Broadband delays will push another generation through the exit door of rural Ireland
Waiting for broadband in rural Ireland is now a permanent state of being.
For a brief period, the tantalising dates on which we could expect the arrival of decent broadband allowed us to dream. It would arrive in 2016, maybe 2017 or at the latest 2020.
We could fantasise about new businesses springing up while existing ones planned their expansion, new opportunities that would allow young people to choose between leaving and staying in their own community, greater access to a raft of services, not to mention the ability to bring relatives in far distant lands to our lap-top screens.
But, not for the first time the fantasy is short-lived and reality comes home to bite. At the end of April, while we were still waiting for someone to govern us, the humble and hard-working Department of Communications broke it to us that the actual likely date would be 2022. At least. A six-year wait, which when the statement is further analysed could extend a bit longer. Now, six years in the life of the universe is small but in rural hinterlands six years can add another generation to the exit door and widen the economic and social gap between urban and rural.
Companies plan ahead and need some reassurance on the availability of basic infrastructure before committing to locating outside the Pale. Facilities such as electricity, water and uncomplicated planning are important and where quirks occur they are resolvable. But broadband that is fit for purpose is either there or it's not and right now, for around 700,000 households and premises mainly located in rural areas, it most certainly is missing.
The delays, of course, are no one's fault. Instead, it's the fault of the bureaucracy. Apparently, it's all to do with our procurement systems, our planning and regulatory rules and so on. Thankfully, when rural electrification was introduced there was none of that; otherwise we'd still be waiting for it.
Meanwhile, rural areas, including some provincial towns, will lose out in terms of competitiveness, thereby continuing a decline that in six years will be irreversible.
Clearly, one of the first questions the Taoiseach will need to ask when he chairs the committee on infrastructure and climate change is why can the labyrinth of bureaucracy and regulation be allowed to hold this process up for so long and what will be required to speed it up? It has taken the establishment far too long to come to the conclusion that rural Ireland needs broadband, and now that it has, it might be useful to implement it with supreme urgency.
Currently, according to Irish Rural Link (IRL) estimates, the lack of sufficient broadband is costing, at a conservative calculation, some 10,000 jobs annually. Many existing businesses will review their location in terms of access to a broadband system that is essential for their needs. Gone are the days when a system delivering emails was sufficient. Now the customer's first enquiry is to reach for the Google search engine and discover what is available. It is not enough for the local B&B to advertise its delights in text only. Photographs of rooms, breakfast area, and the exterior of the premises are required. Maps and videos need to be included.
It is the same for any business that provides products and services to customers who, in some cases, may be only miles away. In essence, that means the provision of a system which can deliver 90mb at a competitive cost and has a technical quality which can be depended on.
The lack of proper broadband means many businesses must move their work out of rural areas to the main cities. This loss to rural communities means that hopes and policies as expressed in the Pat Spillane-chaired CEDRA report, which were aimed at revitalising towns and villages, will be stymied.
While these small enterprises are a major provider of jobs in rural areas, the role of agriculture and the individual farm must not be forgotten. The art and business of farming is now more dependent on access to the net than ever and all predictions suggest that this will become integral to the overall efficiency of the business.
Farmers are faced with increasing demands to make returns to government agencies and other stakeholders. Equally, it is now essential for proper access to a range of knowledge from weather reports to availability of spare parts or information needed to rectify a sudden emergency. Farmers can also have the choice to establish ancillary businesses, which can be managed from the farm.
For the community and, in particular, people living alone, the availability of broadband is now essential. Over the last three years, IRL has assisted over 3,000 people over the age of 65 to improve their computer skills. Funded by the Department of Communications, this programme called Benefit 4 is proving a lifeline to people who cannot easily travel and are stranded in their own homes. With bank branches closing and people asked to travel long journeys to their bank or go online, such a programme is a godsend.
However, without broadband, it is disadvantaged considerably. If you have ever been in the middle of a banking transaction and suddenly the connections fades, the frustration levels become intolerable, not to mention fears that the account is now unsafe.
Being positive, it is welcome that the new Government is committed to bringing broadband to all rural areas. That commitment reiterated by the new Minister for Rural and Regional development Heather Humphreys is extremely welcome. However, the proposed wait of six years or more for broadband is not acceptable in a country where many rural areas are on life support.
Seamus Boland is CEO of Irish Rural Link