Ireland Shows Way In Rolling Out Broadband

Ireland’s approach to rolling out rural broadband could serve as a good model for other EU Member States dealing with the same problem. So said EU Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Cretu. Speaking following a meeting of Irish regional and broadband stakeholders, she also praised Ireland’s efficient use of structural funds and Ireland’s wise investments of EU funds. “It is a great pleasure for me to visit Ireland for the first time as Commissioner for Regional Policy. And I am glad to say that Ireland is a country where EU funds are invested wisely,” she said.
In February 2015, I met Minister Howlin and other colleagues, at the signing ceremony of the Irish programmes, in Brussels.

I had then a first impression of Ireland. But you will certainly agree with me that nothing compares to being on the ground; meeting people where they live and work and learning about projects, like those at Trinity College, which I am visiting this afternoon.

In any case, the new programming period 2014-2020 is now well under way. The Commission and EU Member States are determined that the Union’s Structural and Investment Funds should respond successfully and effectively to challenges and needs – identified and clearly visible in the Member States. This is no more than taxpayers have a right to expect, even demand.

Furthermore, the logic of EU2020 is that European funds should be channelled towards those areas where deficiencies and gaps in Member State achievement can be successfully remedied, and thus lead to sustainable growth in our regions. In short, we are looking for levers for economic growth.

In fact, as far as broadband infrastructure is concerned, I can already point to a satisfactory track record of achievement in Ireland. The European Regional Development Fund has already invested significantly in Metropolitan Area Networks between 2000 and 2006 and, more recently, in the National Broadband Scheme. Such investments have enabled a more adequate broadband service to emerge. In particular, the National Broadband Scheme resulted in the extension of broadband service to 1,028 Electoral Districts, between 2007 and 2013.

However, the job is not finished yet. Connectivity cannot be considered as fully addressed, especially as far as rural areas are concerned.

While Next Generation Access coverage in Ireland stands at 71% of households across the country as a whole, Next Generation Access stands at only 8% for rural areas. These areas are the most challenging for private sector operators to invest in, and therefore need public support, in order to address the imbalance.

But, of course, public support cannot occur, nor can good intentions be achieved, without strategic coherence.

This is why the Commission and Ireland have given so much importance to the pre-conditions for the programme’s success, particularly in the form of cogent strategic direction.

In other words, it was a must to have the mechanisms in place and the stakeholders involved well informed, BEFORE the programmes were signed off.

So, in Ireland, I am pleased to see that the National Broadband Plan and the National Digital Strategy are firmly in place, ready to enable the exploitation of the economic and social benefits, once high speed broadband infrastructure is in place across the country.

On our side, ERDF is committed to playing its role in achieving a step change in connectivity in rural areas. By providing €75 million over the five years, matched by national funds, the ERDF will deliver fibre-based high speed broadband to all rural premises and households.

Moreover, alongside this infrastructural investment, the Social Fund and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development will be providing training; with a view to ensuring that the benefits of high speed broadband in socio-economic terms can be maximised.

In intervening in an area of infrastructural development, where private investment would not otherwise happen, ERDF will play a decisive role in helping Ireland reach the objectives of the Digital Agenda and, at the same time, provide the necessary boost to business and employment growth in rural areas.

Furthermore, ERDF will maintain substantial levels of financial support to Ireland’s micro-enterprise sector, through the country-wide network of Local Enterprise Offices.

This is a logical counterpart to investment in broadband infrastructure, which, together with investment in entrepreneurial capacity will provide the impetus for more sustained economic recovery and allow Ireland to reap the potential benefits of an ever more dynamic and digitally-based economy.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Minister White and Minister Phelan for their work in this field, and of course, my colleague, Commissioner Phil Hogan.

I would like to thank the Irish authorities, and particularly our friends in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and in the regional assemblies, for terrific work done in preparing and coordinating the different activities and actions that are needed to set up new programmes.

I would also like to express grateful thanks to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, for the way it has grasped the nettle and taken such pro-active steps in ensuring that the National Broadband Plan is implemented.

I particularly appreciate:

  • The strategic coherence reflected in National Broadband and Digital Strategies, which was a fundamental pre-condition for getting our programmes approved;
  • The clear road map towards implementation, as reflected in the recently issued Broadband Intervention Strategy consultation paper;
  • The mapping work already conducted, and the clear expression of intent regarding deadlines for completion of the work, which correspond closely to the 2014-2020 ERDF implementation period;
  • And finally, the efforts being made to ensure compliance in such areas as State Aids, public procurement and major project approval.

This involves working in close coordination with the relevant Commission services, of which my own department is just one.

Ladies and gentlemen,

My message today is that Ireland is approaching the whole issue of broadband roll-out, in a consistent and reassuring way. In doing so, Ireland provides an approach and road map that can be of real use to other Member States.

I mentioned already the need for consistency of operation between European Funds. This is why ERDF will focus on this vital infrastructural investment, while the Rural Development Fund, through its LEADER component, will be focussing on capacity building and training in rural areas.

In parallel, the Social Fund will continue to focus on seeking to improve job and employment prospects for those needing to upgrade their skills or to find work. This way, we can maximise the impact of the European funds and help generate the economic growth and jobs that not only Ireland, but the Union as a whole, is seeking to achieve.

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