Monday 19 November 2018

Adrian Weckler: Dublin politicians must not relegate country areas to a communications Stone Age

Communications Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Communications Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Try to imagine, for one minute, that half of Dublin, Cork or Limerick had no broadband infrastructure.

Imagine that large areas were told they had to travel to the local library, or into the city centre, to send an email or download a form. Ludicrous, isn't it?

Yet that is the bizarre situation we now take for granted in Ireland.

At least 540,000 homes and businesses outside cities and big towns are told broadband is a luxury, something they should be willing to live without.

Until now, the Government has been trying to build a State-subsidised network that can remedy this. Now, it seems to be losing heart.

Everyone was ready for the first homes to be connected next year. But the Government has all but confirmed this won't happen.

Worse, it's signalling there may need to be a rethink on the whole thing. That could mean the plan gets ditched.

No broadband for you in the countryside, or in small towns. No broadband for your kids, for your farms.

It's OK, though. There'll be broadband for me, and for Leo Varadkar and for Richard Bruton. And for the vast majority of those who are advising now to "steady the ship" and "pause the process".

That's because, for the first time in the history of the National Broadband Plan (NBP), both the Taoiseach and Communications Minister are Dublin-based. As are virtually all of the pundits and policymakers.

Add the Finance Minister to that list (all three ministers live within 8km of each other, in a superb broadband zone) and you now have a noticeable absence of rural sensibility at the top of this process.

True, both Mr Varadkar and Mr Bruton might reasonably say theirs is a national party with a lot of rural voters.

But it's still worth considering that neither has a single constituent who will be affected if the NBP is scrapped or delayed.

To them, other political considerations may now take on more prominence when weighing the pros and cons of proceeding, especially with a general election possible early next year.

Even if the NBP's auditor, Peter Smyth, gives the process the go-ahead after searching for potential improper meetings between the last communications minister, Denis Naughten, and the head of the bid consortium, David McCourt, other potential barriers are currently being floated.

A front page newspaper story last week suggested unnamed politicians are worried of a possible €3bn cost to the NBP.

There was no further detail or substance given to the claim, which is far outside any estimate that informed industry or department officials have mooted, publicly or privately.

However, the figure may serve to scare urban voters, or attempt to suggest to town-based voters who have broadband that it may not be worth their taxpayers' money to subsidise the houses down the road who have to do without.

Either way, as someone who has been covering the ins and outs of this process for over six years, there is a distinct change of mood in the air. And it feels like it's coming from the top.

This newspaper has rightly applied pressure on the Government all the way through the process.

We have harried successive ministers and Taoisigh to produce a workable plan, something that will give a million Irish citizens a basic communications infrastructure.

We're not going to let up now. There is a clear national interest at stake here.

It is neither fair nor economically sensible that a handful of Dublin-based policymakers decide to keep rural areas in the communications Stone Age.

Aside from anything else, the cities simply do not need such an overwhelming percentage of all the investment and economic development at the expense of regional towns and rural areas.

Irish Independent

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