WHILE it is great to see the Ludgate Digital Hub being officially opened this weekend in Skibbereen, having been up and running successfully for the last few months, we wonder how long it will really take for the seemingly-interminably delayed roll-out of the €1bn State-subsidised rural broadband plan to reach every home in the country? It is estimated that up to 96% of the country is poorly served by broadband and the further away people live from towns and cities, the more acute the problem is, so they could be waiting until 2022 – or maybe even longer if the set targets of the roll-out are not met.
Announcing the big broadband roll-out with great fanfare earlier this month, Minister for Communications Denis Naughten, TD, described it as ‘a decision on the scale and significance of rural electrification in the last century.’ However, the devil emerges from the detail later in the statement making the announcement, declaring: ‘The timing of each stage of the procurement is dependent on a number of factors including the number of bidders and the complexities that may be encountered during the process.’
Implementation of the National Broadband Plan is very much dependent on bringing private sector telecoms operators on board to build the new high-speed network, but there will have to be strict conditions imposed in any contracts entered into to ensure that the roll-out in rural areas will be every bit as complete as it will be in urban areas. The chosen companies – who will own the networks they provide – will have no problem with the roll-out in towns and cities, but a State-led intervention will be needed in rural areas where there is no certainty that the telecoms sector will invest, according to Minister Naughten.
Comparing the broadband roll-out to rural electrification way back when is not quite valid because the electricity transmission network was owned by the State. In the case of broadband, the government – while its first preference would have been State ownership – has reluctantly decided for sound practical reasons to let that go in order to speed up the roll-out.
Minister Naughten contended that it would have cost the government an estimated €500m to €600m to own the broadband network and putting this amount through the exchequer books would have impacted on spending in other areas due to the tight parameters laid down by EU fiscal rules. In negotiating roll-out contracts with the private consortia, one of the most important clauses that needs to be central to any and all contracts agreed is some form of public service obligation that will give every citizen in Ireland a legal right to broadband access so that people in rural areas will not lose out again to their urban counterparts.
The latest delay means that the roll-out will not now begin until next summer with three-quarters of the premises receiving their high-speed broadband by 2019, but the question is: how long will it take for the difficult final 25% to be delivered to all the far-flung rural areas that are also entitled to the service?
If they are lucky enough to be looked after by 2022, as projected, that’s still six years of an extra wait for something that is needed to run businesses that can provide scarce jobs for rural areas. All farm scheme applications will have to be made online from 2018, but not all rural areas will be served by high-enough broadband speeds by then.
When negotiating terms and conditions with the chosen providers, there should be defined quotas of high-speed broadband provision for rural areas, in tandem with the easier urban roll-out, for each year of the contracts’ duration, in order to ensure that the roll-out in rural Ireland is not conveniently pushed out to the end of the agreed delivery period.
Let us not forget that, 12 years ago, then Communications Minister Dermot Ahern promised that all of us in rural Ireland would have access to high-speed broadband by 2010. That deadline expired six years ago and there are, at least, another six years to go before the promise is – we hope – finally fulfilled.
But, we’ll only believe it when we see it happen.