Ireland has a chance with the National Broadband Plan to make a clarion call by declaring broadband access a human right in 2017, suggests John Kennedy.
If the National Broadband Plan kicks off in time in 2017, there is an opportunity for the Minister for Communications of Ireland to start a new conversation about the role telecoms infrastructure (specifically broadband) plays in Irish life: it should be a basic human right.
Instead, for too long, broadband has been a shiny bauble kicked from minister to minister; wrongly viewed as something nice to have, rather than infrastructure as vital to people’s lives as water and roads.
O’Rourke, Ahern, Dempsey, Ryan, Rabbitte, White and Naughten. This is the succession of ministers at the Department of Communications who have all each wanted to be the one to solve Ireland’s broadband problems.
Reading back on past interviews with some of these individuals, there is no doubting their sincerity, excitement or ambition for what broadband could achieve. But it is interesting to see how naïve their understanding of what broadband was at the time.
Initially, as per the advice bestowed by advisers and industry lobbyists, it looked easy-peasy. Then it became harder, more difficult and virtually impossible.
By 2012, Ireland would be the pinnacle nation for broadband worldwide, according to former Communications Minister Mary O’Rourke, who in 2000 was calling for proposals for what was then known as the IR£40bn National Broadband Development Plan.
Needless to say, it came to naught, and what followed was a decade of asset-stripping by various owners of post-IPO Eircom; failed and dashed investments in a promised brave new age of deregulation; and ultimately, a €230m plan spearheaded by former Communications Minister Eamon Ryan, TD, to cover the country in 3G by 2010, which nobody talks about any more.
But something changed. As the digital revolution raged, policymakers said enough was enough.
In 2014, I sat opposite then Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, who placed a fibre cable on the table before me and said overhead lines would be the key to connecting every rural home to fibre. Rabbitte, with that one gesture, kicked off the National Broadband Strategy, costed at between €500m and potentially up to €1bn with EU funding.
The National Broadband Plan aims to connect 1.8m Irish people, or just below 1m business and residential premises, on the wrong side of the digital divide, with a minimum of 30Mbps down and 10Mbps up. Out of all the various schemes and strategies in the last 17 years, it may be the one that actually stands a chance of success.
2017 is the pivotal year in which contracts must be awarded to one or all of three shortlisted players: Eir, Siro and Enet. That decision could be made in June as planned, or it could falter until later in the year.
The reason for this moving target is that a core team of civil servants, lawyers and accountants are scrutinising every morsel of information in the contracts and submissions by the shortlisted operators to ensure that this plan actually does the job it is supposed to, and that contracts are awarded to the player, or players, with the wherewithal to actually deliver. It is a complex process that should not be underestimated.
The job of the winning bidder, or bidders, will be to deliver a future-proofed fibre network that will lift the economic boats for generations of citizens to come.
By 2019 or 2020, at least two-thirds of people in broadband-blighted areas will be connected with services that may actually turn out as superior to what people in towns and cities currently experience.
It will also potentially create a new super telco.
Failure to get it right will prove a lawyer’s delight and the team of advisers are doing everything in their power to ensure that contracts are watertight in order to avoid the spectre of court battles and the dreaded word ‘tribunal’.
Some have already said that the National Broadband Plan has descended from being a dynamic, compelling vision into a pedantic procurement process, but there is too much at stake to just rely on that one lazy, unfair assumption.
Ireland has one chance to do this right.
Others have said that it does not bode well for the current Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, TD, if the plan fails to kick off in time on his watch.
I’d say it is more bittersweet than that. The tumultuous state of Irish politics has already seen Pat Rabbitte and Alex White deprived of the opportunity to be the one who finally solved Ireland’s broadband debacle.
For Naughten, the opportunity to be the minister who finally gets the ball rolling and sees the first homes connected is so tantalisingly close, he can almost touch it.
The real state of broadband in Ireland in 2017
It is hard to believe that it has been a 16-year journey since the first DSL connection went live in Ireland in 2001.
Since then, we’ve had speeds go from 1Mbps back then to anything up to 240Mbps on Virgin’s cable network, and potentially up to 1Gbps on the new fibre-to-the-home networks being built by Eir and Siro.
But this masks the fact that it is a tale of two Irelands: the Ireland that gets broadband and the Ireland that doesn’t get broadband of any discernible quality.
The Ireland that can get broadband – according to ComReg’s most recent quarterly report, we are at 83pc, higher than then EU average of 80pc – sounds amazing.
When you consider, however, that these figures include fixed and mobile, and that the international definition of broadband is anything greater than 25Mbps, then Ireland needs to revise its definition, and fast.
It forgets that there is an intervention plan that affects the lives and livelihoods of 1.8m people – a huge chunk of the population. So 83pc is just statistical spaghetti.
There is no question that the quality of broadband in well-supplied areas is on the up – ComReg recorded a 42pc surge in the number of VDSL connections – but all in all, the fallacy is that where it is good, it is excellent; but where it is bad, broadband is effectively non-existent.
In a world where people will not be able to even apply for jobs without having an adequate internet connection, Ireland already has a real economic and social divide on its hands.
This makes the urgent arrival of the National Broadband Plan more bittersweet to me than any minister’s vaunted ambition.
Make it right by making broadband a human right
Before Christmas, Minister Naughten, along with Heather Humphreys, Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, TD, revealed the first report of the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce.
The report showed that the telecoms industry in Ireland has spent €3.3bn since 2012 upgrading the country’s telecoms infrastructure.
Crucially, the report signalled the creation of new officers at every local authority, whose job it will be to remove the civil engineering bottlenecks that will hold up the National Broadband Plan.
Naughten even outlined a bold plan to see Ireland roll out 5G services ahead of the EU’s own plan, making the country one of the first in the world to do so at scale and by geography, rather than by population.
The same week, Canada’s telecoms regulator Jean-Pierre Blais revealed Canada’s own take on a national broadband strategy that envisioned 50Mbps down and 10Mbps up for all citizens.
It came with a $750m fund that will bring broadband infrastructure to rural and remote areas of Canada over the next five years.
Blais said that broadband internet access services are necessary for the quality of life for Canadians.
“The future of our economy, our prosperity, our society – indeed the future of every citizen – requires us to set ambitious goals, and to get on with connecting all Canadians for the 21st century.”
What was particularly stirring about Blais’s vision was the language that he used: “Access to broadband internet service is vital, and a basic telecommunication service all Canadians are entitled to receive.”
In 2012, Finland declared internet access to be a human right.
If the National Broadband Plan kicks off in time in 2017, there is an opportunity to start a new conversation about telecoms infrastructure, and ensure that broadband infrastructure as a human right is enshrined in our laws.
Minister Naughten came very, very close last year to saying as much.
During a briefing at Leinster House on a sweltering day in June, Naughten said that the next step to accompany the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan will be a new universal services obligation to make access to a minimum of 30Mbps broadband an “enforceable right”.
“We want to ensure people have access to broadband as a right. I want it as an enforceable right,” Naughten told me at the time.
There is an opportunity with the awarding of the contracts for Naughten to stand out among a succession of communications ministers to draw a line in the sand and say something new.
There is a chance to move beyond almost two decades of failed policies, stifled and confused by lobbying and opportunism, to draw a line and move on.
That chance is this: when the roll-out begins, make Ireland one of the first nations in the world to declare access to quality broadband a human right, not just a legally enforceable one.
Believe me, the world will sit up and take note.