Gov­ern­ment wob­bles on no­tion of a ‘right’ to ru­ral broad­band ac­cess

Irish Independent - - News - Adrian Weck­ler

THE eyes of 1.1 mil­lion ru­ral cit­i­zens will turn next week to a cru­cial broad­band re­port de­liv­ered by the State-ap­pointed au­di­tor, Peter Smyth.

Mr Smyth has in­di­cated that he will hand over his ver­dict on whether the Na­tional Broad­band Plan, which aims to con­nect 540,000 ru­ral homes and busi­nesses to high-speed in­ter­net, is tainted.

If it’s a bad re­port, the Gov­ern­ment will look to put the scheme on ice.

But if it’s a good re­port, the Gov­ern­ment may still look for ways to de­lay it, if re­cent leaks are to be be­lieved.

Last week, sto­ries ap­peared in the na­tional press claim­ing that Gov­ern­ment sources are “alarmed” about “low take-up” of ru­ral fi­bre broad­band be­ing rolled out by Eir.

Although in­dus­try statis­tics con­tra­dict the claims, the in­tent of the leaks will lead to ques­tions over the Gov­ern- ment’s re­solve on ru­ral in­fra­struc­ture.

The ‘right’ to ru­ral high speed broad­band ac­cess, a pre­vi­ously set­tled is­sue, looks like it may be re­opened.

Fianna Fáil com­mu­ni­ca­tions spokesman Timmy Doo­ley says that “in­spired leaks” from the Gov­ern­ment may “sig­nal an ef­fort to soften up the pub­lic for a sig­nif­i­cant change in di­rec­tion in the Na­tional Broad­band Plan”.

Al­ter­na­tive pro­pos­als are be­ing floated, rang­ing from mo­bile don­gles to satel­lite broad­band and aeri­als on rooftops.

How­ever, tele­coms in­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives dis­pute what were re­ported as Gov­ern­ment claims last week that ru­ral take-up of Eir’s fi­bre broad­band is “slow” and caus­ing “alarm” in Gov­ern­ment cir­cles.

Even Eir’s bit­ter broad­band ri­vals, Siro and Alto, said that take-up of the re­cently in­tro­duced ser­vice, which is run­ning at around 15pc, is sta­tis­ti­cally com­pa­ra­ble with any other broad­band roll­out.

How­ever, the leaks sug­gest that se­nior fig­ures in the Gov­ern­ment are be­gin­ning to ques­tion whether ru­ral peo­ple need broad­band.

Other Gov­ern­ment sources have re­port­edly cast doubt on whether pay­ing for ru­ral broad­band is ac­tu­ally in the coun­try’s best eco­nomic in­ter­est, sug­gest­ing that the cost may be too high against the back­drop of ri­val projects such as a new Dublin Metro line.

Of­fi­cially, the po­si­tions out­lined in th­ese leaks have been re­futed by the De­part­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. A spokesper­son said that no de­ci­sion has been made on the fu­ture of the ru­ral roll­out yet, and that much de­pends on the au­dit re­port from Mr Smyth.

“The Na­tional Broad­band Plan was not paused as a re­sult of the change of min­is­ter,” said a spokes­woman for the de­part­ment. “The re­view of the fi­nal bid has been on­go­ing and is hap­pen­ing in par­al­lel to the Smyth re­view. Re­gard­ing costs, the evalua-

The ‘right’ to ru­ral broad­band is­sue looks like it may be re­opened

tion of the fi­nal bid is on­go­ing and due to con­cluded in the com­ing weeks. At that point, if con­cluded sat­is­fac­to­rily, a rec­om­men­da­tion will go to Gov­ern­ment and a de­ci­sion will be taken. This will in­clude a con­sid­er­a­tion of costs. The Gov­ern­ment has made no de­ci­sion at this point.”

As for a ‘Plan B’, sources say that al­ter­na­tive op­tions are be­ing looked at in case the Smyth re­port com­pels the Gov­ern­ment to scrap the cur­rent Na­tional Broad­band Plan process. De­spite Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Min­is­ter Richard Bru­ton down­play­ing a ‘Plan B’ to the cur­rent ten­der, sources say that an al­ter­na­tive plan will be an­nounced.

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