Business Farming

Saturday 1 October 2016

Rural broadband woes to continue

The absence of high-quality rural broadband is holding back the expansion of farming and agri-business, reports our Technology Editor

Published 10/05/2016 | 02:30

The absence of high-quality rural broadband in Ireland is holding back farming
The absence of high-quality rural broadband in Ireland is holding back farming
Seamus Sherlock, chairman of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association.

What is the immediate future for rural broadband availability in farming areas like? Here are five warning signs that regional areas are about to enter an emergency phase of the country's broadband deficit.

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1 Government promises are already up in smoke

Remember all the solemn promises over rural broadband action from independent TDs and opposition parties during government formation talks?

They have apparently disappeared: the deal struck between Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Independents has not reversed any of the recently announced delays to the National Broadband Plan, with completion now set for the delayed date of 2022.

The deal also confirms that no construction on the state-subsidised rural broadband network will begin for at least a year from now (summer of 2017).

Worse, the confirmed schedule means that almost half of rural homes and businesses to be reached won't see any start to their broadband rollout until 2019, three years from now.

In short, it's a huge let down - none of the deadlines and targets have changed.

On this schedule, over 100,000 homes and businesses look likely to wait for city-grade broadband until the next decade.

On the positive side, it's hard to see how pressure will not increase on government bodies and institutions before then.

To this end, the government has left itself some wriggle room with a vague promise to "work with local Councils to establish broadband taskforces to help facilitate the local roll out" of broadband in rural areas. If pressure continues to grow, that could mean expedited planning hearings.

2 Farmers are being relentlessly pushed online

Whether it's banking, managing orders or filing legally required documents, farmers are increasingly being pushed into internet processes to fulfil basic tasks.

"People living in rural communities urgently need proper broadband with local banks and post offices closing," said Seamus Sherlock, chairman of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association (inset).

"The time is fast approaching when all farmers will be required to complete their [EU] Basic Payment Scheme applications online.

"When you don't have access to broadband, it will cause serious difficulties."

Macra president Sean Finan called on the government to prioritise broadband, as he pointed out at the Macra national AGM that the lack of investment in broadband infrastructure by successive governments has resulted in the "delay of economic recovery in rural areas".

3 Export potential for smaller agri-businesses is being hit hard

According to the latest European Union research on broadband's effects on local trade, Irish businesses thrive when they have proper broadband and fade away when they don't.

The European Commission's 'Digital Scorecard' found that small businesses in broadband-rich Irish cities are the most advanced in Europe for e-commerce and online trading. When surrounded by fibre, a full third of small Irish businesses - including farms - trade online in some way, which is twice the European average of 16pc.

Similarly, Irish small and medium sized businesses record 19pc of turnover from online trading activities, compared to an average of 9pc of turnover across the rest of the EU.

But just 8pc of rural Ireland is covered by fast broadband, a fraction of the European average of 25pc, making Ireland the most divided broadband country in Europe.

4 Even non-agri business lobbies say the lack of rural broadband is hurting the country

"Delivering the national broadband plan is a competitiveness issue," said a spokesman for Chambers Ireland, a national business organisation.

"Lack of broadband capacity in a region undermines the ability of regionally located Irish businesses to compete internationally and prevents workers living in rural areas being able to work remotely, very often a necessity in a modern enterprise."

5 The uncertainty about what happens next?

In the absence of any expedited progress on the National Broadband Plan, there are a handful of proposals that may yet see some light of day.

One of these is the idea that the state may look to release or build public assets that could facilitate access in the medium term.

This could be in the form of routes controlled by the National Roads Authority.

It could even come in what the minority government supporting Fianna Fáil has previously mooted as a state-built mobile mast network that private operators could lease space off.

But nothing detailed on any of this has yet been formally tabled. The government is waiting to see how much rural areas will bear before actually expediting any new measures.

The next six months should prove to be a decisive period.

Masts, dongles and the sky – your alternatives  to broadband

Satellite broadband

What it is: Broadband using a satellite dish.

Pros: It works everywhere in the same way that satellite TV does. Just point it at the sky.

Cons: It has limited speeds (generally under 20Mbs), pricey set-up fees (€200 plus) and very low monthly data caps (usually 10GB–20GB). Normal data caps cost €80 upwards per month.

Fixed wireless ­broadband

What it is: An antenna is fixed on your roof, from where it connects to the nearest dedicated mast. Fixed wireless services are generally available within four to five miles of rural towns and sometimes beyond.

Pros: It reaches into parts of rural Ireland that have little or no adequate fixed line broadband options.

Cons: It’s pricey and limited to very basic speeds. Fixed wireless services generally offer a fraction of the speeds available in cities: “up to 8Mbs” for €50 per month or more. They are also sometimes prone to weather-related outages.

4G mobile broadband

What it is: Broadband through your phone or a mobile dongle.

Pros: Expanding steadily throughout the country, unexpectedly present in some western and border county areas. Affordable (under €35 per month).

Cons: Very low monthly data allowances (as low as 5GB) compared to ordinary broadband services. Speeds can vary from day to day depending on weather and other users. Still non-existent in large areas.

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