Friday 23 August 2019

John Downing: 'Politics around rollout more complex than the technology'

  

(stock photo)
(stock photo)
John Downing

John Downing

Getting broadband into every parish from Malin to Mizen and from Tuskar to Slyne is the only hope that this country can finally have some semblance of balanced development.

If we continue as we are, the Greater Dublin Area, and its circle of further dormitory suburbs in Louth, Meath, Kildare, Wicklow and beyond, will continue to choke on its own overpopulation and development. Further afield, smaller communities will continue to dwindle and die.

But the politics of the rural broadband rollout make the various attendant complex technologies seem relatively simple. On the one hand the Taoiseach sticks to his promise that, while it may prove very dear, it will happen soon, and it will be worth it in the medium to longer term.

Against that, Fianna Fáil insists Mr Varadkar is ignoring realistic concerns about overspending which are being raised. Micheál Martin is also playing a dangerous enough game here, risking being bracketed as anti-rural, in hopes that urban voters will baulk at runaway costs, and rural voters will not believe another set of promises and target dates.

Then a complex enough political story is further complicated by the assertion by Eir boss Carolan Lennon that her firm could roll out high-speed broadband to 540,000 homes, farms and businesses for just a third of the sum the State has agreed to invest, and a fifth of the estimated final cost.

That's €1bn instead of €3bn and counting.

Who are we to believe here? Of course we would all want to believe Ms Lennon.

But it may not be that simple. Mr Varadkar has said he wants to establish if Eir's assertion "stacks up".

The Communications Department has written to it to seek further details. That one went in by email and Eir said it was working on its reply.

In broad terms, it is understood the company will tell the Government it is only possible to deliver rural broadband for €1bn if certain elements are dropped or radically adjusted. These include requirement for a separate wholesale division, and other elements which were flagged by then-Eir boss Richard Moat when withdrawing from the tendering process last year.

Others in the trade look askance at Eir's offer this week and the motivation behind it. Following the foolish government decision to sell off the network in 1998, the private company stands to make money from rural broadband come what may.

Eir's competitors fear its already privileged position in the market may be further enhanced. The Taoiseach has warned the end game may mean rural broadband users paying more than urban counterparts, thus negating what the Government has set out to achieve.

Then there is the prospect of further delay. If Eir's offer does stack up, there will have to be new tendering procedures, taking up more time. Rural dwellers have had enough delay and non-delivery on promises.

Irish Independent

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