Tuesday 15 October 2019

John Downing: 'Rural Ireland's future depends on broadband. It is time to pay the price for all - in town and country'

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John Downing

John Downing

Yes, it will be dear - but let's finally get on with it. Increasingly you can hardly bless yourself, or wash your face, without downloading some kind of a dooda and linking it in with the whatchamacallit.

We're talking about rural broadband. You'll have gathered by now I'm no techie - but I use technology all the time and have found for many years it's a big help in paying the bills.

One of the country's most senior experts has warned it will cost taxpayers far too much to provide broadband for everyone.

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Public Expenditure Department head Robert Watt does have a heft of simple figures on his side. The plan was cited some years ago as costing €500m - and now we're talking €3bn with doubts about future network ownership.

That scenario comes in the wake of a doubling of projected costs for the new children's hospital. It reminds us that, too often, taxpayers' money is nobody's money and comparable things are far less likely to happen in the private sector.

No harm to Mr Watt for raising a flag here. It's his job to advise and propose. Ultimately, however, it is up to our elected ones to decide this one. And they are entitled to ask what are the costs of failing to deliver what is now a basic service to all of us as a nation?

Are we to allow the western seaboard be designated a theme park for the eastern elite to get away from it all?

Let's note farmers were told that last year was the cut-off point beyond which all EU grants could be applied for online only. After that there would no more paper in the post.

How has that one gone for Mickey Houlihan, now in his late 70s, living in Upper Kilahulla, miles from any sort of reasonable link into the computer world? Well, we're told in some cases his ambitious niece or nephew shows up on the weekend, ahead of the May 15 grant application deadline, to offer help from a land of broadband with hardly a thought of who might get the land in fullness of time.

We're also told that Teagasc, the IFA, ICMSA, or other supportive farm professionals, are never mean in these cases. And the grant applicants, no more than the rest of us, manage to find a way of ensuring they can get the wherewithal to continue living, with or without access to the whatchamacallit.

Life goes on. But these are neither sustainable nor fair answers.

All our citizens need broadband. Farm work, as with many other businesses, often begins with downloading some process and working on from there.

In an era when Dublin is choking on its own congestion, and vast swathes of rural Ireland are swiftly dying simply for want of people, broadband is a key issue offering potential answers. Kerry football superstar Pat Spillane has eloquently pointed out broadband can sustain a business delivering a dozen jobs in a rural place, and those jobs can mean the difference between the local school, post office, shop and various sports clubs continuing or being shut down.

It is past time to make universal broadband happen. We are not talking blank cheques - but we must face the facts that sometimes social factors must take precedence over the basic economics.

We must chiefly weigh the social consequence of not delivering rural broadband.

We're told electric light banished many of the spine-tingling tales of pucaí, headless coaches, and other late-night delights from rural Irish folklore. Often we hear the comparisons with rural electrification and the broadband roll-out to all parts of the country.

Rural electrification was a 1950s phenomenon. But it took time to make that reach everywhere.

In November 1975, when former Taoiseach Enda Kenny was beginning his long career, one of the features of his by-election campaign was a big effort to extend electrification to far west Mayo. In his childhood in the early 1950s, his late father, Henry Kenny, had helped persuade neighbours to "take the electric", despite the understandable fear of change and the prospect of another bill coming in which they might not be able to pay.

These days we expect things to happen much more quickly, chiefly because they can and do happen at a much faster pace. Writing in this newspaper on Saturday, former communications minister Denis Naughten rightly dubbed broadband "a necessity of life".

Mr Naughten - ousted from his job amid controversy about contacts with the last remaining contender to get the broadband roll-out contract - also fairly argued that if cost was the only deciding factor, rural electrification would never have happened. It is probably better compared to the water we expect to come from the kitchen tap than to electricity, but think also about things like free secondary education and expanded access to healthcare.

It's more than about being able to watch Netflix in the far west - though there's nothing wrong with that for an idea either.

It's about access to healthcare advice, to distance education, and to reaching markets at the further end of the world. This writer already personally knows people who work remotely from Ireland for entities based in Australia and Canada. The world has contracted and it is time to maximise these opportunities.

But it also is time to take the politics out of this one - if only because there is very limited political capital to be made from it. It's fine to rail about extra costs - but what is the alternative offered by those who rail in this way.

We also have to take EU tendering rules into account here. It seems fine and dandy to task the ESB or another semi-state entity to do this job. But we long ago signed away that right and we have gone through long processes to get to this point in proceedings.

We are also coming close to decision time here. Official sources insist it will not be decided at a Cabinet meeting scheduled for near Cork city this week.

It is far more likely to be decided the following week before the Dáil returns on May 9. Just hold the day and date - Friday, May 24 - in your head.

That's when voters turn out for the European Parliament and local council elections. Try running the intense voter canvass outside of Dublin - and you don't have to go too far west to find poor and non-existent broadband - without firm answers with days and dates.

Strident critics in Fianna Fáil and Labour leader and former public expenditure minister Brendan Howlin continue to raise issues about price.

As Mr Naughten summed up in Saturday's Irish Independent: "Do we let rural Ireland fall into the dark ages? Or do we take the bold decision of our predecessors and provide every home with broadband?"

Future ownership does remain contentious. Under the deal, the consortium providing the network will operate and maintain it for 25 years. After that the Government will have the option of buying it back.

Irish Independent

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