Broadband delay is hurting rural Ireland
At the recent Ploughing Championships near Tullamore in Offaly, a man asked me about the most affordable options for satellite broadband services.
The man lived just 10 miles away from Tullamore and had given up on his landline internet service ever modernising. He needed it desperately for work, he said.
I mentioned the National Broadband Plan. He just laughed.
"Yeah, right," he said. "I need it some time this decade."
I'm not a fan of cynicism, but this man's reaction may not be wrong.
Last week, Communications Minister Denis Naughten said that construction of the National Broadband Plan won't start until "the second half of 2017".
That could mean that none of the estimated 900,000 homes and businesses are actually connected until 2018, over a year behind schedule.
It may also mean that, under the Government's own timetable, the process will not be completed until 2023. By that stage, the scheme's defined minimum speed - 30Mbs - may be too slow for modern needs. (The EU is now moving to a 100Mbs standard for ordinary usage.)
So it looks like another delay. That means the man from the Ploughing Championships is probably right to start researching pricey alternative options such as satellite broadband.
To be fair to the Communications Minister and his officials, delays can happen. The Department is undoubtedly correct to say that this is a massive, unprecedented project. As such, negotiations are bound to be intensive and complicated. The Department's senior officials rightly point out that there is no point rushing the process just to get something out the door, when it could result in a structurally faulty set-up that future generations would snarl at. Also, the majority of the homes and businesses to be connected are scheduled within the first two years, or by 2020.
But time is increasingly of the essence. There is now a real risk of obsolescence in vast areas of Ireland. In a recent Amarach survey, one in four rural residents admitted to thinking about quitting their townland to move to an area served with adequate broadband. For anyone working in 2016, broadband is a bare necessity. Living without it, while doable for holidaymakers or hermits, is no longer a possibility for most ordinary people who want to make a living.
Farmers, for example, are being warned that they must complete applications for key payments online. (Under EU rules, 75pc of Basic Payment Scheme applications in Ireland must be logged via the web by next year and 100pc of applications are required to be filed online by 2018.)
But farmers, as a group, are the ones likely to be connected last. Their homesteads are more isolated from multiple-dwelling nodes than almost any other sector.
This is why there is such pressure around this subject. It's a matter of survival, not a first world perk.
This is not to say that there is no broadband roll-out happening outside cities at present. Eir, Siro and eNet, which are the three shortlisted bidders for the State-subsidised scheme, are actually building their own private fibre networks in towns and villages around the country right now.
But it's happening at a pretty slow pace. Eir says that it is building a new rural fibre network that will reach 300,000 homes and businesses in areas currently not served by proper broadband services. It also now says that it has moved its completion date for this tranche of fibre connections forward to the end of 2018. (It says it has switched on the first 1,000 in small towns from Cork to Roscommon.)
Siro, the joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB, is also building a fibre broadband network, although none of these premises will be in the rural areas targeted under the National Broadband Plan. (Siro's network is an urban network for large towns.)
And eNet, best known for its involvement with regional Metropolitan Area Networks some years ago, has steadily built up individual fibre broadband networks in medium-sized towns such as Claremorris and Ardee.
Little of this would be happening without the National Broadband Plan's existence.
But most of rural Ireland is still waiting. And they're slowly wilting.
Sunday Indo Business