In the Senate on Wednesday night, it looked like the government might be finally ready to sit up and listen to what I have been saying about broadband for the last number of years. This hope was unfortunately immediately dashed when it became clear that the motion was little more than a token gesture.
I again highlighted the issue of the wholly inadequate broadband service in Ireland and pushed the government to ensure that any communications policy drives the Irish economy and breaks the digital divide. Lack of broadband seriously threatens our economic progress.
My Broadband Bill was debated in the Senate in October and voted down by a mere 5 votes (27-22). In it, I provided a road map for the government but they are still refusing to take substantial action; slowing to a crawl-much like many homes’ internet connection.
I have mixed feelings about this motion although I will vote against it. There has been an improvement in the attitude of this House and the other House towards broadband and it would be churlish not to recognise it. Approximately two years ago I tabled a Bill on broadband in the previous Seanad. There was no interest in it and there was no realisation of the problem whatsoever. It was absolutely staggering. I do not know whether it collapsed but the number of Senators who wished to speak on it was extraordinarily and embarrassingly small and there was no recognition of the fact that broadband was an important piece of infrastructure which had to be developed very quickly.
Approximately six or eight months ago, I introduced another Bill on the issue and there was a vast improvement not only in the interest in it but in the Minister’s attitude and in the knowledge in this House. One of the problems with the development of broadband in this country has been the negligible knowledge of and interest in this area from Members of the Oireachtas and Members of the Cabinet. It may have been a generational problem or a lack of interest. This has developed and the fact that the Government has tabled a motion, albeit giving itself a pat on the back for things it probably has not done, shows that at least there is some acknowledgement that this is a real problem which must be tackled and is recognised in the Government parties. This is progress which I welcome, acknowledge, applaud and celebrate.
However, this is not enough. The Minister is not here but I wish to acknowledge his commitment and interest in this subject. In recent months, for reasons which I do not understand, he rejected a Bill on broadband in this House. To table a motion of this sort stating how wonderfully the Government has done, when it rejected a Bill on broadband in this House, seems to be somewhat inconsistent. That particular Bill was left open for the Government to amend it. However, it did not want to do so and the reason is simple. The Government did not wish under any circumstances to commit itself to targets which were modest for the outlay of broadband.
I suspect the Government does not have the confidence itself to produce the figures, numbers and targets which are necessary. I do not know why this is. Perhaps it is due to a shortage of money. In what has been stated today, in the motion and in the Government’s programme there is a lack of conviction that these targets will be met. The Bill set out simple targets and it was for the Minister to be accountable for this, which is one of the most important pieces of infrastructure in the country.
In years to come, particularly in years of recession, it will be more important that we have broadband than roads in terms of development. It is more important in attracting overseas and internal investment. Let no one say to me that the lack of broadband or the way we have fallen behind in broadband does not affect overseas investment. I cannot prove that it does but no one can prove to me that it does not. However, it is an undeniable fact that if we continue to be behind in this area, and I acknowledge the improvements that have been made, overseas investment which is so vital and becoming scarcer will be scared by the fact that we do not have this particular piece of infrastructure which is so necessary.
During this debate, somebody on this side of the House mentioned how important it was not only for overseas investment and multinationals, who are coming here in smaller numbers, but also for very small businesses and people working at home to have broadband. This is difficult for a Government to measure but it is absolutely vital for small businesses also.