Wednesday 11 December 2019

John Downing: 'Biggest project since electrification will at last see light of day - and it has potential to transform rural communities'


A rural house in Dromiskin, Co Louth is electrified in the late-1940s
A rural house in Dromiskin, Co Louth is electrified in the late-1940s
John Downing

John Downing

If hot air, promises, and target dates could achieve anything, then we would long ago have been surfing hectically through a celestial cyber-world.

Looking back on the last seven years, back to August 2012 when then-communications minister Pat Rabbitte unveiled his plans for high-speed provincial and rural broadband, is dispiriting.

We can understand if you do not buy into this latest bells and whistles launch, with €3bn going to be spent to bring the promised service to every corner of the country by the end of 2026.

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has billed the latest version of the project as the "biggest investment in rural Ireland ever".

He and Communications Minister Richard Bruton have been forthright about how crucial a reliable broadband service is for everyone.

Already, farmers can only apply for their EU grants via online and many are already performing a Houdini act to do that. Increasingly, basic services such as education, health and other things cannot happen without broadband.

Yes, runaway costs must be controlled. We note that the most senior official in the Department of Public Expenditure, Robert Watt, has warned on this issue, arguing that other important public investment projects risk being deprived of funds.

But since fully functioning membership of the human race increasingly depends on broadband - at this point access is far more important than cost. So, let us, for one more time, just keep faith.

The service must be rolled out to every corner of the country. It has the potential to help transform rural communities, allowing them for the first time ever to compete economically with their urban fellow citizens. That conversely means it also has the ability to ease congestion in urban areas, especially Dublin.

The big difference now is that the contract has been signed with the consortium National Broadband Ireland (NBI). But given the history of this one, the optics are even more vital. It is too easy to once again throw out dates and targets which no longer cut it.

Leo Varadkar knows early signs of action on the ground are necessary. Thus we were told yesterday that surveying and design teams will be out in early January, hitting those first lucky locations, places cited include Carrigaline in Co Cork, parts of Connemara in west Galway, and several towns in counties Kilkenny and Limerick.

It is a huge undertaking which has been rightly compared to rural electrification in the early 1950s, a major project which also gave a huge fillip to country areas. It will cover 537,000 premises through 146,000km of fibre cable.

By the end of 2021, 115,000 homes and businesses will have the service, with double that two years later. The idea of hubs - already being piloted in places like Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh in the west Cork Gaeltacht - are also extremely important, especially for the areas which are deemed more remote.

It is simply too hard to judge whether leaving ownership of the infrastructure with the contractor is loss of a vital national asset - or avoidance of an obsolete infrastructure. For now we have to go with the expert advice and hope this project can begin to advance towards reality at long last.

Irish Independent

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