Sunday 24 March 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Leo's rural broadband wobble puts question mark over 'personal crusade''

(Stock image)
(Stock image)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Does the Government believe in subsidised rural broadband or not?

Until quite recently, it was a cornerstone of State policy. Previous elected ministers solemnly said they would equalise critical infrastructure between rural and urban areas. Broadband, utterly essential for all economic activity, was recognised as critical for the long-term sustainability of areas outside cities.

But a series of signals from the Taoiseach suggested the Government's thinking may have evolved.

It leaves us wondering whether Varadkar really believes in the principle of subsidised rural broadband.

Varadkar spent much of last week laying out the reasons why the National Broadband Plan may now actually be harder to deliver than previous taoisigh would have you believe.

The first reason offered was that the Government has messed up on the National Children's Hospital. Because it has overshot the budget there, the NBP might have to be reassessed, he suggested.

The second reason was Brexit. Given all that could happen, maybe we can't embark on non-core projects. (He didn't actually use the term non-core: but this is the effect of what he is saying.)

Other things in the National Development Plan will still happen. But maybe not the type of state-backed broadband rollout outside cities and large towns that was understood up to now.

"Government is about making decisions," the Taoiseach has often said. "You can't do everything."

Well no, just the priority items.

Money is clearly an issue. The figure of €3bn over the decades-long time frame has been mooted, though not qualified.

While this still seems like an unrealistically large sum to be attributable solely to the state in the network's rollout, let's assume for a minute that it's correct.

It's possible that Varadkar is thinking: can the Government justify committing to annual subsidy roughly equating to €100m?

Is it really worth connecting 540,000 (or 400,000, depending on whether private operators really do roll out their own services in those areas) homes and businesses at that sort of cost? It's not necessarily a question of the overall figure (which will be spread over 25 or 30 years), but whether it can be thought of as a decent investment in the first place.

This is really what the entire debate over the National Broadband Plan boils down to - is it worth state money connecting homes and businesses that otherwise will be left hanging?

The Government is still saying that it believes in the principle of it.

In the rest of society, there are some obvious divisions and lobbies on the matter.

Farmers, rural businesses and around a million private residents caught in internet slow zones are generally in favour. So are a majority of industrial development agencies and others trying to sell parts of the country outside Dublin at inward investment events.

On the other side are those in urban areas who simply don't think it's worth it or who think it should be limited to a small contribution.

Cities, generally, contribute more to taxation, from which these funds would be drawn. And urban dwellers - plus their elected officials - may feel they get little of benefit from such a rollout plan.

Some even have limited sympathy for those who "decide" to live in homes that aren't close enough to towns to benefit from broadband.

(Any radio show or online forum I contribute to on this topic always has someone who says: "If you want lower house prices, live in the country, if you want broadband, live in the city.")

Which of the two groups does Taoiseach Leo Varadkar really sit in?

As leader of a political party with a large, pro-business rural constituency, Varadkar has to be careful about not appearing to casually backtrack on a commitment to infrastructure seen as being crucial to future rural sustainability. As such, he has frequently claimed that the National Broadband Plan is one of his priorities. In October, he even went so far as to describe it as a "personal crusade" when on tour in Cavan and answering reporters' questions.

But in recent months, the Taoiseach's commentary on it suggest that it not quite be a personal crusade. Remarks made in the Dail and on radio shows indicate he is open to rethinking the whole thing.

If a backtrack strategy is the plan, there are other lines the Government can probably reach for to back its policy pivot up. One is that private operators have announced plans to roll out new broadband services in the 'intervention' area.

The most extravagant example is Imagine Communications, which says it is targeting 400,000 premises within the NBP's zone of 540,000 homes. But close examination of this might prove troublesome. This column recently drilled down into those figures, showing why - at most - the target is 130,000 households, with further connections only likely in a very far-off time frame, if at all. And wireless connectivity, despite what companies selling it say, is still not a match for fibre-to-the-home when it comes to long-term high-speed access.

Sources indicate that the Government knows this very well. But to a general audience, it might still be presented as a plausible reason to radically scale down the scope and cost of the rural broadband plan.

The effect of altering course on a policy like this is not really in any doubt. It will definitely result in a minimum of 300,00 to 400,000 homes and businesses existing outside broadband areas. And that means companies won't locate there while young people won't consider living there.

So how important is this for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar? Is it a top 5, or top 15 issue?

We'll soon find out.

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