Adrian Weckler: ‘Nationwide broadband service essential – but the real deal won’t come cheap’
‘There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
The year was 1977. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, undoubtedly felt that he was striking a note of calm, reasonable prudence when he uttered these words.
There is a touch of this sentiment lurking in the underbelly of the debate over whether a National Broadband Plan proposal represents ‘value for money’ or not.
Does Ireland really need modern fibre to every rural home? Wouldn’t an interim plan do, maybe something that would do for email and Facebook over a wireless or mobile service? Or if fibre is really needed, how about phasing it in, starting with some rural libraries and schools, with a promise to reconsider households in a few years?
This is basically what the Department of Public Expenditure’s senior civil servant, Robert Watt, is suggesting as an alternative to the current fibre-for-all plan.
A “short term roll-out of broadband” to some “key sites” like community centres would save money. As for the 540,000 rural homes, “connection to households is a matter for households and service providers”, according to his presentation.
Mr Watt is undoubtedly acting in good conscience, speaking up about what he thinks might be unnecessary investment. But is he wrong?
The idea of rolling out a few hundred village broadband points is similar to the 2012 blueprint the state originally had for the National Broadband Plan.
The government, under then communications minister Pat Rabbitte unveiled a scheme to run fibre to 1,100 rural villages. From there, a local wireless operator might try to ferry a signal to some of the surrounding townlands. They could then get email, use Google or maybe even try one of these new ‘social media’ services that were getting popular at the time.
If one of the householders wanted something faster, he or she could go see if there was a desk available at the local village connection point, such as the local library.
But the world has changed a lot since then. The state’s initial target of 30Mbs, considered outlandishly fast in 2012, is now a basic broadband service in the lowest tiers of what a city dweller might get on a bad line.
Even a conservative analysis expects that a normal family home will have broadband requirements far, far higher than 30Mbs in a few years’ time. Not just for entertainment and work, but for things like health and home security.
But is fibre really necessary for this? Mr Watt also raises the possibility that other technologies – presumably wireless or 5G – might supersede fibre as the best possible broadband technology. On this, there is little confusion. It’s just wrong. Fibre is acknowledged the world over as the best standard by some distance. Where 5G or ‘fixed wireless’ is being rolled out, it’s always dependent on fibre being close by anyway. And the speeds and reliability are always a step down.
No one disputes that broadband is necessary here.
But what is very much at issue – aside from cost – is whether it’s a basic patch-up job or a proper, modern system. That’s a political call.
But if we want to cut the bill, we’ll have to tell up to half of the 540,000 households that they’re not getting the real deal.