Rural fury boils over as broadband pushed back
Rural residents say they are being "abandoned again" as the Government prepares to announce a new delay to a broadband roll-out for a million people living outside our cities. The delay will mean broadband connections being pushed back until 2020 at the earliest.
The move is set to infuriate rural residents and campaigners, some of whom have to travel to local town libraries to send emails and pay bills.
"The perception in rural areas is that there is no urgency in making sure broadband comes to rural areas," said Séamus Boland, chief executive of Irish Rural Link.
"While they're living and working in Dublin, every year we lose around 10,000 jobs that could have been gained with a proper broadband framework here."
While the Programme for Government specified a 2019 connection date for the National Broadband Plan (NBP), a spokesman for new Communications Minister Richard Bruton has indicated that this may not now be met.
"The target deployment schedule will be published following the conclusion of the ongoing procurement process," said a spokesman for Mr Bruton, adding: "The National Broadband Plan is a key priority for Minister Bruton and this Government."
However, telecoms industry executives believe there is a slowing of enthusiasm in Government circles for an expedited roll-out of the NBP.
"It's about politics now," one senior industry executive said, adding: "They want the heat out of it."
Farmers' organisations have reacted with dismay at the prospect of further delays.
"It might not matter if you're living in Dublin, but it matters when you live in the countryside," said Séamus Sherlock, rural development officer with the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association. "Rural communities are being abandoned again. "Families will not stay in an area without broadband. That and rural crime are the two big issues in any upcoming election."
The Government is waiting on an audit report from consultant Peter Smyth on whether meetings between former communications minister Denis Naughten and Granahan McCourt boss David McCourt disrupted "the integrity of the procurement process".
Mr Naughten was replaced by Mr Bruton after being forced to resign earlier this month. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar i ndicated that he had lost confidence in his judgment following a series of meetings with Mr McCourt.
Contacted on the issue, Mr McCourt declined to comment on a possible delay or on his meetings with Mr Naughten.
He had previously denied that anything improper occurred, claiming that several of the meetings occurred at pivotal times for the process, such as when Eir pulled in January out or Enet's chief executive, Conal Henry, stepped down.
"I cannot comment on the matter while the procurement process is under way," he said.
"However, I am, and always have been, completely committed to rural Ireland and to building this network."
Nevertheless, there are growing fears that the Taoiseach and Mr Bruton have decided to put rural broadband back, for fear of political controversy if they proceed quickly.
Urban-based opposition politicians say the process may need to be halted to remove any suggestion of improper interference, even if the audit report comes back with a clean bill of health.