The Minister for Communications, Dermot Ahern, TD, yesterday launched a major initiative to bring broadband to all primary and secondary schools. In a surprise move, however, he failed to confirm definitively that it would be funded through a long-mooted €30m tax on major telecoms firms and appeared to leave the door open for an alternative funding mechanism.
The Minister launched the scheme upon receipt of a heavyweight report for the promotion of broadband services in Ireland. ‘Getting Ireland Online’ was prepared by the Telecoms Strategy Group (TSG), which was formed last February in a partnership between leading telecoms operators and Government to develop a strategy for development of the market for broadband and identify any potential obstacles.
One of the key recommendations of the report is the delivery of high-speed internet access to all schools in the country next year.
Minister Ahern said: “The report is very clear on the need to deliver broadband to every school. I am determined this will happen next year. I am considering financing this by means of a levy on telecoms services or through a joint government/industry initiative involving the telecom operators and the wider ICT sector. I intend to make a decision on that in September.”
He went on: “This report is very clear about the need to put the customer first. Too often, we have focused on the technology, while many people still fail to see its potential relevance to them. I welcome this report as a breath of fresh air.”
The TSG estimates the potential size of the Irish market for broadband to be up to 179,000 subscribers. It believes that there could be 125,000 customers for broadband within a year, corresponding to 9pc of all households or 3.2pc of the total population. The TSG has concluded that competition will be a main driver of market development.
Key recommendations of the TSG report include rolling out broadband to all schools and all public libraries by the end of 2004. Schools should also be encouraged to make their facilities available for training to local communities.
A second recommendation is that broadband services should be provided in regions once a certain threshold of customers has been reached. It is a model that has been pioneered by BT in the UK as a mechanism to bring broadband to remote rural areas.
Thirdly, the report calls for speedy implementation of Government online services such as motor tax payments, passport applications, driving licence applications/renewals and planning applications, as well as incentives for citizens to deal online with national and local Government.
A fourth proposal is that broadband should be provided in all new housing estates via dedicated cabling along road and pathways in all new housing estates. Planners, architects and the construction industry will be targeted with information to encourage them to incorporate this into all new developments.
The report recommends several pilots projects at local community levels to help increase awareness and understanding. The Report also urges the telecommunications service providers to make the business of signing up for broadband service a great deal easier for the customer, including technical support measures and post-sale back up.
The chairman of IBEC’s Telecommunications & Internet Federation and co-chair of the TSG, Dr George Young, noted: “Broadband is a key enabling technology with the potential to transform exchanges of information, services and goods. There are considerable social and economic reasons why it has a critical role to play in meeting Ireland’s objective of creating a high value knowledge-based economy.”
The TSG will submit its final report to the Minister before the end of the year. In that, it will focus on infrastructure and regulatory issues and identify current blockages or other matters that may be hindering the full blossoming of the broadband market.
By Brian Skelly