ESB and Bord Gáis can provide answers to broadband issues

I love the west coast of Ireland. I’ve written here before about the south-west and all the things that capture me every time I go there. 

ESB and Bord Gáis can provide answers to broadband issues

But right up the west coast it’s special. The drive from Galway to Clifden, although I’d hate to be doing it as a commute, has moments of stunning beauty around every corner.

And this past week, for the first time ever, I discovered the amazing thing that is the Sky Road in Clifden itself.

There probably isn’t a more appropriately named road in the whole country. You literally climb into the sky, to a point where you can look out at the whole western world.

The sea, the islands, a horizon that seems to stretch forever. It’s utterly breath-taking.

But how do you run a business here in the west of Ireland?

Indeed, how do you keep in touch with your own job back home, or with all the things that matter to us these days — like the news in the rest of the world?

Because the fact is that, no matter where you go in the west, you spend half your time searching for reception on your phone. Basic reception, I’m talking about — never mind access to your emails or the internet.

In the house we rented for a week, the landlady had kindly supplied broadband. It wasn’t her fault that it simply didn’t work.

All the lights were on the router in the sitting room. But if you tried running a speed test, there was nothing.

Even on holidays, I tend to have deadlines to meet, things to download, stuff to write and send off.

There is nothing more frustrating than getting everything ready, and then discovering that there’s a solid concrete wall between you and the internet.

Of course, we had beaches to swim in, and adventures to go on with our grandkids. I even got to play golf on the stunning Connemara golf links in Ballyconneely.

My 11-year-old grandson Ross beat me (yes, I’m ashamed, but I’m also pretty proud of a boy who can complete one of those punishing par five holes, into the wind, in six glorious strokes that included a long pitch for a tap-in bogey).

But it’s an indication of massive, monumental governmental failure, that the west coast of Ireland is so badly served when it comes to modern communication.

How does the west ever sustain itself, or grow, in a competitive world when it is so bereft of a basic economic necessity like broadband?

And now the latest attempt to roll it out is in crisis, with only half a bidder left in a government competition to allow the private sector to do the job.

Maybe this is an opportunity, not a crisis. Maybe this gives the Government a chance, if it can get over its hubris and its private enterprise bias, to admit that the private sector is never going to do it.

In a succession of efforts to sell everything we have in this area to the private sector, government after government has made a complete hames of it.

It started 20 years ago, when the government of the day decided to sell a company called Cablelink, originally owned by RTÉ and then jointly by RTÉ and Telecom Éireann.

As a public company Cablelink became the first company in Europe to trial broadband services.

At the time, it supplied television throughout Dublin through cable, and when they were ready to expend into broadband, more or less the entire greater Dublin area was cabled and ready to receive it.

The company was in a position, if it wanted to, to offer free high-speed broadband throughout Dublin to all if its television subscribers. And expansion throughout the rest of Ireland was only a matter of time.

With the right investment, it could and would have been completed before the end of the 90s.

That was an amazing position for Ireland to be in. It led to endless talk of Ireland becoming an “e-commerce hub”.

It never happened. It took years after the privatisation of Cablelink for it to get back on its feet, and that was immediately followed by the even more disastrous privatisation of Telecom Éireann.

There’s never been as much hoopla about anything as there was about that.

And never, in the history of human endeavour, have so many people lost so much of their life savings (and borrowings) at the hands of so much incompetence. (Well, not until the banks, anyway.)

Back in 2002, when the privatisation of Telecom was in full swing, I wrote here: “I hope the future holds fine for everyone who has borrowed money to invest in Telecom shares. And above all I hope they repay the banks as soon as they get out — otherwise tears are guaranteed to follow the champagne. But this is no way for a country to develop its long-term future.”

Instead of even talking about the long-term future, we’ve been through a 20-year cycle of asset-stripping, rebranding, meaningless competition over price, and damn all of the sort of investment we should have seen.

From the age of 11, and often younger, everyone in Ireland has a phone now, everyone has a phone now. But where it really matters, it doesn’t work.

That’s true of the whole country, not just the rural parts. I live in Dublin, and I pay for something called “fibre”, supposed to give me enormous speed.

But while the internet speed I get is adequate for most purposes, it’s nothing like the promise. And I’d count myself lucky to get a tenth of that if I lived in rural Ireland.

In the face of the imminent collapse of the current tender process, Fianna Fáil has called for an independent international expert to review the position. Let me save the expert the trouble.

We need to do this ourselves.

We have at least two state companies, the ESB and Bord Gáis, who would be more than capable of delivering the infrastructure needed to get decent broadband to the whole country, and especially to the half-million citizens who are almost entirely without it.

For the life of me I can’t understand why we’re not setting up a different competition — not to effectively sell off rural broadband, but to appoint a contractor to install it and run it, for the benefit of the state and the people.

It’s how we used to do things in Ireland. It’s how we brought electricity to rural Ireland, and natural gas all over the country.

It’s how we deliver other forms of communication – like the post. It’s how we should be managing our water into perpetuity.

We’ve seen all too clearly how private sector can jump when a quick buck appears on the near horizon — and in the area of communication we’ve seen how quick they are to walk away.

There’s no quick buck in rural broadband, just a need for taxpayers to invest. But the potential return to communities, and in terms of economic and social development, is huge.

That’s why, if no-one else is going to do it for us, we should be doing it for ourselves.

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