THE debate over the introduction of the pay-as-you-go sports app, GAAGO, for Irish audiences, has highlighted another problem entirely – the ongoing issues relating to broadband rollout.
The public has been taking sides all week on the debate – whether agreeing with the GAA and RTÉ’s joint plan to put some top class matches behind a paywall, or criticising the move as being unfair to lifelong fans.
But whichever side of the divide you are on, there’s no doubt it has put the spotlight on a secondary problem – the lack of proper broadband in so many areas of rural Ireland.
The GAA is a keystone of rural Irish culture. And while it is not exclusively a rural organisation, it is certainly the beating heart of Ireland’s small parishes.
And for older people, especially, watching the weekend matches on television has provided a few hours of wonderful enjoyment during the championship season.
It would be condescending to suggest that all older audiences would not be able to manage the shift to online viewing, or digital payments.
But the sad truth of the matter is that not all viewers have access to smart televisions, laptops or even desktop computers.
Watching a championship match on the small screen of a phone is not a very enjoyable experience, especially for those with failing eyesight.
And even for those who have more modern equipment to hand, there is a very real elephant in the room that not all debates around GAAGO have addressed – the roll-out of broadband.
In order to stream these matches on devices other than a phone, or a phone-connected device, broadband is an essential component of the GAAGO plan.
And yet, we are still some way from delivering on the promises of the national broadband roll-out plan – the project which is meant to bring broadband to those hard-to-reach places.
A cursory search of the National Broadband Ireland website this week shows that many locations in West Cork have been given an estimated start date of ‘between January 2025 and December 2026’ for roll-out of the service.
In a modern world where internet connection is now essential in rural areas, for everything from paying an electricity bill to getting your car tax, it is nothing short of a joke.
These same areas are the very ones being devastated by the ongoing closures of banks, post offices and local shops.
And now these areas could well be deprived of accessing the type of sport that has, ironically, been holding so many of these communities together, despite all the challenges.
The government must be red-faced from this unexpected exposure of the painfully slow roll-out of such an essential service.
It’s no wonder, then, that high profile politicians have come out in favour of asking both the GAA, and its 50/50 partner in GAAGO – RTÉ – to reconsider which matches are put out of reach of TV audiences.
Even the Tánaiste didn’t hesitate when probed on the paywall. Asked to comment on the fact that the recent Cork and Tipperary hurling clash was only available on a pay-per-view basis, Micheál Martin immediately said he disagreed with it.
‘Our senior citizens need to be able to watch these games and … hurling would benefit because if we want to continue to brand hurling as one of the great iconic identifiers of Ireland … we want more and more people to see it,’ he said.
Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly, himself a former GAA president, also said mistakes were made, and the plan needs to be reviewed after the current championship.
He also made the valid point that just 53% of Europeans are seen as having the ‘digital skills’ necessary to confidently access the games.
If the GAA want so badly to charge lifelong fans for the privilege of being just that – fans – then perhaps it should wait until all of those fans at least have the ability to make the decision whether they want to subscribe or not. But now, without nationwide access to good broadband, that decision has already been made for many.
The only problem is, if the GAA does wait for that to happen, the online cash cow will have to be stalled in her stride until at least 2025, but most likely, 2026.