Wednesday 21 February 2018

Rural broadband: once a luxury, soon an emergency

Former Minister for Communications Alex White. Photo: Tom Burke
Former Minister for Communications Alex White. Photo: Tom Burke
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Two days ago, the Government's outgoing Minister for Communications conceded a stark statistic: 300,000 rural homes and businesses will have to wait until 2019 for the National Broadband Plan process to begin.

Alex White didn't mean to put it like that. He was trying to reiterate that the state-subsidised rural broadband plan is still on track to eventually happen, even though construction now won't begin until the middle of 2017 at the earliest.

But there is now a level of anger around the issue that has not existed before. And the intensity of it appears to have taken government ministers and Department of Communications officials by surprise.

It really shouldn't have.

Demand for broadband is not the same as demand for a new road or rail line. These latter utilities can suffer a slower roll-out because they're not as central to so many societal changes in so quick a period.

Imagine if every State body and every major trading entity required citizens to switch almost all of their economic activity over to motorway-based travel in a five-year period.

It may seem a clumsy comparison, but this is quite close to what is happening in Ireland with broadband. Trading, shopping, registering and filing are now subject to online completion, both by choice and by diktat from state institutions.

In 2012, when the National Broadband plan was announced, fibre was a luxury. In 2016, it's a necessity. In 2019, it will be an economic emergency for those areas that don't have it.

But at that point, close to a million people - some 300,000 homes - will still not have access to fibre broadband under the State's timetable. And tens of thousands will still not have it until 2022, a full ten years after the plan was first announced.

So when Alex White says that the delay to the National Broadband Plan is actually only six months from the initial scheduled plan, he is correct. But the context now is very different to what it was in 2012 or even in 2014, when he first started working on the project.

People now see that they can't wait any more: not even one year, let alone three years or six years. If those in power don't fully appreciate this sensibility, they are getting a crash course through the ceaseless, intense public disquiet on the issue.

Against this background, last week's announcement of more delays was unfortunate timing. Department officials insisted that the delay had nothing to do with the absence of a new Minister or a new government. Instead, they said that the weight of regulatory and procedural compliance has caused a backlog in what they can achieve in the timeframe they have. The European Commission is peering over their shoulders, they say, and they just can't afford to leave anything to chance.

Adequate staffing resources, it is also hinted, may be a relevant issue here.

There is undoubtedly some truth to all of this. As maddening as the lengthy process seems, there are entities waiting in the wings to legally challenge the State-subsidised broadband rollout if the Government missteps in any way.

Over 30 regional wireless operators, for instance, do not support the National Broadband Plan because it will drive them out of business. Some have already warned of European legal challenges to the State rollout scheme.

(They would probably lose, given that the EU has indicated that 30Mbs is now the minimum broadband speed required for countries to get to. Most wireless operators currently can't offer this type of speed.)

Compliance issues aside, there are also basic engineering and construction practicalities that mean a full rural build-out will take a number of years. This is an infrastructure rollout that will need to reach into over 90pc (yes, it's that big) of Ireland's geographical terrain, which is not currently covered by adequate broadband.

There is no single contractor in Ireland that could do such a job in 18 months under the likely levels of resources (taxpayers' money) on offer through a government tender for the project.

This might change if the parameters of that tender were to shift.

For example, the State could offer more than the estimated €500m of public funds it is willing to put toward the scheme. Or it could offer ownership of the network to the winning tender bidder if it completed the rollout quicker than is currently planned.

But such options would cost the State dearly. Are we willing to consider the extra outlay? If not, it looks like we're stuck with the current five-year roll-out, starting next summer (assuming there are no more delays).

If there is a political dimension to the delay, it is that the Department of Communications has done the incoming government a significant favour. The last thing a new administration would want to announce is a delay in rural broadband rollout. For Department officials, it also has the added advantage of re-orienting political attention around the issue and clarifying the narrative.

Ultimately, this is our process. If we want to speed it up, we probably can. But there is no magic bullet. And many will now lose out.

Sunday Indo Business

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