Broadband is a chance for Ireland’s new politicians to prove themselves

14 Mar 2016

On the doorsteps of Ireland in 2016, broadband was an election issue. With a solution close at hand, it is time to tell your newly-elected TDs they need to get you connected, says John Kennedy.

It may be a crude metaphor, but the broadband woes of Ireland in the last 15 years remind me at times of the Hunger Games saga where all the resources and wealth were in the capital while out in the districts the poor made do with what they had – life was a lottery.

The most basic truth about broadband – now defined as access to internet speeds faster than 25Mbps – is that it should be considered a basic human right in 2016, like access to water and electricity. Or roads free from potholes…

Ireland is no utopia. There are lots of things, from health to transport, education and much more, that we are doing wrong. But, in 2016, broadband is so close to being something we could actually do right and it could help with those other issues too.

To be without broadband today is to be without the ability to start a business, create jobs, apply for a job, to enhance your child’s education, to communicate affordably with loved ones overseas, to file your taxes efficiently and much more.

As I write, Ireland still has no new government, but the new Dáil is chock-full of elected representatives who no doubt traded for votes on promises of broadband.

With the problem so close to being resolved over the next four years, newly-elected TDs need to be held to account for those promises. They need to fight for their constituents and by doing so can duly claim credit for delivering something that is actually tangible and deliverable.

Why fight? Well, if everybody does their job and the National Broadband Plan – a costed, approved €275m EU-backed plan – to deliver at least 30Mbps to 1.8m people or 38pc of the population currently without anything resembling broadband between now and 2020 is implemented, it could be revolutionary, both socially and economically.

In parallel, or in concert with the plan, Eir is planning to connect 100,000 premises in broadband-deprived areas with speeds of up to 1Gbps by March 2017 and it has its own plans to have 1.9m people connected to fibre broadband by 2020 across its entire base. As well as this, SIRO, a joint venture between Vodafone and ESB, plans to bring speeds of between 200Mbps and 1Gbps to 500,000 premises in 50 towns.

If all of this happens, then hitherto economic backwaters of Ireland could be transformed into living, breathing centres of industry and opportunity.

And yet, while the solution is so close, the reality is far from perfect. According to comparison website, overall Ireland’s average broadband speed is 14.7Mbps – below the internationally accepted 25Mbps speed. The worst blackspots are Monaghan (8.2Mbps), Offaly (9.8Mbps), Clare (10.8Mbps) and outgoing Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD’s constituency of Mayo with just 9.4Mbps.

On the wrong side of the divide are 7pc of business parks such as Udaras Na Gaeltachta parks, some 1,522 primary schools (40pc of all primary schools in Ireland) and more than 63,440 non-farm businesses such as B&Bs, doctors, shops and SMEs.

It is no surprise that people who live in these areas who can’t rely on a decent broadband connection to conduct e-commerce, apply for jobs, shop online or just be entertained feel marginalised.

Last week, ComReg revealed that Ireland still lags behind the EU average for broadband per capita at 27.5pc; the European average is 29.6pc and our nearest neighbour the UK has 38pc per capita.

But Ireland is not the only country suffering from broadband problems. According to the European Commission, only 25pc of Europeans living in rural areas have access to broadband. The situation is just as difficult in the US where rural populations also struggle to get quality broadband.

The National Broadband Plan and the activities of Eir and SIRO and others represent an opportunity to buck the European trend and move Ireland from being a broadband backwater into a beacon of change, an example of what’s possible through good policy.

It’s our duty to connect the bungalow-blighted digital nation

Geography is a factor because we are a small population on a large landmass – we have one-eighteenth the population of the UK (or the same population as greater Manchester) on a landmass just under half the size of the UK. The National Broadband Plan aims to address 96pc of the national landmass, and includes 100,000km of road network.

Economics is a factor because it just didn’t make viable sense for telecoms companies to go to rural areas. There was no reasonable expectation of any kind of return on investment and that’s why the €275m intervention by the Government has been critical in motivating telecoms companies to step up to the plate. Now they are finally interested. And now they can see a way of getting a return on investment. Amazing, isn’t it?

Political will is a factor. In the early days of broadband in Ireland, the Irish economy was in full artificial boom and elected representatives either didn’t know – the old joke was that to the average Irish politician broadband was some kind of show band – or care, because the whole economy was predicated on property, fancy hotels and golf clubs with helicopter landing strips. Lunacy.

But, on the doorsteps of Ireland in 2016, politicians surely must have heard time and time again that the people have had enough, they want broadband and they want it now.

They no longer want to be on the margins, they are part of the 21st century and they want all the opportunities it affords.

If you are an elected representative and you are reading this – get busy and do your job.

If you have elected a representative and they promised they will sort it out for you, hold them to it because the solution is close at hand. They can’t mess this up. There has already been a call for bids and contracts will be signed later this year.

“We expect the initial homes to be connected in late 2016, with 85pc of premises in Ireland to have access to high-speed broadband by 2018, with an ambition of 100pc by the end of 2020,” a Government spokesperson told before Christmas.

Politicians come and go. Two ministers for communications – Pat Rabbitte and Alex White – came and went during the time that I witnessed a skilled team of hard-working civil servants at the Department of Communications, including Catherine Licken and Fergal Mulligan, work tirelessly to get this plan over the line.

While a new Minister for Communications has yet to be appointed in Ireland, there is a new Dáil full of representatives who got their seats and fancy new salaries on promises of many things – health, roads, water quality, education – you name it. I guarantee you many of them got their seats on all kinds of promises, some of which they can never hope to deliver on.

But one thing that they can deliver on, something that is so tantalisingly close you can almost touch it, is a costed, approved broadband plan that could tangibly change lives if it succeeds.

There are lots of uncertainties. Lots of things that can go wrong. But so many things that can go right if there is the political will on the part of whomever the next communications minister will be, as well as the commitment of elected representatives to ensure the National Broadband Plan goes according to plan.

Potential roadblocks include civil engineering issues and planning permission from the local authorities. This is where elected council members will need to work in concert with their colleagues in Dáil Éireann and get past obstacles.

Over the next four years, citizens will clamour, yell and tear their hair in frustration as their neighbours suddenly get connected and they don’t. Politicians will receive calls late at night asking why one person has broadband and the next person down the road doesn’t.

Politicians make promises. They don’t always deliver on these promises. There are all kinds of reasons why they don’t, won’t or can’t.

But the National Broadband Plan is a chance to do something. You can fight for it, deliver it and make sure no one, not one house or business, gets left behind.

Seriously, if you are an elected representative, you cannot screw this opportunity up. Can you?

Rural broadband image via Shutterstock

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