Beyond the neon runes


Connection lost

The visit home, it’s a momentous occasion, especially if you’re an only child. Cupboards are stocked, freezers are filled, entire animals bought in just in case you want a few sandwiches going away with you. There’s more food in the house than at any point since Christmas, enough to feed armies, the homeless, and most of Africa. Bed linen is washed, then washed again, folded up, and laid in place, a hot-water bottle ensuring your beloved toes don’t get cold. And the entire place is scrubbed from top to bottom.

It’s a welcome befitting a king, a shrewd way of reminding you that you could always just give up the adulthood thing and move back in with good old mammy. And as you enter, weary from your latest experience with Irish public transport, peeved by the lack of red carpet, she engulfs you, tearing bags from your shoulder, guiding you to your seat, the cup of tea already there waiting for you.

For a moment, it’s wonderful. You’re back, free to enjoy the hospitality, but knowing that once the whinging starts, once the backbiting and sniping begins, you can bid them goodbye, armed with enough grub to last you the week.

You skulk around for a while, engaging in chit-chat, playing the dutiful child, enlivening their existence just by being there. And, after a spell the food arrives, her home-cooking, better than ever. Dessert swiftly follows; a glint in her eye as she hands you the most generous helping. And then more tea, a little more chat, and perhaps a biscuit or two. You’ve availed of the amenities, been loved and loved right back, what’s required now is a little normality. Retiring to your room, you drag your laptop out of your bag and go online. Or at least you try to. While you’re waiting you take out your phone, some Twitter perhaps. No. No Twitter. No Internet. You’re in the sticks now, kid.

Sign up for the weekly Limerick Post newsletter

Thankfully my mother has recently availed of a rural Internet service which gives her speeds of up to 50mb per second. This is a marked improvement on the previous service; a flimsy modem which sputtered along at a measly four of five megs per light year. Before that, when I lived there, there was an unreliable, intermittent broadband connection which, on a very good day, might inch towards the magical one meg barrier. You get the picture. And, if you’re living in the outer limits of county Limerick, you’ve most likely got the tee shirt too.

All I can say is, God bless your patience. Because, for five years now, we’ve been listening to various ministers, from various parties and various governments, promise the entire nation that, by such and such a year, there would be fast Internet for all. That by 2012, 2015, 2018 and 2020, poor Peggy out in the boonies will finally be able to access her Facebook, she’ll finally be able to Skype the kids out in America, and by Jesus she’ll finally be able to watch the occasional naughty video if the mood takes her.

Unveiled in 2012 by then Communications Minister, Pat Rabbite, the National Broadband Plan (NBP) was to revolutionise the entire country. It was to bring high-speed Internet to even the most far flung locations, to service the 1.8 million Irish citizens who were still stuck in the nineties, those dealing with sluggish dial-up while their city-dwelling counterparts streamed, vlogged and downloaded to their heart’s content. At the time it seemed ambitious, like one of those grandiose plans you come up with when you’re drunk which seems wholly unrealistic in the cold light of day.

And so it has proven. Originally estimated to cost in the region of €1billion, that figure is now in danger of spiralling out of control due to a dispute between the three companies hoping to provide this broadband; Eir, Siro and Enet. An announcement on who would be getting the contract was due to be made in the summer. But it has since been pushed back to the end of this year, with work set to begin in early 2018, an entire six years after the NBP was announced.

The reason for the hold up, and indeed the thing which may prevent it from ever getting off the ground, centres around infrastructure and the monopoly Eir has on existing pole and duct networks.

Yes, I’m wholly aware of how boring this is becoming, but bear with me.

If either Siro or Enet were to win the contract, they would have to pay a premium to use Eir’s lines, thus pushing the cost of the plan over its original estimate. Clearly this represents a conflict of interest. But wait, it gets even better. Enet, far from being an independent bidder, are acting on behalf of the State, and Siro are partly owned by ESB, our state-owned electricity company.

Have you ever heard something so ‘Irish’ in all your life? Wherein the Government announces a project, gets bogged down in bureaucracy, bids against itself, dillies, dallies, moves to the left, moves to the right, and ends up jeopardising the whole thing because of something they should have been aware of from day one. And let’s make no mistake, this whole thing, this National Broadband Plan, is in jeopardy, it’s now in grave danger of never getting off the ground. Cautious estimates put any completion date at 2023 or 2024, a full decade after the plan was originally announced.

And yet that might not necessarily be a bad thing. Because while current Communications Minister, Dennis Naughton, figures out how to resolve this dispute amicably and how to tidy up the mess left by his predecessor, existing providers are quietly spreading the good word in previously ignored landscapes. While not all of those 1.8 million people are enjoying the speeds many of us take for granted, at least some of them are. Eir have already rolled out, and rolled into, hundreds of marginalised towns and villages, and a deal signed last April will see half of those 1.8 million brought into the 21st century with the rest of us.

So, in essence, while our Government dithers over who to award the contract to, over how to cover its arse and avoid litigation, the companies involved in the bidding war are doing their own thing. They’re capitalising on the market, recognising the unique position they find themselves in, that, in the current climate, supply will never outstrip demand and that this is their opportunity to make hay. As of yet, they may not have made that hay in your local area, and if that is the case I can only empathise with your plight, but chances are they’ll have long been and gone before the National Broadband Plan comes anywhere close to fruition.


You’ve got a friend in me

I’m a cynic at heart and possess a world view so jaundiced I see everything in sepia. Therefore, it’s not often I read a story which warms the cockles of my heart. However, reading about the latest addition to the playground at Newport Boys National School in Tipperary, I began to experience an unfamiliar set of emotions.

In an effort to combat loneliness among its children and ensure that no-one feels left out or isolated, the staff at the school, with the help of Mulcair Men’s Shed in Abington, have constructed a ‘buddy bench’. A simple concept, the bench serves as a destination for children who don’t have anyone to play with or find themselves on the outside looking in. It also enables teachers to identify children who are being excluded and provide the necessary support if required.

Now isn’t that just lovely? Like I said, I’m bitter beyond my years, but even I had to pretend I had something in my eye when I read this story. As ever though, I do have a minor quibble. My question is; why restrict this to children? Why can’t us grown-ups have buddy benches too? Many’s the time I’ve had no-one to play with, been left by myself while all the cool kids ran wild. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.

We could all benefit from a buddy bench, in fact, there should be one on every street in Ireland. Because these are lonely times, perhaps the loneliest times there’s ever been. Depression, anxiety, panic and stress, they’re ripping us apart, and our overworked, understaffed medical services simply can’t cope. It would be folly to suggest that a five-minute chat with a stranger is going to change anyone’s life, but it certainly couldn’t do any harm.

A word of warning though, if you’re on the buddy bench and you see me coming towards you, make good your escape. I’ll probably only make things worse.