A civil servant received one of the coldest receptions ever afforded to a visitor at a Galway County Council meeting earlier this week when he gave a presentation on the National Broadband Plan. Sean Griffin from the Department of Communications was handed the unenviable task of delivering an update on the plan, and how it would affect long-suffering internet users in rural Galway. But it was unlikely that Mr Griffin had reckoned on a chamber packed with 39 irate councillors, each of whom was awarded time to speak on the contentious issue. And it was not pretty. At one stage the department representative was even accused of pedalling “happy pills’’ to pacify a bunch that were anything but happy.
The Government’s ambition that every home and business in Ireland will have access to high speed broadband by 2020 was outlined. High speed broadband is currently defined as a download speed of 30 mb per second. This project requires the State to invest hundreds of millions of euro to build a broadband network, which can be used by more than 700,000 premises. These homes and businesses are in areas unlikely to be served by commercial broadband operators as they are too remote, or have too few people living in them to enable the operators to make a profit. Contracts for the project are to be awarded by the end of 2016.
Need for service
Internet usage in Ireland has snowballed for both business and personal usage. There has been a huge growth in traffic over all networks. Far more jobs rely on ICT services, online consumers spent a massive €5.9 billion in 2014, while many online services such as TV streaming and cloud consume greater bandwidth.
Cathaoirleach of Galway County Council, Fianna Fáil councillor Mary Hoade, said broadband was an issue that was hugely important to her and she appreciated how it is a crucial service for rural dwellers. “All councillors will agree that when we were canvassing for the last election, it was one of the main issues coming up on the doorsteps. There are more and more people working from home nowadays and they need to be supported. From a personal perspective, of my own home town of Headford, we have a local businessman who is trying to expand his company and is being prevented from doing this due to broadband issues.’’
Gort electoral area councillor Gerry Finnerty, who is manager of the local mart, outlined how the internet connection at the mart was slower than it had been five years ago. Independent representative Jim Cuddy said job creation and broadband go hand in hand. “If you don’t have it, you won’t bring new jobs in to a community. The issue is pushing jobs into urban areas.’’ Tuam councillor Pete Roche enquired if there were any plans to roll out a public consultation process, where people who are affected can give feedback on the issue.
Sinn Fein’s Dermot Connolly said one message needs to go back to Government- that rural communities are not realising their full potential, and will not do so, if this issue is not addressed. “If you’re living in a rural area, you are at a huge disadvantage. There has to be a will there and a push from the Government regarding this, we need delivery on broadband.’’
A clearly frustrated Councillor Seamas Walsh, who lives in one of the worst areas in the county for broadband coverage- Connemara- said he had been hearing the same promises since 1999. He admitted his own party Fianna Fáil had been in power for much of this time. Addressing Mr Griffin directly, he said he represented a department that had failed the people dismally. “The whole thing is a farce and you know it and have known it for the past 10 years. The bottom line is we do not have broadband. You go in to a phone shop to buy an internet connection and the young lad will click on your area and say, sorry there is no broadband there. People are entitled to an equal service, no matter if they live in Galway city, Connemara, Headford or Loughrea. It is not good enough and you need to get on with it. The message is we don’t have it, and we want it.’’
And so it went on and on, as each local representative was afforded one minute to speak on their issues with broadband. Mr Griffin tried his best to answer queries satisfactorily, but to little success. He outlined the Government’s commitment to the project, which was again met by a frosty reaction. He claimed it was not political spin. “As far as we are concerned, this is a critical service. Don’t be under any illusion that we are not committed to making this happen because we are. This is not some sort of political statement. I am speaking on behalf of myself and colleagues in the Department of Communications.’’
Fine Gael’s Anne Rabbitte was also very exercised on the issue when outlining the poor quality of broadband in her own area of Portumna. She called on Sean Griffin to report back to the council. “Everybody is entitled to be treated equally; you’re pushing people into the cities. The Department has a responsibility to the people of County Galway. Come back in six months time and outline what you have got out of this meeting, and what improvements have been made.’’