Another EU fiasco is forcing Government to find new ways to deliver fast broadband, writes Niall Kitson.
One announcement that will have slipped under most news outlets' radar - and we're not talking about the hiring of Bill McCluggage as government CIO - was the appointment by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources of consultancy firm Prisa Technologies to advise on the direction of where and how the State should invest in broadband infrastructure.
If the partnership turns out to be a bum move, expect the usual recriminations inside and out of the public sector. The delivery of a viable national broadband network on time and under budget, however, will have positive and measurable effects for voters' quality of life and the ability of the state to cope with the increasing demands of the Internet Economy, expected to be worth €11.3 billion by 2016 (according to research by Amarach for UPC). With so much at stake there’s a lot to be said for calling in the experts.
If the Department's targets are met Prisa will have to hit the ground running. By 2015 it is expected that half the population will have access to minimum connection speeds of 70Mb/s and by 2020 most of the population will have access to connections of 100Mb/s or greater. Given the work being carried out by UPC, BT, Magnet and Eircom, some customers in urban areas are already set for seven years hence.
By any standards, the Government's targets are ambitious - higher than the minimum 30Mb/s set by the EU for the same period - but they will have to be met largely without support from our European overseers.
Last year, Brussels promised an investment of €9.2 billion for rolling out fibre-powered broadband across EU member states as part of the Digital Agenda, championed by vice president of the European Commission Neelie Kroes. A revised budget passed in February, however, slashed that figure to €1 billion, which will be used to develop cross-border e-government services to promote a 'digital single market'. This neutered version of the Digital Agenda promises a structure and a set of targets without an infrastructure to deliver them on. Another win for common sense and the doctrine of austerity.
The bungling of the EU's broadband investment plans, however, has given Government the chance to show it can show Ireland is more than just 'the best little bailout in Europe' capable of retaining foreign investment through an accommodating tax regime. Through public/private partnerships, the Department has already overseen the completion of the Rural Broadband Scheme (conducted in association with the Department of Agriculture) and, with money from the European Regional Development Fund, is working on the Schools 100Mb/s Project that will deliver minimum connections of 30Mb/s through the publicly funded HEAnet and commercial partners like UPC. So far 3,700 schools have qualified under the scheme.
Still, it will take the involvement of Eircom, the largest player in the Irish telecoms market, to deliver on Government’s plans. This week an announcement confirmed an investment of over €1 billion in fibre, delivering connections of up to 70Mb/s - where available. Such a move could put Ireland over the top in making its 2020 goals ahead of time - possibly, at least.
Ireland beating Europe at something for a change? It could happen.
Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie