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