Could the digital economy decide the next general election in Ireland?

30 Mar 20151 Share

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In the UK, the countdown to the general elections has begun. Entering the debate for the first time is the digital economy and broadband connectivity. In Ireland in the next year, a key election issue could be broadband.

In the UK the digital economy is a big deal with more than 1.5m jobs at stake. With 38 days to the general election, alongside issues like employment, healthcare and immigration, issues such as broadband and skills may seem to belong in the background but all the parties at play will be trying to flash their digital credentials. Because the digital economy is the economy, stupid.

Questions are already being asked about whether the UK’s target of 100Mbps broadband connectivity as outlined by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne in recent weeks is ambitious enough.

Here in Ireland, a country that has benefited hugely from the tech industry while at the same time experiencing the ravages of unemployment, every day in the national media questions are being raised about when Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD is going to call the next general elections – will he call them sooner than 2016?

If the UK is anything to go by, the various political parties have already begun setting their stalls on broadband and skills. And the same is likely to occur here in Ireland too.

In Ireland, the crux of the matter is employment and without the connectivity and skills of the future people will miss out on job opportunities. While Ireland has improved its penetration of broadband, geographic and economic realities mean that there are still a great many people who cannot receive adequate broadband.

Until they do, people in these broadband-deprived areas will not reap the same economic opportunities as others such as the ability to work from home, start businesses and do basic things like apply for jobs or pay their motor taxes. Anyone who thinks broadband is just for viewing movies on Netflix is delusional.

That’s why it is clear that broadband will matter a great deal in the next elections and the rollout of the National Broadband Plan we predict could be a clincher.

Connecting the nation is imperative

In a recent interview with Siliconrepublic.com, Communications Minister Alex White TD said that the very first citizens in areas deprived of broadband will receive their first proper, fibre-based broadband service in 2016, with the last rural recipients getting fibre broadband by 2020.

Currently commercial operators have committed to providing next generation services to around 70pc of the population.

The National Broadband Plan aims to serve the remaining 30pc of premises – that’s 600,000 homes and 100,000 businesses – and this will require dragging fibre along the equivalent of 100,000km of roads.

This will be a mammoth task and planners at the Department of Communications and various advisors including Mason Hayes & Curran, PWC, KPMG and Analysys Mason are hard at work on the project.

To make it happen funding released from the European Investment Bank will be critical and the project may cost as much as €513m.

As the first services get deployed, canvassers on doorsteps will need to be prepared for questions from the public about when they will have fibre to their home and what precisely they are going to do about it.

“As something comes closer but doesn’t quite reach you it will add to frustrations, no doubt. But the prize is knowing that it will actually reach you,” Minister White admitted.

No doubt if the general elections in Ireland do occur in 2016, the rollout of fibre to the home will add spice to the debate.

That certainty of knowing if you will get broadband will be key in the citizen's mind. Having the answers will be vital to the politician.

Fibre and digital Ireland images via Shutterstock

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com