A cautious welcome




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31 August 2012 | 0

The Minister for Communications, Energy & Natural Resources, Pat Rabbitte TD, delivered a much anticipated document entitled "Delivering a Connected Society – A National Broadband Plan for Ireland."

Broadly welcomed by industry and consumers, it detailed an ambitious plan to go beyond EU targets to deliver 70Mbps in broadband connectivity to 50% of the population by 2015, with speeds of up to 100Mbps available. This plan also includes government investment to ensure that where people are outside major population centres that 40Mbps is available with at least 30Mbps available in rural areas.

That all sounds good and it does indeed exceed the guidelines set down by Digital Agenda Europe (DAE) which the document quotes requiring "at least 30Mbps connectivity being available to all citizens".

The plan acknowledges that this ambitious scheme could not happen on private investment alone, and therein begins the source of my misgivings.

In the past, there has been a terrible record of value for money from public private partnerships, particularly on base infrastructure. As the document mentions more than once the current state of public finances, one would hope that value for money will uppermost in the direction and oversight of this scheme.

The plan states: "The total funding involved for any State intervention is indicatively estimated at €350 million, €175 million of which will come from public funding sources with the other €175 million from the successful commercial bidder(s) emerging from a public procurement process. State funding will only arise where it is clear that the market will not deliver."

Now this level of investment, if it pays off, would be seen as value for money. The plan quotes the potential for the Internet to contribute to GDP in advanced economies, citing evidence suggesting it could be as high as 6%.

"Provision of quality high speed broadband across Ireland should ensure that such opportunities are fully harnessed and that Ireland reaps the benefits of a truly digital economy," it says.

And this is all true, but €175 million is still an awful lot of money. And the worry continues when one looks at some of the groups that have informed this estimate and the plan in general.

The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources web site states that Next Generation Broadband Taskforce is made up primarily of CEOs of leading telcos, "BT, Eircom/Meteor, Hutchison 3G Ireland (3), Telefonica O2, UPC & Vodafone". There are also representatives from some of the smaller players, "eNet, ESBT, Digiweb, Imagine".

Now, pardon my scepticism here, but isn’t that a panel made up entirely of gamekeepers, as it were?

Where are the broadband users? Where are the companies that provide services via this broadband access? Where are the Googles, YouTubes, Salesforces et al?

Now, there was, as  part of this task force and document preparation, a public consultation, but without permanent voices within the task force itself, one can’t help but feel that the debate may have been a bit one sided.

All of the task force members listed are from commercial organisations and so have a different motivation at heart than the minister-and not one that they can be blamed for. However, that motivation is not conducive to ensuring the best service possible comes to the citizenry. The minister is not, nor could be expected to be, an expert in how broadband is merely an access conduit to a world of business and service and so the fact that the plan refers to subsequent initiatives to generate interest in broadband usage betrays a cart/horse juxtaposition that is less than ideal.

At the earliest possible stages, there should have been much more of a focus on what the availability of such services should represent to Irish businesses, SMEs in particular, through the participation of the service providers who will do more to deliver that value than any fibre provider or network carrier.

As a result of this, I find I must give this but a cautious welcome as, in common with other nice sounding initiatives (remember that lovely eGovernment doc?), it can still fall flat in implementation, especially if it is primarily informed by a set of vested interests.

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