Tuesday 24 April 2018

Rural broadband is a basic utility, not a State 'intervention'

A connected Ireland is a right for rural developers.
A connected Ireland is a right for rural developers.
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

When is a broadband rollout not a rollout? When it's an "intervention".

There are a few curious elements about the country's stuttering schedule to provide high speed internet for the third of Irish businesses and homes currently outside acceptable levels. One of these elements is the language we use for the process. It's starting to feel out of touch.

For the vast majority of us, the State-subsidised rollout of fibre broadband to rural areas is a straightforward idea and is talked about as such. But to Government Ministers looking to explain the slowing progress, the whole thing is persistently presented as an administratively technical macroeconomic phenomenon known as an "intervention" or a "State intervention".

Look it up. You'll find that the word 'rollout' is rarely used at all. This is probably not accidental. 'Rollout' conveys absolute responsibility and deadlines. By contrast, 'intervention' implies something short of State responsibility. It is more resonant with a bonus achievement. "If this is completed, we've done something extraordinary and wonderful," the intervention advocate might say. "If it is not, or if it takes another 10 years, well we tried. And it's not really our fault because, you know, who knows how these interventions work?"

Is it correct to say that connecting Irish homes to broadband is a State intervention in private market concerns? Up to now, this has been the orthodox view. Broadband is provided by private operators. Therefore, even if a third of citizens don't (and won't) get adequate coverage, we have to tread carefully in case a private operator might decide sometime that they want to offer a service there.

This brings the question back to what broadband is. Is it a private market luxury? Or is it a basic utility?

There are still quite a few people who subconsciously default to the belief that broadband is not a utility like water or electricity. Broadband, they think, is something that is very useful. But you can easily live without it.

This is probably where the real fault line exists over the term "intervention". We don't talk about providing for electricity, water or schools as a tricky, technical "state intervention". They are basic facets that are required to exist in a modern, civilised way.

We don't even regard phone landlines as something we can do without. (Ireland still operates a universal service law where any rural house in the country is obliged to be connected to a phone line at Eir's expense.)

So it may be time to stop talking about broadband as some sort of First World perk.

It is not a luxury, it is not something useful. It's a basic necessity. It is something that citizens now need as a basic element in modern life.

If that rings true, then talk of a State-subsidised 'intervention' starts to sound increasingly out of touch.

Instead, we should call it for what it is: a vital national planning operation that is increasingly urgent. And it is the full responsibility of any Irish government, without qualification or excuse.

Yes, the European Commission needs to be satisfied under existing state aid rules. Yes, a map was necessary to crystallise the areas where adequate internet services do not exist.

But at no point has there been the slightest suggestion from anyone in that European Commission, or anyone else across the entire EU, that there is a problem with rolling out broadband to rural Irish areas. There is no Brussels bogeyman lurking in this process. It is simply up to us to get on with it.

This may seem hard on those working on the National Broadband Plan. Many decent people have been trying to get things done with the process, particularly from within the Department of Communications. And to be fair, the two previous ministers - Pat Rabbitte and Alex White - advanced the process while in situ.

But the issue now is time. As laudable as the National Broadband Plan is, it is still working on the clock of a 2012-era initiative. It is not regarded as an emergency: it is simply regarded as a medium to long term project.

But the requirement for broadband access in 2016 is a world away from what it was in 2012. It is far, far more central now to basic elements of everyday life. And that is why people in rural areas get so alarmed when they hear a completion date of 2022.

Businesses, in particular, can't function on 3Mbs or 5Mbs. They could have five years ago. But not now.

This issue is not going to be sedated by technical language. Nor is it going to die down. The Government needs to revisit its timelines on this and to stop referring to it as anything other than a basic, essential utility for all Irish people.

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