It’s 2019 and rural Ireland still waits for the National Broadband Plan

22 Jan 2019

Decision time for broadband. Image: Olly18/Depositphotos

More than 542,000 premises wait for a Government green light.

It is 2019 and you could say Ireland – well, parts of it – has had broadband since 2001 when digital subscriber line (DSL) technology first became a thing.

In the early days, however, lack of political will, insufficient regulatory direction or intervention, failure to understand the critical and strategic importance of digital infrastructure, and the slicing and dicing of incumbent operator Eir by various owners, accompanied by years of neglect of the national infrastructure, left rural Ireland behind.

Inaction, inactivity and sheer blundering cost rural Ireland dearly in those crucial early years of broadband.

You could say it was a tale of two countries as urban Ireland got connected and the digital revolution brought massive jobs announcements by players such as Google and Facebook to cities such as Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway.

No more dithering over the digital divide

But the gap was showing and action was needed.

In 2012, former Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte set in motion the National Broadband Plan (NBP) to bring rural Ireland into the 21st century.

It was supposed to be a costed, clear-cut strategy to sort the mess out for once and for all, and create a lever for broadband operators to serve the countryside. At the end of the process, we may have had a new national broadband provider or State telco.

Ireland was not alone in having distinct geographic and financial roadblocks to deploying this vital infrastructure, and the rest of Europe looked on for some kind of a miracle or way ahead to emerge from these shores.

At least three Ministers for Communication wanted the NBP to happen on their watch – Rabbitte, Alex White and Denis Naughten – but it didn’t. No shovel hit the turf on their watch.

Target years slipped from 2018 to 2019 and now it might be 2021 or 2022 before the last home or business in rural Ireland gets connected.

The political farce that ensued over lunches and meetings between Naughten and American businessman David McCourt, resulting in Naughten’s resignation, was supposed to have come to an end with the publication of Peter Smyth’s report, which exonerated both men of any wrongdoing.

That report was published on 27 November, around two months ago. At the time of the report’s publication, newly appointed Communications Minister Richard Bruton, TD, vowed that the NBP would go ahead. But nothing has been communicated to the public since then, except that the assessment of the final bid, submitted in September, is continuing.

The final bidder on the table is a consortium called National Broadband Ireland, which is led by Granahan McCourt. Firms supplying this consortium include Actavo, Nokia, Kelly Group, KN Group and Enet, which is now owned 100pc by the Irish Infrastructure Fund.

Will the plan go ahead? Will it be changed? Will there be a new bidding process?

At stake is the future livelihoods of thousands of people in rural communities who need this infrastructure.

It can not be an easy decision, nor should it be. It is better that the job is done right and that what emerges is infrastructure a country can be proud of.

The difference between 2001 and now is that there is an appetite for remote working for career, health and lifestyle reasons, and multinationals, SMEs and start-ups are more open to supporting remote workers in order to retain precious talent. Regional towns such as Sligo are becoming a magnet for investment and talent due to infrastructure, a healthy lifestyle and opportunities for work-life balance.

Enabling that talent to go to the regions means more money being spent in the regional economy. It means farms diversifying to become profitable. It means the leaders of tomorrow having the tools to educate themselves.

After more than 18 years since broadband arrived in Ireland, seven years since the NBP was first drawn up, two months since the Smyth report and almost a month into 2019, it is time for the Minister for Communications and his counterpart in the Department of Rural Affairs to start communicating.

Decision time for broadband plan. Image: Olly18/Depositphotos

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