A National Digital Strategy needs a National Broadband Plan

The delay in the procurement process arising from the Peter Smyth enquiry has led to a vacuum emerging and a debate on the solution needed to deliver high speed broadband to all. This is being filled by discussion of the perceived benefits of alternative technologies and the potentially very large costs of a largely fibre based deployment.

What has got very little airing is that the planned Government investment (and that of some of the commercial operators), is likely to be a once in a 25 year investment at minimum. It follows various initiatives in the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment such as the National Broadband Scheme (2009-2014) and the Rural Broadband Scheme (2011), which were aimed at delivering basic broadband services, the experience of which informed Department officials and Government, of the need to deliver a long-term future proofed solution.

Meanwhile the 80 or so officials in the Department of Communications and the opinions of outside experts, brought in at various stages to inform and guide the design of the tender process, who have extensive knowledge and expertise must stay silent. These are the experts who could better inform the debate, but must stay silent, again to protect the procurement process.

Across the country life goes on and Christmas, one of the busiest retail periods is upon us. In the absence of the deployment of the NBP, the opportunity to engage in online sales is heavily restricted or prohibitive for many smaller based businesses trying to operate from regional Ireland. In a recent report, this situation was described as for businesses in small towns, not having broadband is akin to operating with one hand tied behind their back. See here.

Meanwhile the Department of An Taoiseach issued a call for Submissions to the Public Consultation to inform Ireland’s new National Digital Strategy. In its response the WDC highlighted the importance of;

1. Broadband access as an enabler. There is a significant imbalance in the equity of digital services; urban centres are generally well served but rural areas have poorer service levels and limited competition and investment. Census 2016 Summary results show that overall, 76.2 per cent of the State’s urban households had broadband compared with 61.1 per cent of households in rural areas.

2. The opportunity cost of poor infrastructure is hard to estimate but undoubtedly it can have a significant negative effect on SMEs. There are significant opportunities available to enterprises in rural and regional areas arising from easy access to the global marketplace through on-line sales. Three in four consumers say that they are more likely to purchase from a business that has an online presence1. One of the key constraints is poor internet access and 27% of SMEs without a website say it is because they do not have a good internet connection. At a regional level the same survey found that 14% of Irish SMEs rate their internet connection as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ and this figure rises to 25% in Connacht and Ulster.

3. The WDC submission also highlighted the importance of appropriate training. Adoption and application of new learning is likely to require ‘a little and often’ approach in recognition that a ‘use it or lose it’ approach applies. The focus therefore should be given to using the internet on a regular basis as well as those tasks that occur more infrequently, on an annual basis such as booking a holiday or paying motor tax on line. Those tasks (and benefits) which can be undertaken and realised on a more frequent basis will help ensure greater take-up.

But all ultimately rests on high speed broadband provision for the 540,000 premises still disconnected. The WDC submission on the Digital Strategy is available here.

 

Deirdre Frost