Take the broadband blinkers off and stop your digital dithering

11 Jun 2018

Image: saisnaps/Shutterstock

The fibre digital infrastructure of the future needs to be given the same priority as roads, water and electricity, argues John Kennedy.

Like most people, when I’m caught off guard by an unusual or innocent observation about something that should appear blindingly obvious, I get slightly irritated.

Unlike most people, however, I also relish these moments because they are a bonus when it comes to insight and perception. Often, they reveal clouded judgement or confusion in the mind of an opponent or a critic. It shows their card hand. But, crucially, it also reveals where problems or confusion exist. In my rule book, there is no such thing as a stupid question – just stupid people who are unable to answer politely.

A few years ago, I was caught off guard by an acquaintance who picked up on something I wrote about broadband and said: “Jaysus, John, broadband will never replace roads or airports.” The person had misunderstood an argument I was making about how fibre and 5G wireless networks were the infrastructure of the future and should be given the same priority by planners as roads infrastructure. Not replacements, but of equal importance. That misunderstanding only made me more zealous.

My argument is, and has always been, that digital networks will be the arteries of trade long into the future, just as the roads, ports, airports and railways (and maybe soon drones) will be the means for the goods you bought online to be delivered to your door.

These digital arteries will be the means by which people will be able to win jobs in companies on the other side of the world but continue to live happily and safely in their parish or village, if they so choose. They will be the means for education, employment and healthcare as well as connectedness and independence on people’s own terms.

We are only at the dawn of this digital age. For example, Canadian e-commerce giant Shopify last year announced opportunities for 100 people across the west of Ireland to work remotely. They would not be able to do so without quality broadband. If I suggested to my acquaintance just a few years ago that such opportunities would occur, they would not have believed me. There are thousands of people today who work from home to avoid traffic, to get a better quality of life or build new start-ups that will provide employment in their district.

Not some 21st-century toy

However, those feelings of irritation rose up last week when people seemed surprised by an EU audit that realistically pointed out that millions more would be required than the €275m set aside by the Irish Government for broadband infrastructure under the National Broadband Plan (NBP). Also, realistically, it surmised that Ireland would be unlikely to achieve 100pc broadband coverage by 2020.

I was surprised that anyone was surprised. Of course it is going to cost more in the long run.

You are talking about the future of trade, education and employment on this island. €275m will be a drop in the ocean when you talk about the evolution and upkeep of digital networks for decades to come. Wake up.

Once I had calmed down, I reasoned that the report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) might actually have done Ireland a favour when you consider the shroud of innocence preventing people from seeing why this infrastructure is more than just about watching Netflix.

Billions worth of taxpayers’ euro and EU aid has gone into building the road networks that criss-cross this island. How much more will be required to keep them functioning? Remember the crux of the whole Irish Water debate? The cost of provision and more? The same is true for broadband.

The publication of the ECA report prompted fears that there would not be enough money to allow the State to go ahead and complete the roll-out of the NBP, which aims to deliver at least 30Mbps to about 542,000 premises in rural Ireland that are currently locked out of the digital world.

Ireland has the means to get the ball rolling. As well as budgeting €200m and receiving €75m from the European Regional Development Fund, the European Investment Bank recently approved €500m in new financing for the NBP. If it is done right, this investment can be leveraged to beyond €1bn to get the basics in place.

But it is not going to be a silver bullet or a fait accompli, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Like our roads – which, thanks to weather conditions and lack of care, often become potholed – these networks will require upkeep and continual investment.

There are parts of Ireland that are lamentably underserved with broadband. There are people who want to work and learn who are frustrated because they are just one pole away from enjoying the connectivity that their neighbour a few metres away enjoys.

I am irritated that people think it is going to be a once-off investment. It will not be any such thing.

I am annoyed that people think a few hundred million euro will be enough for something that is supposed to benefit generations of workers, school-goers and caregivers long into the future.

Consider the return on investment. Take off the blinkers and realise that this infrastructure will be as vital as water, electricity, roads or rail, and should be enshrined alongside them, not treated like some newfangled thing.

The digital island is happening, the digital future is now

The Ireland you knew is changing before your eyes because of technology. In Dublin, Google is approaching 8,000 people and is arguably the city’s biggest employer. The company employs 85,000 people worldwide; 20 years ago, it was just two PhD students on a campus in California trying to find a way to make information easier to obtain on what were mostly dial-up connections at the time.

In Cork, Apple is at around 6,000 people. When the company arrived in the city as a start-up in 1980, it put Ireland on the map in the eyes of leaders in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Bureaucratic dithering, arcane planning rules and legal constipation contributed to the loss of the €850m Apple data centre for Athenry in Galway, while a sister data centre announced at the same time in Denmark around three-and-a-half years ago is fully operational.

People saw that as one IDA project and ‘ah sure, there will be more’. But I saw it as the key to unlocking the door to unparalleled riches and investment through making the west of Ireland the gateway to this nation’s digital future. It would have attracted countless more investments and jobs for the regions.

At least in the Government’s policy statement on regional data centres last week there was recognition that, once again, the lack of joined-up thinking among civil servants on infrastructure planning was a decisive and contributory factor for the loss of the flagship investment.

The digital economy may seem new or geeky to some who probably just wish it would go away.

But it is happening fast and, as the world careens towards new ways of working and new ways of doing things using blockchain and more, pretending it is not important or will just disappear is frankly just pissing in the wind.

The NBP needs to be more than just a once-off. Whether the contract is ultimately awarded to the Enet-SSE consortium later this year or not, the State has access to resources worth close to €775m to get the ball rolling and then leverage the private sector to make it a competitive, functional and thriving network.

But it is only the start. As the name implies, it should be a plan for long into the future.

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