural sector, where traceability of supply from the farm to the fork will need the cloud.

This nation’s people and its politicians need to be clued in to the opportunities of the digital age.

We need people in positions of authority to wonder aloud is the digital plan we have the best that we could come up with and is there a danger it could turn out to be a debacle like the M50? And if that happens, what will happen to our digital industries?

We need vision and we need forward planning on a grand scale, not just in communications infrastructure but in healthcare, education and other areas that keep the nation working.

For that we need experts, not local-oriented politicians focused on their local needs and civil servants who like to remain in the shadows. Above all, we need vision.

Digital eye image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years