Jim O'Brien: 'Yes, the price of rural broadband is huge, but the prize is even bigger'
It is only right that we should be exercised about the €2.6bn public price tag being quoted for the rollout of broadband to rural areas. It is a lot of money.
Since the era of the crash, we have become accustomed to talking of our finances in terms of billions, or 'billuns', as my fellow Co Limerick man and former Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, might say.
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A billion of anything is a lot, in both quantity and value.
The question has to be asked, is it worth it? There has been a lot of agonising about this, and rightly so. People with a lot more information at their fingertips and expertise in their heads than most have spent many a long hour weighing up the various options. Eventually, the political leaders did what we elected them to do - they made a decision.
In so doing, they flew in the face of the advice given by some of the most senior civil servants in the land. Everything one doesn't want to hear when making an exciting investment decision was thrown around like fists in a melee. Even measured voices like John Fitzgerald, late of the ESRI, gave a pointed reaction to the details of the plan, saying that while the politicians knew it was bad value, they felt politically they had to do it.
In the making of any decision, a myriad of factors are involved.
For the majority of ordinary people, the most significant purchase they make in their lifetimes is the purchase of a home.
It involves few certainties aside from a lifetime of debt, but the purchase has promise, possibility and risk. The promise and possibilities it offers include having a roof over one's head and a safe secure place to rear a family. It is also an asset that can be used as a basis for borrowings for education and a resource that might pay for one's care in later life.
In terms of risk, one may not always have the means of paying the mortgage. The borrower might have to change jobs and location, and then the question arises as to whether the house will hold its value if one needs to sell. But after all the cogitation, a decision has to be taken.
As a rural dweller and someone who has been banging on about the need for rural broadband for more than a decade, I welcome the Government's decision. I am sure the looming local and European elections concentrated minds around the cabinet table. However, in a tight game, when the umpire raises the flag in your favour on a questionable score, you'll gladly embrace the decision no matter what kind of strop the opposing team and its mentors throw.
Yes, the price is huge, but the prize is even bigger. Balanced regional development is the key to increased and shared prosperity across the island. Broadband will make a massive contribution to levelling the geographic playing pitch and reducing, if not removing, 'location' as an impediment to development.
I live in a rural area that is among the lucky few to have fibre-optic cable delivering broadband speeds of up to 150mbs. The area was included in a pilot project and the quality of broadband has transformed the potential of the place, along with the variety of work one can do.
The service is consistently good and is already leading to a growth in home-working, a decline in commuting and a greater sharing of responsibility on childcare and involvement in extra-curricular and non-school activities.
The local community hall has a broadband connection and a group of us home-workers go there on Fridays. We work separately, but have coffee and perhaps lunch together where ideas, information and possibilities are thrown around.
The transformational possibilities of broadband cannot be underestimated.
Its capacity to turn dormitory and dormant settlements into living, breathing, productive communities is huge.
It has the potential to take social, economic and demographic pressure off our cities, while impacting positively on our most pressing national problems, including health and housing.
Admittedly, there are real concerns that the implementation of the National Broadband Plan as currently envisaged could see the public purse exploited to fatten a private pocket. Now that the Government has decided to spend the money, it is incumbent on it to ensure that the private partner carries its share of the burden involved
Yes, €2.6bn is a lot of public money, but in the recent past, we had to find €64bn in order to bury bad debts, euthanise rotten financial institutions and resuscitate banks that were almost completely dead.
Surely, then, we can justify spending €2.6bn to generate possibility, hope and new life in every community in the country, especially the most fragile and most isolated.
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