ONE cannot but be somewhat sceptical about assurances from the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Denis Naughton, TD, that eir’s withdrawal from the bidding process for rolling out the National Broadband Plan has not been a setback. His contention that it would lead to the speeding up of final contract negotiations with the one remaining bidder, a consortium led by Enet and also involving SSE, may be a tad naïve and over-optimistic, to say the least.
Surely, as the sole remaining bidders – Siro (a Vodafone-ESB consortium) also withdrew last September – the Enet-SSE people hold all the aces in these negotiations? However, the Minister has himself convinced that this simplifies matters, that it isn’t going to cost more and that the roll-out will be quicker.
This is difficult to believe given the chequered history of the National Broadband Plan to roll out high-speed broadband to all the remaining premises in the country that don’t have it. This plan has suffered so many setbacks along the way that one has to despair of it ever being fully realised in a timely manner.
One only has to look at the track record of broadband roll-out over many years and all the broken promises about meeting deadlines: Back in the early years of this century, Fianna Fáil’s Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey and the Green Party’s Eamon Ryan, when they held the Communications brief, promised that everywhere in Ireland would have high-speed broadband by 2010.
Their successors in the portfolio, Labour’s Pat Rabbitte was going to deliver it by 2015 and Alex White by 2020. Current incumbent Denis Naughten set 2021 as the latest target date and, given recent developments, one would have to question how realisitic this is.
Urban areas enjoy decent broadband speeds, but rural areas lag far behind. In Skibbereen town, for example, one can avail of a lightning speed of one gigabit (1,000MB) per second, but a few miles out the road, it may only be in the range of 1 to 2MB, which is pathetically slow. The National Broadband Plan aims to provide everyone with a minimum of 30MB, which would be a big improvement, at least.
Having decent broadband speed has become more important in rural areas, especially for farmers, as from this year, all schemes operated by the Department of Agriculture are only accepting applications online. As well as that, most progressive farmers input records of their various on-farm activities through apps such as Herdwatch.
Outside of farming, Irish Rural Link estimated that a potential 10,000 jobs per annum are being lost to rural areas because of the absence of high-speed broadband and that, even businesses who have it, are losing out to their urban counterparts because of speeds being much slower. It is vital for the future of rural Ireland that the conditions to aid job creation – chief among them high-speed broadband – are put in place so that younger people can return to live and work in these areas, rear their families and, thereby, help keep small schools and village shops open, doing their bit to preserve the fabric of rural society.
There are an estimated 542,000 premises to be serviced under the National Broadband Plan, some of them in far-flung rural areas. It obviously will take longer for high-speed broadband to be rolled out in more remote places and West Cork has quite a share of these.
Even if a contract cannot be negotiated with the remaining Enet-SSE consortium, Minister Naughten says he has a Plan B up his sleeve, but having to resort to this could add even further to the wait for what has been touted as the biggest infrastructural project the country has seen since rural electrification in the middle years of the last century.
Resulting from the latest development in the National Broadband Plan saga, ISME – which represents small and medium-sized enterprises nationwide – fears that eir’s withdrawal from the tendering process will delay the scheme to 2023 and will deliver only at a greater and unknown cost, greatly impacting on businesses and homes throughout the country. Indeed, ISME has serious reservations about the way the Department is running the current tendering process and is calling for a review of this.
It is also vital that the long-awaited 10-year capital spending plan that the government is due to announce shortly makes significant provision for the roll-out of high-speed broadband across the whole country in order to make up for all the lost time.