Opinion Comment

Monday 14 October 2019

Adrian Weckler: 'Urban-rural digital divide is now worse than ever'

 

This National Broadband Plan process has been going on for seven years. Stock image / PA
This National Broadband Plan process has been going on for seven years. Stock image / PA
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Broadband to a million rural residents may be cancelled - or delayed for years - because the Government messed up the National Children's Hospital.

That's quite an update from the Taoiseach. Alternatively, Leo Varadkar says, Brexit might put off the roll-out.

This National Broadband Plan process has been going on for seven years. A final call on it was due last October. Then by Christmas. Then by the end of February. Now it will be Easter.

Meanwhile, study after study shows that rural areas are faring worse by being in a broadband desert. Companies won't locate there. Young people won't consider living there.

If anything, the effect from the digital divide is worse in 2019 than it was in 2012 - broadband is utterly central now to everyday life.

But what was a policy consensus in Ireland on creating a level playing field between rural and urban areas now seems to be fracturing.

The most urban Taoiseach in a generation is now saying it may not be worth paying for rural broadband.

The final cost, it is rumoured, may reach up to €3bn over a 25-year period.

That seems like an awful lot of money. It also may not be an accurate figure.

The problem the Government has now is that ditching the current process would condemn a quarter of the population to a bad outcome for many more years. Even if it chose to support an alternative method of subsidy or delivery, it would likely take a long time between State aid plans and starting another tender process.

As they always do, private operators are currently promising to connect hundreds of thousands of one-off homes around the country. Hardly anyone in the industry believes they will do this. Neither does the Government. So if it wobbles in its policy resolve to subsidise rural broadband, the game is probably up for hundreds of communities.

Irish Independent

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