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Country Held Back By Government’s Broadband Blindspot

Posted on: January 14th, 2008 1 Comment

Stick your head in the sand; deep as you can bury it; ignore the spike in inflation; forget the property collapse; to hell with the budget deficit; disregard the rise in jobless. All is well. We still have the “knowledge economy”.

Welcome to the closing scene in the Celtic Tiger’s life: the nursing home. Send for the crutches.

Some years ago, I shared an office in the Seanad with Ireland‘s most likeable academic. Professor Joe Lee was one of the brainy brigade, a walking “knowledge economy.” From time to time we would exchange a bit of banter about how hard the other worked for his money. Lee, a historian, would cheerfully chastise me for the lack of “evidence” in my columns in this section.

I retorted that academics like Lee were paid vast public sector salaries for seven-week terms and a handful of lectures a month. “Ah,” he would respond with the humility of the self-assured genius – which he was – “the State pays me to think.”

And it did. Lee, who was a prodigious worker himself, thought I was a bit unfair to his colleagues. Lee and his like were the forerunners of the “knowledge economy.” He is a national treasure with unparalleled knowledge of his subject. Sadly, today he spends most of his time in the US. I always felt that Lee’s knowledge was wasted; his lectures were limited to a few pupils; his books were expensive; his Seanad speeches had a small circulation.

We do not distribute information very well in Ireland. Certainly, the nation paid the professor handsomely to think, but it did not reap a full dividend from his thoughts. Ditto today’s so-called “knowledge economy.”

Perhaps the most meaningless buzz words in Ireland are the “knowledge economy.” Closely followed by “moving up the value chain.” Both catch-all phrases peddled by the IDA, the Government, Enterprise Ireland and other propagandist state agencies; all masters at dishing out the morphine as the Celtic Tiger enters its final days. What a pity that the knowledge which the State is storing cannot be imparted. Knowledge is a priceless asset; but has no value if it is imprisoned in a box.

Last week a civil servant – of all creatures – exploded the myth that Ireland‘s little fantasy, the “knowledge economy” is more than an aspiration. Civil servants are not meant to rock the boat, but John Purcell, the national watchdog on waste, is a past master at stirring the pot.

Purcell delivered an unwelcome message: the Government is prehistoric in its attitude to the internet: ebusiness is backward; ecommerce is stalling; and egovernment is floundering. Apart from star performances by the Department of Agriculture, the Motor Taxation Office and the Revenue Commissioners, government officials have ducked the new technology.

The result: egovernment is stillborn.

More specifically, the trumpeted 1999 pioneering project – an internet public broker system to distribute data among public bodies – has flopped. Several departments and state agencies have opted out. Plans to introduce on-line applications for housing grants, passports, haulage and driving licences were dumped.

Purcell reveals that there has been no egovernment strategy at all since 2006.

Quite a far cry from the Government’s 2000 grand plan for implementing the information society. It has vanished. Projects are in abeyance; overspending is rampant. Parallel with the blockage of government by internet is a more widespread disease. The most basic tool of the technology age – broadband – is light years behind our competitors. Ireland‘s instrument for relaying the knowledge economy is still in its infancy.

The affliction in egovernment has now infected not only the private sector but the entire nation. Individuals and small businesses alike are victims. Broadband has been an Irish government blindspot for almost a decade. While we are aware of the importance of high-tech multinationals, we have failed to provide the economy’s saviours from overseas with the basic tools of communication.

Why the neglect? It’s simple. Broadband fails to excite the political classes. The minds of the Luddites in Leinster House are obsessed with short-term fixes.

Broadband has never been debated in the Dáil. Never. It rarely hits the national airwaves. Last week Matt Cooper, enlightened presenter of The Last Word on Today FM, gave broadband a good airing. He understands its necessity to business as a quick, cheap channel for information and knowledge. In other radio stations, the issue is often sidelined as tomorrow’s debate. Broadband is dismissed as a specialist subject, relegated to the techie pages of the newspapers and to nerdy correspondents. Just like egovernment.

And broadband is a desperately inconvenient topic for politicians with short-term horizons. Money for broadband tomorrow could mean fewer medical cards today.

Broadband needs massive state investment. Like roads and rail, it has been left to languish although it is equally important. Today our broadband coverage is at least five years behind Northern Ireland. And we like to paint our separated brethren as technological cavemen! On cost, France and Germany leave us standing. On speed, Japan, Korea and Singapore are in the stratosphere.

Government needs to spend money to provide the highways for information. Otherwise multinationals will begin to ask awkward questions. If we are not seen as e-savvy we will be deserted.

Our defence is the IDA‘s fig leaf language. The “knowledge economy” is the camouflage for explaining and disguising our transition from being a low-cost regime to a sophisticated, but high-cost, nation with well-educated employees ready to sell themselves and their information to a waiting world.

The world will not wait. Ireland nourishes knowledge all right. But customers will not tolerate receiving it through expensive broadband at low speed. Nor will modern global players accept dealing in pen and ink with a government determined to remain in the Dark Ages.

Already there are ominous murmurings. John McElligott, boss of online global market place eBay, has told Communications Minister Eamon Ryan that our lack of broadband coverage means that Ireland‘s ecommerce lags behind the UK and the US. eBay is important. It has located its European headquarters in Ireland. So has Google. So has Intel. Temporarily, anyway.

Is John’s a lone cry in the wilderness? Not quite. Irish internet companies are lucky to have a dynamic voice, the Irish Internet Association, led by Fergal O’Byrne. No one articulates the crisis in broadband or egovernment better. Last week I asked Fergal what sort of reception he received when tackling government about broadband, ecommerce or even the internet. “They do not reply to our letters,” he told me. Not even by snail mail. Instead, they probably make a call to the soporific dinosaurs in IBEC for a bit of mutual massage.

Ireland desperately needs broadband. Business needs a rapid recognition of egovernment. We can no longer depend on the morphine known as “the knowledge economy”.