Editorial: ‘State’s broadband ambitions now face the test of reality’
Value and price are not always immediately reconcilable, but over time they need to balance out. When the first pole was installed in the rural electrification on November 5, 1946 at Kilsallaghan, in north Co Dublin, no doubt there was at least one onlooker on standby to say: “Sure that’s mad, Ted.”
But by the time they were finished (between 1946 and 1965) 792 areas would be connected; and millions of lives changed for the better.
Back in 2012 when Pat Rabbitte, then communications minister, launched the National Broadband Plan, he described it as “rural electrification for the 21st century”. In terms of scale, complexity and the transformational impact to people’s lives, the comparison is apt.
Even in 1947 – when the first light was switched on at Oldtown, Co Dublin – more than 400,000 homes in rural Ireland were still left in the dark.
Today some 500,000 farms and businesses are bereft of fibre broadband. But the Government has determined “no-one will be left behind”.
So is the plan to bring high-speed broadband – via fibre optic cables – to 100pc of homes and businesses in the country ambitious? Certainly. But is it extravagant? Certainly not. As things stand some three-quarters of the population are connected through commercial operators.
The tricky bit will be to get the last quarter into the picture given they are spread out over a vast area. The Government has been warned it is impractical to do so.
Secretary general of the Public Expenditure Department Robert Watt, in particular, has major reservations. After all it could be the biggest Government contract ever issued.
Yet in the interests of fairness, how can a Government refuse to do so?
As Edmund Burke declared: “Society is indeed a contract … it becomes a participant not only between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
In terms of investment, employment, education and health, broadband is vital to keeping a pulse in rural communities. That does not mean concerns are not justified. Remember, the original estimate for the project was €500m.
This has risen to €3bn. We have not covered ourselves in glory in terms of delivering on price with State projects. The ballooning budget of the Children’s Hospital is but the latest case in point.
The objections raised on pure value-for-money grounds are valid, but in terms of fairness and inclusion it would be impossible for a minister to argue why a child should be disadvantaged just because they were born in a remote location.
Cost and future ownership worries will need to be clarified. We have had big statements on how a combination of State and private investment might bridge the gap between this and future generations. So far the scale of the ambition has not measured up to reality.
This time the onus must be on effective economic delivery, not overblown promises.