Friday 23 August 2019

Ciara Kelly: 'Rural homes are getting better broadband deal'

Providing the same level of broadband provision to remote rural parts of Ireland is just not sensible. Stock picture
Providing the same level of broadband provision to remote rural parts of Ireland is just not sensible. Stock picture
Dr Ciara Kelly

Dr Ciara Kelly

Dublin Bay South TD and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan created consternation in last week when he suggested the National Broadband Plan was unfairly "advantaging" rural homes. At the Oireachteas Committee hearing he went on to say: "We're giving a better deal to rural Ireland than to my constituents" and that rolling out broadband to individual remote dwellings in this way was rewarding "planning sprawl".

As you may well imagine, this did not go down well with rural TDs and possibly rural voters. The real question is, however - is he right? I think he is.

The National Broadband Plan is in the end going to cost around €3.25bn. A vast sum of money. The equivalent of building multiple, multiple hospitals in most normal countries. Or one here in Ireland. And that is the first issue with the National Broadband Plan - it is simply too expensive.

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We have an odd way of treating public money like Monopoly money here. So if the Government decides we need something, often for electoral gain, we will acquire it irrespective of cost. We may bemoan it. But it doesn't prevent us spending.

Unlike our personal finances or our home budget - where we might say "We can't afford X" - public money is considered a bottomless pit that we will pay things off over generations if needs be.

I presume it's because the people spending it don't own it, so they have no difficulty throwing it around like snuff at a wake. But even the taxpayers - who do own it - tend not to make the connection between them paying over half their income in taxes and levies and the overly loose public purse strings. So they don't hold politicians to account over it. So for everything from compensation to infrastructure, the Irish psyche still sides with the individual. So paying out millions from State funds is seen as reasonable, irrespective of rationality.

In the case of broadband, up to €15,000 will be spent on connecting to the grid individual houses - about a quarter of which are empty. Eamon Ryan is correct when he says his constituents are not getting that kind of home improvement grant - which is what this is - from the State. What would you do with €15,000? A nice glass wall in your kitchen? Or perhaps you are far from glass walls in your current circumstances - perhaps you would spend €15,000 on the knee replacement or the cataract surgery you've been waiting on for four years so you could walk or see.

The mantra about rural Ireland deserving services is a reasonable one but shouldn't require us turning off our critical faculties.

I often wonder how the supply of water - which many now suggest is a human right - is seen as less important for isolated rural homes than broadband. All over the country there are homes which have made their own arrangements with wells, septic tanks and private water schemes, because there is no expectation that the public water supply could connect to them - but broadband appears to be viewed differently.

You make a choice to live in an isolated dwelling. They tend to be comparatively cheap for the individual owner. But providing services to them - water, electricity, gas, roads etc - tends to be expensive for the supplier. Which is one of the reasons they're unsustainable. They don't have any of the economies of scale that exist when you live in a clustered community, like a town or city. Some people believe that those who live in Dublin or Cork are lucky to have services and infrastructure on their doorstep. But the reality is, it is far cheaper to provide infrastructure to those who live in high density areas. But also those who live there will pay multiples both for their homes and indeed for their property tax - compared to those in splendid isolation. A city dweller personally spends a huge amount on their residence and is easy and cheap to connect to the grid; someone in a one-off bungalow is the very opposite of that.

The other issue with the National Broadband Plan is the 'gold standard' approach that has been taken: not only must we connect these half empty homes but they must have the best broadband possible. So no 5G wireless for them.

They are to have fibre provided via ducting systems - none of this using yer aul ESB poles for these holiday homes up boreens. Nope, they are to have the best (our) money can buy and indeed they are to have it cheaper than anyone else. So while an average broadband connection costs €170, these homes - which may actually cost in excess of €15,000 each to connect - will pay a mere €100.

That extra subsidy - for fear they would be charged too much - in addition to the fact that this area of technology is moving so fast it is possible a new form of broadband delivery system might be the norm by the time this fibre system is delivered - literally makes no sense.

And possibly the worst aspect about this is despite us paying more than €3bn and the provider investing a few hundred million, it is they who will own the system - not us.

Eir has suggested they can deliver a workable broadband for €1bn to these homes. Yes it may not be exactly like for like, there may be no ducting. The connection subsidy may not be quite so great. But they will be connected - in the same way a septic tank isn't as good as mains sewage - but people aren't suggesting we roll that out to every home in the country.

And yet some kind of determined financial ineptitude has kicked in where the obstacles - a new tendering process and an extended timeline - seem to outweigh the clear problems: vast expense for the public purse and an emphasis on excessive quality with the current plan.

Eamon Ryan is correct. We cannot provide the level of service to one-off housing that we can provide to those who live in conurbations. To suggest otherwise is electioneering, nothing more.

@ciarakellydoc

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