No signal: Internet and TV licence debate is flawed

3 Apr 2017

Image: Maderla/Shutterstock

Ireland should make sure every citizen can receive broadband first before chasing quixotic windmills such as TV licences based on devices, writes John Kennedy.

Driving into work on Friday – normally a quiet, short, uneventful drive – I was greeted by traffic jams and the wreckage of three vehicles on the side of the M4 motorway. Like most motorists on the morning of the national bus and railway strike that crippled Ireland, the thought ran through my mind that those poor people might not normally have been on the road, and were probably just trying to get to work.

I may have been wrong, as each incident carries a unique set of circumstances. But I’m certain I wasn’t alone in my thoughts. Hurrying to make an appointment I could not cancel, I would have otherwise elected to work at home that morning to avoid delays.

How much efficiency and productivity would a nation such as Ireland enjoy if people could just work at home more often? A recent survey carried out by Ricoh Ireland found that two-thirds of Irish workers were unable to work from home during the Luas and Bus Éireann transport strikes.

Whose fault is this? Their own, their employers or the fact that broadband infrastructure in Ireland is not all-pervasive?

June is coming – or is it?

The €500m-€1bn National Broadband Plan (NBP) is an attempt to correct 20 years of ineffective policy on what is the most important piece of economic infrastructure for the 21st century.

This June, the plan is to award contracts to one or all of the shortlisted players including Open Eir, Siro (the Vodafone/ESB joint venture) and Enet.

The NBP is under the joint stewardship of the Department of Communications and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

We have already been warned that there may be a delay and the plan to announce contract winners could slip until October or November.

The thing is, people can no longer wait for this vital infrastructure. Without broadband in 2017, you cannot apply for a job, run a business efficiently, study or research properly. For many kids growing up today, broadband is the new TV.

We interrupt this signal

The Irish are a funny lot. You see, we give out a lot about this island, despite its clement weather (yes, it’s really not bad, but could be sunnier), and we give out incessantly about each other. But mostly, we put up with ‘just good enough’ or ‘barely good enough’ when it comes to the services we pay for and should be entitled to.

I have friends who have come from all over the world to live here and they love us and the landscape. We are friendly, kind, outgoing and fun to be around. They have made Ireland home and yet, they still can’t get their heads around the notorious inefficiencies that we put up with.

There is a lot to be grateful for and a quality of life that we take for granted. But when it comes to organisation, well, from a State perspective, we can barely run a bath.

Apparently, Irish people can now update their passports online. Eureka! So what? There is still no rail line to Dublin Airport.

Last year, an Amsterdam taxi driver pointed out to me that when it comes to paying taxes, the Dutch have a contract with the State. Buckle a wheel or lose a tyre on a pothole and the State fully expects to be sued for failing to honour its end of the deal and provide the roads that taxpayers pay for.

In Ireland – where I have lost four tyres in about a year and a half on roads that resemble the moon’s landscape – the money that should be going into quality roads goes into fixing a creaking water system that no one wants to pay for.

This is partly our fault. We give out a lot. Too much, perhaps, to the point that we are bored silly listening to each other. I guarantee you that the TDs and councillors who were droning on with imperceptible accents on the radio 20 or 30 years ago have been replaced by their descendants who also drone on about the same issues; water charges, hospital beds, corruption … and they still mangle their sentences in hokey accents that continue to win them local votes.

Maybe that is part of the plan? A media conspiracy by the elite, to deaden our senses to the point that the drone becomes an endless, dull buzz and we become numb to the point of not caring.

But something has changed in recent years. The people rose up in response to proposed water charges and overturned the policy of two successive governments. Civil disobedience won out, and the civil servants scurried away to regroup.

Yes, water is life. But a hard-taxed people who had been hard-bitten by an unforgiving recession had enough and refused to take on an extra domestic bill.

But here is the irony. Why would the same people not rise up and take to the streets over the crisis in the health system, with 60pc wait times for most procedures and the very fact that their loved ones risk their lives by just setting foot in a hospital and being placed on a trolley and not in a bed? In any other country, the inefficiency of the health system would topple government after government. But not in Ireland.

And the drone continues, with corruption in the Gardaí over fake charges and breath tests, the Tuam mother and baby home scandal – it goes on and on. We are shocked and outraged, but nothing gets done.

However, the water debate did revive a dormant side to a people who had decided that enough was enough. And that barely good enough was not enough at all.

Should TV licence fees be waived for people who cannot get broadband?

When it comes to life and death, law and order, growth and productivity, the issue of broadband and connectivity just isn’t high on the order of things. Many politicians think that broadband exists just to watch Netflix. Some used to think that broadband was a bigger-than-average showband.

But if the politicians were to realise that all jobs in the future will depend on connectivity, they might be quicker to act.

The NBP is that long-overdue action and it must succeed. This is because all of Europe is watching and may use the NBP – which ensures that fibre comes first – as the framework for connecting the rest of the EU.

And, in the slow and painful divorce that will be Brexit, connectivity will be key to assisting people in starting businesses, helping farmers in rural communities to diversify and create employment, and keeping people in communities, healing villages while keeping spend in the local economy.

But we are already putting the cart before the horse.

It recently emerged that the Government is considering a new regime that will require homes with laptops, PCs and tablets over a certain screen size to pay for a TV licence.

It hastily followed the news that RTÉ director general Dee Forbes had called for the €160 annual fee to be doubled, a suggestion that was quickly quashed by Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD.

The thing is, the suggestion of charging a licence fee for having internet access is nothing new. It may be just a distraction.

It was first mooted in the late 1990s when Mary O’Rourke held the equivalent of Naughten’s job. It rose its head again in the 2000s and last year, when concerns were raised about a loophole of people using devices other than TVs to watch RTÉ content, but not paying the fee because they said they didn’t own TVs.

The potential structure of a new TV licence that accounts for devices is inspired by a decision in the UK whereby British viewers of BBC content will now be unable to avail of online BBC content without possession of a valid licence.

The crazy thing is that this assumes every home in Ireland can avail of broadband and therefore, people can stream content onto tablets, PCs and more. They cannot.

The truth is that Dublin, Cork and Limerick are nothing more than jumped-up country towns. On a global level, they barely qualify as cities. The country is largely rural.

And, in the PR war leading up to the NBP, claims by various providers of homes being “passed” by fibre is just window dressing. I have family whose homes are apparently passed by cutting-edge connectivity, but they are not. Replace ‘passed’ with ‘connected’ and the argument will hold water.

The NBP is aiming to serve close to 1m premises in broadband-deprived areas. This includes 20pc of rural Irish villages and around 1.8m people.

I would argue the opposite to what the civil servants are proposing.

Until these people get access to the very infrastructure that will give them an economic fighting chance – broadband – then the State should waive their TV licence fee in an act of solidarity.

This very suggestion might have made civil servants, telecoms providers and RTÉ executives splutter out their tea (and teeth).

And let’s be honest. It’s never going to happen. There will be no exceptions, only demands.

But if the State wants to bundle internet access in with TV services, it should damn well make sure that people have a relevant, 21st-century service first.

Because – like the never-ending kidnap storyline on Fair City – just about good enough isn’t good enough anymore.

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