Setting targets in public life — be it hospital waiting lists or broadband customers — is a treacherous affair for any politician. While they can bask in the initial glow of praise for having made a strong commitment, they risk ridicule if those targets are not met.
Communications Minister Noel Dempsey TD (pictured) must know this but it has not stopped him from setting targets — and sticking to them. Soon after he took up his new portfolio last Autumn, he made an address to the Telecoms and Internet Federation’s (TIF) annual conference where he reiterated the Government’s target of having 400,000 broadband customers by the end of 2006 and then moved the bar higher by challenging the telecoms sector to sign up half a million customers by the same date.
This target still stands today. “It’s important to set ambitious targets and to try to achieve those. The 500,000 target is ambitious but it can be achieved,” he remarks.
The enormity of the challenge is put into perspective by the fact that the number of broadband subscribers was just 152,000 at the end of the first quarter, according to the Commission for Communications Regulation (ComReg). Dempsey says the figure is nudging 160,000 now and, while he accepts that it will be a huge task, the progress over the past 18 months shows what can be achieved. “Back then we had about 10,000 subscribers and if anyone said we’d be on 160,000 18 months later they’d have been regarded as mad,” he points out.
It might be said politicians have to be optimistic out of necessity but Dempsey believes his positive outlook is based on more than just gut feel and chutzpah. For a start, there is a huge level of unmet demand out there, he argues. The recent progress made with the Group Broadband Scheme (GBS), which enables rural communities that would otherwise have no access to a broadband service to get broadband, is a good example, he feels. Initially, the €25m budget allocated by the Exchequer to cover the 2004-2006
period was being drawn down very slowly but, at the minister’s behest, the scheme was revamped and the results are beginning to show.
“We have seven regional co-ordinators and local authorities are involved an awful lot more and that has resulted in almost 150 communities applying this year,” he says.
“It’s been a huge success — a good partnership between a central department and local government.”
The scheme is not without its problems, however. Although waiting times have been reduced, it can still take six to eight months for a community to be up and running with broadband.
Moreover, while the scheme may provide a workable model for getting broadband out to remote areas, it does not address the issue of how to get affordable broadband to the bulk of the population. Local loop unbundling (LLU) was seen as the mechanism for doing this but so far the progress has been extremely disappointing — only 1pc of broadband services are provided through unbundled lines and Eircom is still the dominant supplier of broadband with 75pc market share. Moreover, it is fighting ComReg’s LLU efforts, both in the commercial courts and through the Electronic Appeals Panel (EAP).
For once, Dempsey lets his mask of cheery optimism slip and concedes that the Government’s hands are effectively tied on the matter. “The only way we can achieve LLU is for ComReg to make the regulations, which it has done, and set the dates for [LLU] to be done by. Living in a democracy, there are appeal systems in place and Eircom is using those. The EAP will hear those appeals and you’re inevitably looking at a six-month appeal period.”
Dempsey describes LLU as the “best option” but with the process stalled in the courts, he believes the government-backed metropolitan area networks (MANs) can play a key role in keeping the national broadband strategy on track. But there is another problem here: backhaul. “It’s generally more expensive to use broadband between Dublin and Cork and Dublin and New York. It affects everyone outside the Greater Dublin Area,” notes Dempsey.
If the telecoms firms and semi-state bodies that own the various fibre networks crisscrossing the country say they cannot carry traffic cheaply enough to make MANs attractive to end users, Dempsey says he will intervene to resolve the problem. “If Eircom continues to go down road of questioning and challenging everything then obviously we’ll have to look at alternatives and one of this would be whether we could co-ordinate and ensure that the fibre-optic cable that’s there is used — and used well.”
It is only when Dempsey talks about broadband in schools that his natural optimism resurfaces once more. “The Broadband for Schools initiative is just going to cause a complete explosion in demand for real broadband, especially when young people see the benefits and have the practical experience of using it.”
The bottom line for our Communications Minister is that, while it is natural to criticise the Government when things go wrong, the criticism is not justified — at least where broadband is concerned.
By Brian Skelly