Review of 2003: Year of the flat

REPORTS are like buses. There's never one around when needed but then three or four of them come along together.

So it was in the latter half of 2003 when report after report criticised Ireland's dire lack of broadband, and many contained warnings on the economic and social consequences of falling behind in connectivity.

With a somewhat undelicious irony, downloading many of the reports was a nightmare such was their size. But the Chambers of Commerce, Forfas, the National Competitiveness Council and the big guns of the Information Society Commission were all singing from the same hymn sheet at last.

Who'd a thunk it? Less than a year previously, the voices urging for broadband were dismissed as cranks and geeks. 'No demand' was the mantra of those who knew best, shouted all the more loudly by those who had most to lose.

2003 was the year that Ireland 'got' broadband. Unfortunately not the actual connections - there's quite a way to go yet - but the belated understanding that as far as the infrastructure of this country is concerned, broadband should be up near the top of the list.

In particular, business finally got with the programme. After an aeon of indifference, commerce eventually woke up to the consequences of lagging in international competitiveness. As expected, the bottom line was saving money and cutting telecommunications costs does just that.

Those savings were hinted at with the introduction during the year of flat-rate net access (FRAICO). A long overdue and very welcome move. Flat-rate was welcomed with open arms but it also served a more important purpose. It threatened Eircom's per-minute golden goose and forced the monopolist to re-evaluate its DSL plans.

Out went the smoke and mirrors of 'no demand' and in came the 100,000 DSL connections target by end 2004. The mother of all u-turns, proving that the road to Damascus lies somewhere around Stephen's Green.

Flat-rate was the battering ram which broke down the doors blocking the way forward. By stopping the clock and the per-minute fleecing, flat-rate was a bold and energising move.

Credit where credit is due and hats off once more to the persistent work of lobby group IrelandOffline. The group has been very successful in getting its message across and was invited to appear before a number of Dail select committees during the year.

It would also be remiss not to appreciate the zeal of the communications minister Dermot Ahern. It has been a long wait for someone in government who not only understands the technology aspects but is also willing to act.

Two weeks ago he reiterated his views on regulating the telecoms market: "in clear conditions of market failure or of sluggish market responsiveness it is perfectly legitimate for governments to intervene". Intervene to your hearts content minister.

With the Metropolitan Area Networks, the ESB's fibre network and fixed wireless licenses, the pieces of the broadband jigsaw are falling into place and it just remains to see how well they fit together in the broadband action plan.

Eircom's profit-taking during the year is proof, if it were needed, that the company has no intention of investing what is required to modernise an old infrastructure. To use an worn-out internet cliche, damage can be routed around.

On other fronts, there was quite a lot of movement. Etain Doyle, the chair of Comreg, stepped down and was replaced by John Doherty.

The company that looks after the .ie domain name experienced turmoil during the year with a long drawn-out legal battle with its chief executive seemingly at an end. There is widespread speculation that government intervention under existing legislation is pending, but the sooner it is sorted out the better.

On a related matter, the Internet Society (Isoc) officially formed a branch in Ireland this year. Isoc Ireland can play a significant role, particularly with its 'Internet for Everyone' mission statement.

It recently launched a working group to try and find consensus on the way forward for the .ie domain name. This is an opportunity for the wider internet community to be involved, an aspect that is beginning to grow in this country.

The internet facilitates such representative input, overcoming hurdles of time and space and enabling groups of like-minded people to organise in new ways.

The Irish Citizens for Trustworthy Evoting was formed in response to the proposed use of voting machines in next years local and European elections. Another group formed around the issue of Free/Open Source Software in Ireland and has been very active, particularly on the issue of proposed changes to European patent laws.

Involvement of the wider internet community was again to the fore in questioning the intention of the justice minister to require all phone, email and web traffic details be detained for up to three years.

The powers that be should welcome such input, indicative of a new situation and circumstances and distinct from an outmoded top-down past.

This area continued to dominate in the international arena and the recent global summit on information technology organised by the UN, decided to leave the issue of an "international cyberspace treaty" for another day.

The copyright war moved up a notch with thousands of individuals supoened for illegally downloading music. Canada introduced a levy for all MP3-type players, a similar response to the so-called threat of cassette and video tapes of 20 years ago.

Online music stores came of age in 2003 with Apple's iTunes leading the growth. Pepsi and Coca-Cola will join the download market in the new year.

A note of realism crept into the notion of e-government, with many European countries (including Ireland) pegging back lofty but unworkable plans for rolling out online services. A sobering step away from the 'build it and they will come' illusion.

All in all, it was a year with more ups than downs and a year containing sufficient progress to make 2004 a year to definitely look forward to.

Thanks for reading in 2003.