Taoiseach Enda Kenny has been forced to defend the privatisation of broadband after it was claimed that the decision is “short termism and not in the public interest”.
The Government has opted for a gap-funded model to deliver rural broadband which includes a 26-year contract with private providers, at the end of which the networks would be privately owned.
Labour leader Brendan Howlin told the Dáil the mistake of privatising Eircom — which one Fianna Fáil TD yesterday admitted was a massive blunder under its rule — was about to be repeated with broadband.
The urban-rural “digital divide” was highlighted in the Dáil yesterday evening, with many TDs providing anecdotes of businesses being forced to relocate, farmers missing grant deadlines, and primary schools without broadband.
Communications Minister Denis Naughten made a “personal promise” to deliver high-speed broadband to every home in the country.
Speaking during Leader’s Questions, Mr Howlin said: “We have poor broadband in this country, particularly in rural areas, because of the decision by Fianna Fáil to privatise Eircom in the biggest economic mistake this country made until Fianna Fáil’s even more disastrous mistake in giving the blanket bank guarantee in 2008.
“This Government is about to repeat that mistake.”
Mr Kenny said the decision to opt for the gap model will allow the Government to spend “serious amounts of money” in other areas such as education and health.
“That is a choice that has to be made, and the Government made its choice clearly,” said Mr Kenny.
“We do not intend to repeat what happened with Eircom.”
During a Dáil debate on a broadband motion brought by rural Independent TDs, Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley acknowledged that privatising Eircom had been a bad decision.
“My party took a decision which at the time seemed like the correct one,” he said of the Eircom sale. “We were told the return to the State would build more schools, water and sewerage schemes, and public housing.
“As a result of that decision, which was taken in good faith by all concerned at the time, there were significant delays in the rollout of broadband, which has put us well behind the European average in terms of the penetration of broadband.”
Independent TD Mattie McGrath said people living in rural Ireland are not looking for favouritism or special treatment, and only seek to be treated equally.
He highlighted a case of one constituent who had an online assessment for an army position; despite going to an internet cafe, the internet crashed halfway through and, as a result, she failed to get a place. “She had failed her exam as far as the authority was concerned. That’s not right,” he said.
Noel Grealish highlighted the “massive digital divide” between rural and urban areas.
“Down the country people in rural areas are struggling to get a speed of even 1mb, not much better than the old dial-up system we used to have when the system was in relative infancy,” he said.
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