Fury at scrapping of rural broadband scheme

2 Feb 2007

Rural community leaders who answered the call for proposals for the first and second rounds of the Government’s Group Broadband Scheme have expressed anger and disappointment at the decision to scrap the scheme and blamed bureaucracy and bad planning for the scheme’s failure.

Last week, it emerged that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources Noel Dempsey TD had decided to scrap the scheme after two years.

In November, siliconrepublic.com revealed that only 6,000 subscribers out of an envisaged 90,460 subscribers in rural areas that are not served by telecom players were receiving services under the scheme.

Documents seen by siliconrepublic.com showed that out of a total amount of €5.9m in grants for 162 approved projects under the County and Group Broadband Scheme, a mere €785,755 was actually drawn down by the applications.

Critics at the time blamed the scheme’s performance on “bureaucratic red tape” and “foot dragging”.

It is understood that the scheme is to be replaced by a new programme involving private sector players that will be up in running in two and a half years.

Under the National Development Plan, the Government is committing €435m to Ireland’s communications network.

However, at present around 15pc of the country – mostly in rural areas – cannot receive broadband due to the fact that telecom players consider it not viable to deploy infrastructure and services in such locations. Eircom estimates it could cost up to €70m to fix this deficit.

As well as this, the country’s copper network is aging and decision to “split lines” that seemed prudent in the Eighties have actually resulted in a situation whereby people in broadband-enabled areas cannot receive broadband while their next-door neighbours can.

Jim O’Brien, who lives in the parish of Rosenallis, Co Laois, is one of many community members who attempted to harness local support for the Group Broadband Scheme but after a promising start heard nothing regarding funding. O’Brien is currently planning to run as a candidate for Labour in the next elections.

A former section editor on the Farmers Journal who collaborates as a scriptwriter with comedian Pat Short (he co-wrote the first series of Killinaskully), he laments the fact that in a modern economy like Ireland’s he cannot get broadband. “My sister-in-law is a nun who works with Berber tribes in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and even she has broadband. We can’t get it here. We have to beg her not to send us pictures.”

He said he got involved in the second round for funding under the scheme and got together 38 names of interested people in his parish. “Things were grand at first, we held workshops and then after a while it disappeared off the scene. We never got any official notification at all, nobody contacted me at all and then I heard about it on the news last week.

“You can imagine the frustration and the embarrassment of being associated with a failed broadband project. It looks like I was all talk and no action. It’s publicly embarrassing, especially for a guy going into public life,” O’Brien said.

John Timmons, vice-chairman of the IrelandOffline lobby group, also tried to tap into the Group Broadband Scheme in his home area of Clonard, Co Meath, and got nowhere. He said he met with a “deafening wall of silence” when it came to actually getting coherent information from regional broadband co-ordinators about when the next round of funding for the scheme would come available.

“We kept hearing the refrain ‘any day now’ and then nothing until we heard the news last week. I find it irksome and annoying to say the least. They say that it was down to a lack of interest and not enough people signing up. I find that hard to believe. Many schemes met with a wall of bureaucracy and terms and conditions and couldn’t draw down the funds. At any stage of the week we were ready to go and sign the paperwork.

“My view is that the Group Broadband Scheme was never really designed to work with local communities but was more about being a mechanism to attract internet service providers into the area. It was never about communities forming their own internet service providers.

“My last communication with the Department [of Communications] was back in March. I read between the lines and got very doubtful about it. It was embarrassing because it built up expectations in the village. It seemed like a doable thing and that with patience and perseverance it would pay off. But people kept asking ‘what’s happening?’ And then out of the blue it was scrapped.

“What’s annoying about the Group Broadband Scheme is that there were too many promises made and people were strung along,” said Timmons.

By John Kennedy