While campaigning for the US Presidency, the then Senator Obama was unequivocal about his thoughts on all things digital. As the pace of the campaign heightened, Obama frequently returned to this theme, even during one of the featured debates with rival John McCain, stating, “I also think that we’re going to have to rebuild our infrastructure, which is falling behind; our roads, our bridges, but also broadband lines that reach into rural communities.” Such is the gravity he attaches to this issue, he even gave it suitable billing during his inaugural address, “We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together,” he said.
So, is there any sign that during the initial stages of his Presidency that that campaign rhetoric is ringing true? While it’s probably too early to tell, there are indeed some positive signs. President Obama does appear to understand the significant transformative power that technology can bring to the lives of Americans. Both he and Vice-President Biden seem poised to encourage the deployment of modern communications infrastructure to improve America’s competitiveness, with the deployment of next generation broadband apparently at the top of their agenda.
The first sign of movement on the issue came in February, when the House Committee on Energy and Commerce approved $2.8 billion for broadband infrastructure grants, with many seeing this as the Obama effect taking hold ensuring that the broadband stimulus package passed its first hurdle.
It was interesting to note that, during the recent launch of our National Broadband Scheme, Communications Minister Eamon Ryan confessed to being a fan of the new President and his plans for broadband roll-out in the United States. However, at the same time as the Minister was acknowledging the merits of Obama’s plan for broadband connectivity, he argued that Ireland was ahead of the US proposals in terms of the infrastructure already deployed in Ireland.
It appears President Obama’s broadband policies will include redefining the term “broadband” (the US Federal Communications Commission today defines “broadband” as an astonishingly low 200 kbps), the wireless spectrum will be opened up, broadband will be rolled out to municipal buildings, and he will encourage Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) that deliver real broadband to communities that currently lack it.
It is quite possible that it is in the Public Private Partnerships that the US will have success and indeed follow Ireland’s lead. The Metropolitan Area Networks or MANs have successfully delivered broadband connectivity to regional Ireland and is a classic case of PPP.
It was back in the summer of 2004, when the then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Dermot Ahern, announced that the contract for management of the Government and Local Authority regional fibre optic network, otherwise known as Metropolitan Area Networks , had been awarded to e|net. The Minister stated at that time, “This is a form of Public Private Partnership. The Government and Local Authorities have taken the construction risk in relation to these metropolitan networks. The operational risk is being undertaken by e|net. So, as well as remunerating its own investment, e|net is also obliged to perform in a way which addresses the Government and Local Authority regional economic development agenda through its investment in these networks. The contract strikes a balance between the more commercial objectives of the management company and the longer-term economic development objectives of the Government and the Local Authorities.”
Since that announcement, the MANs have continued to deliver against the Governments objectives of increasing broadband connectivity in regional Ireland; driving competition in the telecoms sector; lowering the costs of connectivity, as well as creating a world class telecommunications infrastructure that attracts and retains significant foreign direct investment.
Conal Henry, e|net CEO states, “In a relatively short period of time, the MANs are delivering and are helping to drive down the cost of broadband, as well as introducing new product offerings into regional Ireland. They have broken the single supplier dependency and provided real choice and real competition. The Government needed to intervene because of obvious market failure and that intervention has proved successful.”
For the Obama administration’s vision of an interconnected democracy to take shape, they need to deliver a modern communications infrastructure and nurture a sense of innovation to allow the job growth and wealth creation to follow. With the virtually unlimited capacity of fibre, it is largely recognised as the only true future-proofed delivery infrastructure to take advantage of bandwidth intensive services, so is best placed to take a leading position in future US connectivity plans. In the Irish context, the MANs are delivering on the original Government objectives, so maybe Minister Ryan should share the secret of the Irish success to the new US President.