REALLY all that people in rural Ireland who are struggling with abysmally-low broadband speeds want to know is when they are they going to get the ever-elusive service that their urban counterparts take for granted, and the lack of which is impinging on the quality of living in the countryside.
There has been yet more talk – but little else – about the National Broadband Plan and its viability as the findings of the review by independent process auditor Peter Smyth about former Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten’s contacts with last remaining bidder for the broadband roll-out contract, Granahan McCourt boss David McCourt, were debated in the Dáil this week and also considered by the Public Accounts Committee.
While the Smyth report found that neither Naughten nor McCourt had the opportunity to influence the conduct of the tender process and that the former’s resignation as minister had insulated the process from any apparent bias created by his social engagements with the latter, not everybody agrees with this assessment, especially as it was largely based on statements from the two main players being investigated.
Notwithstanding the urgency of procuring the broadband service that is required for 540,000 households in rural Ireland, it is still important that the bid submitted by Granahan McCourt is found to be robust enough to deliver what is required before proceeding with it, otherwise we could be back to square one yet again.
This National Broadband Plan has been on the go since 2012 and successive government ministers have failed to get the rural element going after allowing eir to cherrypick the easier task of providing high-speed broadband in urban concentrations across the country. The number of premises that can now avail of such a service is around 1.7million (74%) but the more difficult task of getting it to the remaining 26% has seen the big players that initially tendered for the work lose interest because of the scale of the job involved, as these households are scattered far and wide – many in remote locations – and would not yield a lucrative payback for the consortia involved.
The Department of Communications experts vetting the only bid they have received, that of Granahan McCourt, have a difficult task in that they don’t have rival bids for comparison purposes. There is a certain element of the unknown about it and, with the enormity of what is involved, simply making an act of faith in it and hoping for the best will just not be good enough.
Richard Bruton is the latest Communications Minister to state categorically that the government is absolutely committed to reaching the 540,000 premises which will not be reached by commercial operators and has assured everybody that his priority is ‘to bring this process to a fair and impartial conclusion as quickly as possible.’ However, time is moving on and rural Ireland continues to struggle compared with urban areas as the economic uplift of recent years has been slow to reach country areas.
High-speed broadband, in itself, is not the cure-all for rural Ireland, but having the service available there means that existing businesses can compete better and the potential would be there for new businesses to set up, while more people could come to live in such areas and be able to work from home. All of this would boost rural economies in terms of helping to maintain existing jobs, providing jobs new jobs, supporting local shops and services, and keeping small schools open, thereby stemming the flow of rural depopulation.
A lot of record keeping and returns by farmers are now done online, adding to the importance of having decent broadband speeds available across rural Ireland. Tourism is a growth industry in coastal areas in particular and most bookings nowadays are made online and it is important for our tourism providers to have a strong online presence in order to market their products and services effectively.
Therefore, for the sake of rural Ireland, we need to get past the talking and on to the action stage of high-speed broadband provision as quickly as we possibly can, hopefully with the confidence that it can be achieved without any undue further setbacks.