Denis Naughten: 'Broadband is a human necessity and all must have access'
There is nobody in Ireland who believes that any home, regardless of location, should be without electricity. That belief is what drove the politicians of the last century to deliver on rural electrification.
If that decision was determined purely on a cost-benefit analysis then today we would have homes in Ireland without this basic human requirement. But could we have seen the developments that we have had in agriculture, particularly in the dairy sector where we are now a global leader, were it not for electricity?
The same decision now needs to be made on rural broadband, but on this occasion the potential to exploit this technology is far greater.
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For example, someone in Ballymacward, Co Galway, could work remotely with colleagues in Singapore or San Francisco. This reduces the need to travel, with its climate impact, and can bring well-educated young families back into rural areas where they can actively contribute to local community groups. This injection of new blood alone will be transformative. This is in addition to the potential broadband has to reduce the need to travel to access healthcare, so older people can remain in their own home much longer.
But the case for broadband becomes far more important as the uses for this technology develop, as was the case with electricity in the last century. Within five years broadband will become more important than electricity. So why do I say that?
As Energy Minister, I introduced the first grant aid for solar PV panels for homes, including grants for battery storage. I also committed Ireland at EU level to develop a pricing model to allow homeowners to export electricity onto the grid. Within five years, I believe that solar PV panels will become standard on roof tops across Ireland. Today, the technology is available to provide a seven-day weather forecast at farm level, and within five years we will have very accurate sunlight forecasting for individual homes.
With the development of both of these technologies, within five years, external electricity supply for daily home use will be less important, but you will need broadband to make it all work.
For example, going out the door in the morning you will set a wash and dry for your clothes and just throw them in the machine. That machine will then link via broadband with the weather service to see when is the most opportune time during the day that there will be enough sunlight to generate the electricity from the solar PV panels on the roof to do the wash and dry for the clothes.
This is just one very practical example of how broadband, in five years' time, will be far more important than your external electricity supply.
Some will say this broadband technology can be provided nationwide through the rollout of 5G mobile technology, but that is not the answer.
As communications minister I started the work, the first in Europe, on the rollout of 5G technology across Ireland. As part of this work the communications regulator ComReg published a report last November on the geographic rollout of 5G mobile technology.
This analysis concluded that 99.5pc geographic coverage of Ireland, bringing a paltry 30mbps, would cost more than €1.86bn to build over a 10-year period and would require 5,910 new mast sites (out of which 313 would be in challenging terrain) and 1,252 upgrades to existing masts.
This would provide just 30mbps, which is well short of the 150mbps currently proposed under the National Broadband Plan. It is also the case that by the time this network would be built out, speeds of 30mbps would be far short of what would be required by modern Irish homes.
This Government and every member of Dáil Éireann will have a decision to make over the coming weeks. Do we let rural Ireland fall into the technological dark ages or do we take the bold decision of our predecessors and provide every home with the basic human necessity that is broadband?
Denis Naughten is a former Energy and Communications Minister