The recent exit of Eir from the Rural Broadband tender scheme, and the subsequent accusations that the process has been mismanaged is not the most interesting material to read about. The topic demands at least a passing understanding of a process that has been ongoing since 2012 and some knowledge of the impact that high speed, or even decent quality internet connections could have to rural Ireland. However, this is perhaps one of the most important infrastructure schemes in the history of the state, and one that directly affects tens of thousands of people around the country, not to mention students from all over Ireland who routinely travel home.
The Rural Broadband scheme was first proposed by then Minister Pat Rabbitte and was originally called the ‘National Broadband Plan’. It aimed to bring a minimum standard of internet connection to every home in the state, regardless of location or commercial viability. This would be achieved by identifying those home around the state that were not going to be connected by commercial interests due to them not being cost effective, and then the state funding their connection.
The longest part of this process was identifying the houses that were not commercially viable. This was required to ensure an accurate tender could be issued to find a company to deliver the connections two the non-viable houses. This would subsequently be used to identify the cost attached to this venture and lay out a roadmap for the eventual tender winner to recoup some of their costs. This process was completed in 2014 and tender offers were sought from the private sector.
This is broadly where the whole process fell apart. In 2016 a shortlist of three companies was compiled to deliver the process, Eir, Enet and Siro. Each of these planned for this to be a profitable endeavour for them as a result of the direct payment from the Irish state and the subsequent changes they could apply for those wishing to use their lines. This second part of the plan was undermined by the Government permitting Eir, one of the three companies in the tender process and already the provider of much of the states telecommunications infrastructure to pull 300,000 households out of the scheme. These households were viewed by many as the commercially viable portion of the project and their removal caused Siro, the joint Vodafone ESB venture to pull out of the tender process in late 2017. The process was further damaged by Eir themselves pulling out of the tender process in February 2018.
This has left just a single bidder in the process: Enet. Alongside this the process is increasingly viewed as commercially unviable meaning that when it comes down to it they may not even want to participate in the scheme as it won’t be worth enough to them.
The delays and problems that have emerged in this scheme seem like just another example of a Government project being delayed or not meeting expectations, but unfortunately this runs much deeper. The lack of rural infrastructure is regularly cited as a reason for rural depopulation, and beyond that the lack of reasonable internet connections have stalled the growth of many businesses countrywide. Worse yet, as more services depart rural areas due to the fact that they are viewed as commercially unviable the internet becomes increasingly essential to deliver services to rural Ireland.
This scheme has been compared to the rural electrification which started in the 1940s. That process took over 20 years to completed. We are six years into this current scheme as thus far the State has yet to lay a single cable and the entire process is in doubt. Fianna Fáil last (Thursday) passed a motion in the Dáil calling for a halt and review of the process as a result of the recent exit of Eir from the process. While this vote can and will be ignored by the Government, it does rightly point out the failures of this current system and the need for a re-think. Currently we have a process that only has one competitor, an objective that is unattractive to commercial interests and a Government that seems determined to stay their current course despite the fact that the path is dropping out from underneath them.
This problem like all too many is interconnected with the other major issues that our country faces. So long as one can’t get access to a vital utility in large parts of rural Ireland then more and more people will depart for the cities. This reinforces the cycle that is leading to the decline and depopulation across rural Ireland. This population shift to the cities in turn exacerbates our current housing crisis and all the subsequent problems that causes. This cycle needs to be broken at some point, but for that to happen we need a new look at how Government’s deliver projects for the people. No project will be perfect and there is a good chance that they won’t all make their money back, but Government is not a business. It a service for the people and it is time we start treating it as such.
Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor