Cooke quits Ireland Offline to head new broadband group


19 Jul 2004

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Ireland Offline, the internet access lobby group, is to continue despite a motion proposed at its AGM this weekend that the organisation be disbanded.

Christian Cooke, outgoing chairman of Ireland Offline, said he felt that the organisation could no longer hope to achieve its objective of having affordable broadband access supplied to the regions. With that in mind, he proposed that the group be disbanded. However, at Saturday’s annual general meeting in Athlone, the motion was rejected and Cooke resigned.

“I wish them all the best. I didn’t leave the meeting with any bad feeling at all,” said Cooke. “I personally consider Ireland Offline’s struggle to have run its course; other people obviously disagreed with that.”

For the past number of years Ireland Offline has made some progress on the issue by lobbying the Government, the telecoms regulator and commercial internet service providers to get improved services, but Cooke said that its efforts were no longer having an effect.

“My view would be that the Government has demonstrated that it is uninterested in the view of voluntary groups and it has pursued its own agenda without consultation,” Cooke told siliconrepublic.com. He added that pre-IPO figures indicated that Eircom had underinvested in its own network. Fledgling wireless providers have begun to extend their services around the country but are not yet at the point where they can roll out connections all around the country.

In an email to Ireland Offline members, circulated last week prior to the AGM, Cooke said: “While other commentators on the Irish internet market for their own reasons would point to the reduction in price and increase in availability and take-up of broadband offers as an indication of the turnaround of the market after years of stagnation, an objective evaluation would make plain the fact that the country continues to languish in the doldrums by international standards, with EU accession countries outstripping Ireland in this area, and is likely to remain playing catch-up for some time to come.”

Access in rural areas and villages remains the main unsolved issue for internet access in Ireland, Cooke added. Instead, he believes that the way to achieve fast, affordable broadband coverage within the regions is by means of group data schemes – community networks that would provide for their own needs. Assistance, training and support would then be provided to those communities by a non-profit co-operative, called the Group Data Scheme Society.

Cooke added that it was necessary to make a distinction between the Group Data Scheme Society and Ireland Offline, which is why “the umbilical cord had to be cut”. The new group, which is not yet incorporated, has eight founding members with a range of skills and expertise in setting up community networks. According to Cooke, many of the issues involved in this process are not technical but organisational. “We will not dictate a technical solution – that will be dictated by a particular community. We would look at the facilities available and advise accordingly,” he said.

If a community requires the expertise of a member of the society, they would charge a daily rate fee that would cover their costs. Cooke plans to work fulltime as the executive of the society although his exact role will not be finalised until the non-profit group is incorporated shortly. “We’re trying to set ourselves up so we are viable on an ongoing basis and no more. I don’t expect there to be a surplus,” Cooke added.

The group’s next major project involves setting up a wireless broadband connection to the islands of Inishturk, Inishbofin and Clare Island off the coast of Mayo.

By Gordon Smith