THE government seems to have been more worried in the past fortnight about its survival in the wake of the sudden resignation of Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten than it was about the people in over half a million homes and businesses nationwide who see the prospect of getting proper broadband speeds receding further down the road again. Mr Naughten’s ill-advised dinner dates with the boss of the last remaining bidder for the roll-out of the National Broadband Plan, David McCourt, left Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with no option but to ask his minister to consider his position. However, his resignation throws the roll-out of broadband into chaos that could ultimately result in another trip back to the drawing board.
While the capable Richard Bruton has been moved to the Communications, Climate Action and Environment portfolio to see what can be salvaged from the National Broadband Plan, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar says he is adopting rural broadband as a ‘pet project’. This will be a big test of his government’s commitment to rural Ireland, because in spite of all the PR spin from Dublin 2, it is not much better got outside of the big cities than it was before the 2016 general election and that’s where Fine Gael needs to succeed if it is to turn around its electoral fortunes.
The people of rural Ireland feel that they are treated as second-class citizens when it comes to broadband provision and that slow speeds are curtailing the operation of businesses and the creation of extra employment, which are vital in the efforts to halt further rural decline. With farmers having to do all their paperwork for grants online and register animals electronically, decent broadband speeds are as important as farm machinery and milking parlours.
The big question for Minister Bruton and Taoiseach Varadkar is: where to from here?
First of all, they need to assess whether or not the procurement process for the National Broadband Plan been terminally tainted by Denis Naughten’s badly-judged actions – has it any credibility left?
The question now arises if it would be feasibile for the broadband to be rolled out by the State, which would also then own the network. The National Broadband Plan has been on the go since 2012 and is not even properly up and running yet.
The dilemma for government now is whether to make an act of faith in the last remaining bidder for the contract, or to scrap that process. The bigger telecom operators don’t see anything in it for them, while Enet’s ability to deliver has been questioned by some experts in the field.
Given its record in public health and housing, would the State have the wherewithal to itself deliver on its promise to roll out broadband to rural areas in a timely fashion? Many would greet that prospect with extreme scepticism.
They are certainly between a rock and a hard place on the issue of rural broadband and the Taoiseach may yet rue the day he decided to take it on as a ‘pet project’.