Still building the wrong highways

Our esteemed Transport Minister Martin Cullen was on hand last month to announce the first phase of the upgrade of the M50 costing €250m. 

Then he was off down to Mayo to turn the sod on the €63 Charlestown By-pass. Before the year is up he will have criss-crossed the country like a blue-assed fly to turn sods or cut ribbons. (That way, ministers get two photo opportunities for the price of one.)

This year, just this twelve months, we will spend €1.5 billion on national road building. Hundreds of millions will be spent on local and regional roads. 

The economics of this is explained as the need for vital infrastructure. We need the roads in order to keep the economy going and growing.

That’s all fair enough. The transport of people and things is obviously important.

The transport of ideas and information is becoming just as important. And yet the state here spends practically nothing on ensuring that people can send emails, access websites, make electronic payments and use an increasing share of electronic spending power.

Actually, the State has spent a fortune on things like websites and the like. The Revenue-on-Line service is a superb example, motor tax payment is another and there are many others.

But there has been nothing spent on providing the wires required to carry this traffic. The government, as is the ideological fashion of the day, has left it to the private sector.

This is has been a disaster. 

The vast majority of people and businesses in Ireland are condemned to use a Mickey Mouse internet access system. Dial-up modems are still the order of the day.

The figures are grim. In 2005 broadband penetration in Ireland stood at 4.5 per cent. This compares with an EU average of 11 per cent, which is in itself lamentable. Holland had managed to reach 22 per cent.

We are second from bottom of the EU15 countries and even some of the newcomers have passed us out. 

Broadband is available to 75 per cent of homes in Ireland but the cost means only a fraction can afford it. 

Up to now, the Celtic Tiger, has shielded us from the effects of this backward performance. But as manufacturing moves south and our dependency on the knowledge economy really kicks in, we are in a sorry state to face the future.

But back to the roads. 

If the State could build a national road network, a national electricity grid and a national phone network (and it did all these things), why can’t it build the information superhighway that is so important to our future?

It’s time to stop pricking about with enabling exchanges, WIFI in McDonalds, group broadband here and there, line of sight solutions and other assorted nonsense. 

We need a fibre optic cable to every inhabited building in Ireland with the capacity to carry the information age on it.

If it costs billions, then so be it. This is the future. If we had more use of the internet we might have less use for the old highways.