BROADBAND FOR ALL?

8 October 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

A presentation to Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council by a Dept of Communications representative that conjured up a vision of a nation wrapped in an all-encompassing comfort blanket of cutting-edge broadband availability five years from now was received with what could best be described as a wary welcome from the local authority’s elected men and women.

But you only look a gift horse in the mouth if you’ve let a few cart horses park themselves in the thoroughbred stables – and our Co Councillors had heard too many panacea-promising pitches before, from both commercial and State salespersons, on the broadband issue to automatically jump for joy at the latest one.

That is not to say that what Ciara Bates outlined in relation to the Government’s National Broadband Scheme was not impressive and exciting.

It contained what was perhaps an overdue recognition that the availability of broadband in the commercial marketplace, which seems to be attracting an ever-growing list of big hitters eager to reap what is an escalating demand because of economic and social trends, is not of itself sufficient to correct the imbalance in the availability and quality of the service between the major centres of population and Ireland’s rural hinterlands.

The activities of the commercial broadband sector are focused in on the most remunerative marketplaces to an extent that must have shocked even our county’s public representatives, who are only too well aware from their own personal experiences as well as that of their constituents of the glaring urban/rural divide that exists in the area of broadband access.

That divide is a veritable Grand Canyon – a map used by Ms Bates to illustrate her presentation showed that an astounding 96% of the country’s landmass constitutes the target area for the new national scheme that aims to supplement the deficiency in the provision created by the concentration of for-profit activity in the most lucrative locations.

Given that so many significant players are vying for the choicest fruit, it may well be the case that some are compelled to broaden the reach of their target markets in the years to come and therefore reduce the dizzyingly high percentile that the National Broadband Scheme has to cater for. But the national scheme is itself a competitor, and Ms Bates’ prevarication on the exact amount of funding the Government is willing to commit to the realisation of its broadband objectives was illustrative not merely of the potential commercial tensions in this area but the difficult pathway State intervention must negotiate because of the market freedoms enshrined in European legislation.

If ambivalence and competitive conflicts complicate the necessary interaction the Government initiative must have with commercial interests, there is potential for a much more harmonious alliance with both local authority and community forces, both of which stand to benefit immeasurably from a successful realisation of the national scheme’s objectives.

Ms Bates made some tentative sorties to elicit active engagement from Monaghan Co Council on Monday, pointing to the advantages that would accrue if the planned provision could be delivered by using existing local authority infrastructure. And the members reciprocated readily enough, raising a number of important practical considerations such as the need for liaison between the Dept and local planning authorities, and the implications delivery of the infrastructure might have for the timing of the Council’s annual programme of road repair and improvement work.

But a much fuller level of co-operation in the conception and provision of this initiative must take place between the Dept and local authorities. Co Councils have been given a much heralded and publicised role in economic and community development in the recent local government shake-up, and there could be no more efficacious outworking of this remit than for them to have a local partnership function in the National Broadband Scheme’s realisation. It is therefore to be hoped that Cathaoirleach Noel Keelan’s suggestion on Monday that Ms Bates’ visit be merely the first of an ongoing series of engagements with the Dept on this issue is one that will see future fulfilment.

And, while the Dept representative spoke of contacts being made with industry in local areas to identify broadband need, that engagement must be broadened to embrace all the strands of the weave of local social and community activity that is becomingly increasingly reliant on the availability of reliable high-speed broadband access that has the technological adaptability to accommodate the rapid pace of progress in this area without major future expense.

Health and education providers as well as the various dimensions of business and commercial life in Co Monaghan must also be given a say in how the scheme is implemented at local level. And the vibrant voice of our civic life must also be heard, perhaps most eloquently through the new Public Participation Network which is evolving into a broad-ranging forum with considerable potential for influence on both local and national government policy.

Within the tantalising outlines of the scheme outlined to Monaghan Co Council on Monday is at least the suggestion of the “bottom-up” approach to delivery that this newspaper and many in our community have long advocated as the only reliable means of ensuring that the glaring deficiencies in broadband coverage in many parts of our county are finally and definitively addressed.

But the vital input of local stakeholders will have to be lobbied and fought for consistently over the coming months and years if the new national scheme is to deliver on its vaunting promise of broadband for all.

 

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