SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 25 JULY 2004
GREETINGS from middle Ireland. Well Athlone to be exact and the annual general meeting of IrelandOffline. If there's anybody in the land who fully understands what exactly is going on with internet access, there's a fair proportion of them gathered in this, the hotel from another time.
The slide projector has witnessed brighter days and the declining decor fits perfectly with the reason which brought people here in the first place - Ireland's telecommunications network.
Back in May 2001, Ireland Offline was created in response to mistreatment at the hands of an internet service provider. It isn't that long ago, but the internet is in a different timezone as Ireland Offline's progress reveals.
What began as a single issue protest turned quickly into a national campaign for broadband access. It wasn't long before they dived into the murky, shark-infested waters of Irish telecommunications.
And swim they did. In three short years, Ireland Offline's achievements far outstretched its numbers and resources. By the sweat of their brows, they dented the complacency which existed about Ireland's telecoms infrastructure, shoving the ehub back into the hubris from whence it came.
They turned off the milking pumps of per-minute internet access charges by singlehandedly pushing for (and getting) flat-rate. Apart from ending that cash cow's chi-ching, flat rate greatly encouraged more people to go online.
Sacred cows didn't get off lightly either. Endless government reports, industry projections and think-tank tomes were all in danger of being stripped of their rose-coloured gloss and returned with corrections written in the margins.
No one was safe. Initial caution of an innovative web-based campaign was allayed (itself an important step) and Ireland Offline was able to roam the hallowed halls of power without getting lost or frightening the horses.
Three years later, the group finds itself at a crossroads in Athlone. There's a motion to disband the group and pull the plug for good. The proposal suggests that the campaign for affordable internet access has hit a brick wall, at the end of a cul de sac.
Far from citing weariness or burn out, the motion was intended to focus on the problem of being caught between a rock and a hard place. Can't go back, can't go forward.
Much has been revealed about the state of Ireland's telecommunications infrastructure since Ireland Offline got going. From having a highly-regarded telephone network during the 1980s, Ireland has been slipping down the European rankings.
When the network was state-owned it was possible to enquire about its health, but now the patient has gone private and is not open to examination. Investment in the network has been declining over the past couple of years and is now below the level needed for upgrading. Travelling the byroads of rural Ireland doesn't do much to dislodge that view either.
The snail's pace of broadband roll-out is only quickening by millimetres. If it continues at this speed, what's the point? By the time this country manages to figure out how to reconcile sufficient internet access with the commercial commandments of Eircom (or whatever it's calling itself these days), the rest of the world might well have moved on.
At the moment technology dictates that the telephone network is the logical way to deliver broadband to large numbers. But technology is constantly changing and morphing, bringing new possibilities and directions.
Bandwidth is no respecter of technology and all communications is inexorably headed for the internet. Fibre, cellular phones, copper, powerline and a myriad of wireless and satellite technologies, means that whatever happens we are heading for a future of many different types of networks using differing access technologies.
New networks are emerging in areas like Knockmore and Inish Turk in Mayo and Kinnegad in Westmeath. More will follow. Existing networks shepherded by IrishWAN.org continue to grow and evolve. Smaller commercial networks are also finding their feet.
This is what the future will look like. A mix of public (community or co-op) and commercial networks interwoven throughout the length and breadth of the country. Wired and wireless until the seam eventually disappears because it no longer matters.
On the drive out from Athlone, the sun is quickly setting in the rear view mirror. The decision to disband Ireland Offline has been postponed so it's not as dark as it seems.