Fix­ing the ma­jor and costly mess of dig­i­tal di­vide is our Brexit

Irish Independent - - News Broadband Fiasco - Kevin Doyle GROUP PO­LIT­I­CAL ED­I­TOR

BROAD­BAND is our ver­sion of Brexit. It’s a ma­jor mess and will cost bil­lions to fix – but we have to ac­cept the deal on the ta­ble or live with the ‘dark-age’ con­se­quences of no deal. The is­sue of broad­band in­fra­struc­ture has been ex­am­ined as far back as the late 1990s with var­i­ous gov­ern­ments com­mis­sion­ing re­ports.

They gen­er­ally reached the ob­vi­ous con­clu­sions that there was a deficit of broad­band in the re­gions out­side of Dublin which af­fected en­ter­prise de­vel­op­ment, in­clud­ing for­eign di­rect in­vest­ment.

How­ever, fill­ing that gap in the mar­ket wouldn’t be straight-for­ward. State in­ter­ven­tion would be nec­es­sary to avoid the cre­ation of a dig­i­tal di­vide.

Ul­ti­mately, Fine Gael and Labour made the key move by an­nounc­ing a Na­tional Broad­band Plan (NBP) built on a very sim­ple premise: pro­vide high-speed in­ter­net ac­cess all over Ire­land, through a com­bi­na­tion of com­mer­cial and State-led in­vest­ment.

As the years rolled on, the ‘in­ter­ven­tion area’ was nar­rowed down to 540,000 premises, 1.1 mil­lion peo­ple, 68pc of the coun­try’s farms, around 600 schools, and more than 44,000 busi­nesses.

For­mer minister De­nis Naugh­ten was fond of re­mind­ing peo­ple that the NBP “will be the most sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment in ru­ral Ire­land since elec­tri­fi­ca­tion”.

But for a long time the plan has been be­set by problems that are of­ten too com­pli­cated for or­di­nary peo­ple to en­gage with.

First there was the de­ci­sion to hive off 300,000 homes and busi­nesses seen as more com­mer­cially vi­able. Tele­coms com­pany Eir got the go-ahead to ser­vice these prop­er­ties be­fore pulling out of the bid­ding for the wider con­tract last Jan­uary.

Eir told the Depart­ment of Com­mu­ni­ca­tions it was pulling out be­cause of “a range of com­mer­cial, reg­u­la­tory and gov­er­nance is­sues” and “based upon the sig­nif­i­cant com­mer­cial is­sues and com­plex­ity within the ten­der process, to­gether with grow­ing un­cer­tainty on a range of reg­u­la­tory and pric­ing is­sues”.

An­other bid­der, Siro, said while it shared the Gov­ern­ment’s am­bi­tion to re­verse the dig­i­tal di­vide, it could not de­velop a “com­pet­i­tive busi­ness case to jus­tify con­tin­ued par­tic­i­pa­tion” in the NBP process.

That left Grana­han McCourt, whose con­sor­tium has sig­nif­i­cantly changed in com­po­si­tion since the begin­ning of the process. Meet­ings be­tween its boss, David McCourt, and the ex-minister led to Mr Naugh­ten’s res­ig­na­tion in Oc­to­ber and ploughed the NPB into even more con­tro­versy.

In the back­ground, con­cerns are grow­ing that the €500m price tag could bal­loon to as much as €3bn and it has been claimed by some that up­take will be noth­ing like what the Gov­ern­ment ex­pects.

Mean­while, back in ru­ral Ire­land res­i­dents just want broad­band – and with an elec­tion likely in the next 12 months, politi­cians are des­per­ate to give it to them.

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