An interview with Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte on Ireland’s broadband future

4 Sep 2012

Pat Rabbitte, Ireland's Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources

John Kennedy talks to Ireland’s Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte about the new National Broadband Strategy, which aims to deliver high-speed broadband to homes and firms across the country by 2015. A realist, Rabbitte warns there is much work to be done to achieve these goals.

As I waited just outside the office door of Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, on Adelaide Road in Dublin last week, I had a few moments to thumb through some magazines and newspapers on the nearby coffee table. Among the publications was a hardcover book about Irish rock band U2 and as I leafed through the pages, transported for a moment back in time to a more innocent Ireland of the late 1970s, I noticed a passage about how the band was grateful for how Dublin gave them all the room they needed to prepare for the world before they eventually hit the world.

This made me smile because I fervently believe Ireland should be the kind of place that gives all creators, from technology start-ups to artists, musicians, writers and coders the room to create, fail, rehearse, fail again badly and then get it right for the global stage. I’m unsure if the Ireland of 2012 is that kind of place, but I know many people are trying.

As I shook Rabbitte’s hand I joke that I think U2 is still Ireland’s chief indigenous digital export. He replied that he thinks U2 frontman Bono should indeed be the nation’s digital ambassador.

We get down to business by discussing the goals presented in the National Broadband Strategy last week of half the country having 70Mbps broadband by 2015, followed by two tiers of at least 40Mbps to a further 20pc and a minimum of 30Mbps in every single premises.

Keeping it real

Rabbitte explained he was perplexed how in general media last week reported that those goals would be achieved by 2015 as a kind of deadline. “I’m not saying that. The plan that is laid out is over the lifetime of the Government. Only the top band will be implemented by 2015 [as guaranteed by the telco CEOs], the remaining two are going to take the lifetime of this Government to achieve.

“In the mid-band there will be improvement but in the bottom band the improvement will be as a result of spectrum auctions and depending on the telcos getting their act up and running.”

Rabbitte is clearly intent on managing expectations and communicates to me that just because these goals have been set out, not everything is cut and dried and the pitfalls and variables are many.

The other key variable he will get around to mentioning is State Aid support from the EU, which he regards warily as a labyrinthine process, before any tender can be awarded. Another variable that can no longer be tolerated is lack of support, but ample supply of bureaucratic red tape and roadblocks from within various State departments, agencies and bodies like local authorities.

To make his point he explained that the reason the strategy was not published in July but in late August instead was he made it his business to painstakingly get guarantees from other ministers and department heads that all efforts will be made to see this strategy is completed.

“We will commit to a capital programme and we will see something like 2,000 additional installations put in place. These may not necessarily be masts but antennae on existing public buildings. The industry was most interested in us addressing the barriers are currently there.”

Rabbitte said that since taking office he has been amazed at the difference between one local authority and another. “Sometimes we found that the local authorities whose members wrote to the minister complaining the loudest about poor quality broadband in their area were the very ones who made it impossible or prohibitive to get a trench dug across the road.”

A key aspect of the plan that hasn’t been given much attention is the subgroups that were established as part of the Next Generation Broadband Taskforce to work closely with city and county councils. “This involved a half a dozen city and county council managers who have an appreciation of what this could mean for their areas. We’ve had direct meetings with the Minister for Transport who has a significant say in areas such as dealing with the National Roads Authority.” He has also held direct meetings with the Department of Environment with regard to the planning process.

Broadband and job creation

Rabbitte agrees with my assertion that there is going to be an intrinsic link between broadband and job creation. “If we are going to see the rollout of thousands of street cabinets, the telecom companies can’t be kept waiting forever.”

The Minister takes my point that as well as businesses trying to expand and generate exports, there are jobs currently available in Ireland for professionals, including people with children or who are semi-retired. If they could work from home via broadband, they can remain in employment, contribute to their communities and boost the local economy.

[Amazingly, as I write I receive an email from a lady who has been unable to take up a home working offer that would save her €90 a week in petrol and cut out several hours of commute weekly because she cannot be guaranteed at least 2Mbps to her home.]

“Many businesses’ employees need these connections to stay in employment, and if you’re serious about regional development and bringing jobs to an area you won’t get in the way of rolling out this infrastructure,” Rabbitte emphasised.

Rabbitte explained that as soon as the much-anticipated wireless spectrum auctions for 4G/LTE connectivity have taken place a mapping exercise will begin so the State can set about ensuring areas that need connectivity can be funded.

“I told the telco CEOs, and none of them demurred, that we wanted co-operation and we wanted them to deal with us upfront. There is no point telling us ‘I can supply that’ only for us to discover 18 months later they had no intention.”

Rabbitte says the Next Generation Broadband Taskforce exercise was worthwhile. “It may perhaps be naïve on my part, but I do actually think the quality and the duration of the engagement with industry which started out from a sceptical position on their part and as an opportunity to eye up competitors has proved a purpose. Both the department and the telecoms sector have a better assessment of each other and know the pitfalls and know where spoofing and exaggeration hasn’t worked in the past.”

Bringing Irish businesses into the 21st century

I point out to Rabbitte that ordinary Irish businesses are missing out on a world of opportunity by not embracing the digital age and this, he points out, is the other side of the challenge he faces in making this infrastructure rollout happen.

Only 3.4pc of GDP in Ireland comes from the internet economy, compared with 7pc of GDP from the UK’s internet economy, according to Boston Consulting. Some €3bn is spent online every year by Irish consumers and 70pc of this flows out of the country to overseas websites. Less than 70pc of Irish firms have websites, and of these only 22pc are capable of conducting e-commerce transactions.

“To be honest I have been taken aback myself at the low priority that SMEs generally attach to this issue. Now, you can say that we’re in the middle of the worst recession and that they are busy trying to keep the wolves from the door and that broadband and e-commerce are a low priority. They have to pay the wages every week and have told us bluntly ‘you must be joking, I have something else to be doing – I have a website, sure isn’t that all right’.

“They are so busy just trying to stay alive and keep their people in jobs that the notion of interaction online and using it to sell goods or promote themselves is just not a priority.

“I’m looking at a few things and one of the things I might try and get [Finance Minister] Michael Noonan on board to do is possibly pilot some tax incentives for bringing firms forward in this area. In the current environment, Finance may not want to know but for a very small amount of money it would be interesting to see how it could work.”

I put it to Rabbitte that maybe schemes for college leavers to work in small firms and generate internal e-business strategies would be of benefit. “We found programmes like WebActivate to be a success and you’re right there are kids who have a passion for this and who would be an asset for any firm.”

In term of how the National Broadband Strategy will be paid for, he said it will be a combination of EU State Aid and his department’s own capital programme, including a share of the disposal of State assets, such as Bord Gáis Energy.

“NewEra are looking at other opportunities, such as access to the National Pension Reserve Fund and morphing the Strategic Investment Fund into more of a strategic investment bank.

“I said it to the Cabinet up front, it is not a big investment in terms of the potential economic return. It is reasonable we think that from the consultations and discussions we’ve had with the telcos that 50pc of the cost will be supported by the successful bidders.”

Rabbitte also revealed to me that last year he brought Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt before the Cabinet sub-committee. “I let him loose. He was very impressive and did have an effect.”

Dovetailing with the Broadband for Schools project

I ask him about the 650 schools that will get 100Mbps ‘industrial strength’ broadband in the next two years and point out that surely this could benefit the businesses and individuals local to those schools.

There are hurdles. He recalls how at the school in his native Claremorris, St Colmans, which was one of the first in Ireland to introduce iPads to classrooms, parents were willing to dig a trench to their local MAN (metropolitan area network) themselves because the Department of Education wouldn’t hear of it.

He also added he has been moved by the impact of 100Mbps at St Brid’s secondary school in Clondalkin near where he lives. “Not only are we seeing kids in 15 different classrooms tuned into lessons via broadband at the same time, it’s extraordinary, but we’re also dealing with another form of digital divide. The digital divide isn’t just a geographic thing; kids who were slow learners in maths, for example, are now finding maths fascinating and are tussling with problems. It really is a winner.

“The 13 western counties of Ireland will be connected to the Schools Broadband programme by October, this will bring us to 290 schools connected to 100Mbps by the middle of October. We then aim to do another 100 along the belts of west Dublin. We picked the schools along the western seaboard first because they had the poorest quality connectivity. It really is something to visit one of these schools and to see it working.”

Returning to the National Broadband Plan, and the mapping exercise that will happen in the wake of the forthcoming spectrum auctions, Rabbitte said that when the tenders are eventually awarded, telcos will be contractually obliged to meet minimum standards.

“If a telco wants to bid for this project we will keep them to meeting those standards. The top 50pc of locations in the country will be served by the industry and that will look after itself.

“But where it’s not commercially viable – be it the hills of Donegal or west Kerry – we’ll have to go in there. Otherwise people will be left behind and will miss out on the economic opportunities of this exciting age.

“The difficulties are to monitor and ensure that it is delivered. The public procurement process and the whole State Aid labyrinthine process is painstakingly slow. This is not just in Ireland but across all member States.

“We hope to shine a light on this issue during the period of the Irish presidency and we will also have presidency of the telecoms council from the end of January.”

Rabbitte comes across as a realist on the issue of broadband. He gets the economic imperative and the need for political will on the matter. But he is also willing to work painstakingly with every entity concerned to bring it all to fruition. And that, he warned, may take time.

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