NO amount of trying to polish it up with positive spin, such as that being attempted by Minister for Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Denis Naughten, will convince people in rural areas that they are any closer to having the quality broadband service they have been promised, especially following SSE’s withdrawal from the consortium with Enet, which was the final one left in the bidding process.
Even back in February, the Minister’s line after the withdrawal of eir from the bidding seemed – as we remarked here at the time – a tad naïve and over-optimistic. He maintained then that eir’s withdrawal had not been a setback, his view being that it would lead to the speeding up of final contract negotiations.
That does not seem to have happened and no amount of spin can hide the fact that SSE – who are infrastructure specialists – withdrawing from the process means that it is probably not an attractive or viable proposition. Prior to the eir withdrawal earlier this year, the Vodafone-ESB consortium, Siro, pulled out last September, leaving only Enet now to take on this massive project.
One would have to question Enet’s ability to complete the task without the backing of one of the big players who have pulled out in the past year, otherwise why else would they have brought SSE on board with them in the first instance to make a joint bid? Enet’s chairman David McCourt is as stubborn as Minister Naughten in maintaining that the process is very much on track: ‘We’re just weeks away from submitting our final tender. The team is very focused on concluding the procurement phase of this project and moving swiftly into delivery,’ he boldly declared, but industry experts are sceptical about this.
Tests carried out recently revealed that Ireland has the 36th slowest broadband speed in the world – behind Madagascar even – so the catch-up with other countries we are competing against for trade and business is immense. More than 540,000 homes in this country are still lacking broadband with any sort of decent speed and it looks certain that the current National Broadband Plan’s aim to have this provided by 2020 is not going to be achieved, given the way that it is unravelling.
Over 110,000km of fibre-optic cable has to be rolled out across rural Ireland to achieve the plan’s aims at a cost of €1.5bn. Half of this is meant to be funded by Irish taxpayers with the company which gets the contract picking up the balance. It could end up that the State will have to stump up the entire cost, but at least it would then own the infrastructure, which might not necessarily be a bad thing in hindsight.
Some opposition politicians – in Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Labour Party – have called on the government to go back to the drawing board. However, the government must be between and a rock and a hard place as to whether to press ahead with the current plan or to scrap it.
Clearly, Minister Naughten wants to see it through and try to salvage the existing plan, despite of all the setbacks it has endured in the past year in particular, as he feels a review would further delay the roll-out of rural broadband. Back in February, he intimated that he had a ‘Plan B’ up his sleeve, but never revealed what it was, so perhaps it’s time we were told what it is. Perish the thought that he might have been bluffing!
The highly-ambitious nature of the National Broadband Plan, which has been on the go since 2012 but has made little tangible progress in the past six years, will make it even more difficult to deliver in view of all the setbacks it has encountered thus far. However, people in rural Ireland are seeing their hopes of decent broadband coverage diminishing on an ongoing basis and are sick to the teeth of it; remember that promises of better rural broadband go back almost 20 years to when Fianna Fáil’s Dermot Ahern was the minister responsible and he and many of his successors in the job have since sailed off into the political sunset, leaving the situation unresolved.
How much longer are the people of rural Ireland prepared to tolerate the same old same old?