Time for nations to MAN up to digital woes with a model that already works
Conal Henry, chief executive at enet, says for countries that are developing intervention strategies, a successful solution already exists in the Irish Government’s MAN model
Something very topical is the debate as to whether a State-run service is the answer to longstanding broadband woes that threaten many nations’ ability to prosper and attract new investment.
Where critical telecommunications infrastructure is concerned, it is becoming clear that governments cannot solely leave it to the private sector to deliver and that State intervention is necessary. For me, it’s only when government intervenes, that the full benefits of next-generation networks are delivered to as many citizens as possible.
Some commentators have pointed out how almost 20 years ago, the basic requirement for investment in broadband infrastructure was identified by an influential international group of internet luminaries advising the Irish government. They quite rightly pointed out the potential benefits for rural Ireland.
This led to the Irish government’s acquisition of a big share of the capacity provided by Global Crossing in a new undersea fibre cable linking the country with the US and Europe. And yes, it did enable Ireland to set out on a path to transform its economy from one in which agriculture was heavily predominant.
It was an example of State intervention working in the public interest; then investment in fibre networks on land began to stall. Ireland reacted and the State invested in the Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) programme to bring fibre to the regions.
The MANs are fibre networks built and owned by the Irish government and operated privately, by enet, to deliver the policy benefits envisaged by the State. This means having the broadband speeds and network resilience to attract foreign direct investment to regional Ireland, to stimulate competition in telecoms and to reduce the cost of bandwidth. Thanks to the MANs, Ireland already has the best of both worlds. Generational infrastructure is built in areas where it is required most, even though there is no commercial business case to do so, and these networks are made available to carriers in the commercial and flexible manner they require.
The MANs have transformed the economies of towns such as Letterkenny, Wexford and Cork and anyone can see for themselves the evidence of foreign direct investment on the back of the super-fast connectivity these networks provide. Using this model can ensure prosperity is spread to far more of our smaller towns and localities generating more balanced regional development.
Internationally, voices are raised asking what should be done to turbo-boost their broadband speeds which will in turn inject life into their economies. Which model of State intervention, if any, should countries adopt so that they can climb that international league table of broadband speeds? The chatter has increased since Brexit. The need for super-fast connectivity will become more pressing as countries adjust to the conditions of the post-Brexit European economy and all the challenges and opportunities that will undoubtedly arise – this is particularly true in Ireland’s case.
As a country, we can be surprisingly bold in changing behaviour. We’re a nation of revolutionaries when we need to be. I like to remind people how few of us would have expected Ireland to be successful in introducing a public smoking ban when it did and how the country led the way in banning supermarket plastic bags, to the benefit of our landscape.
We have a successful model that shows how public and private can work together. Our model can now lead the way in coupling public and private investment to deliver transformational improvements in infrastructure – but only if the private entity takes the policy obligations seriously.
If other nations grasp the opportunities in and adopt the MANs’ wholesale-only model of providing fibre all the way to homes and business premises, not just the cabinet three streets away, their digital future will be a bright one. With a wholesale-only model, there are no conflicts of interest or hidden biases between those managing the infrastructure and the innovators providing the services across the network.
Ireland has already come a long way and can build on our strengths in communications, financial and business services, distance learning, medical technology and biopharmaceuticals but so too, can other nations – the playbook exists!