Monumental problem this country has allowed to fester
Our Technology Editor on why we urgently need to look again at the roll-out of nationwide broadband
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
Somewhere in an alternate universe, there is an Ireland where electricity was never fully rolled out to the whole country.
In this alternate universe, one in three of Ireland's citizens today has to travel to the nearest town every morning to boil a mobile kettle and cook their meals for the day.
Kids stay late in school to avail of electricity-powered bulbs for reading because the candlelight they're stuck with at home has inadequate capacity to access information by.
To be sure, some of the 700,000 homes in alternate Ireland's electricity black spots have diluted versions of power, although it takes an hour to get a toaster to complete a task it should perform in 60 seconds.
In this alternate Ireland, businesses now refuse to invest in the rural areas that don't have electricity. Local entrepreneurs are shutting up shop and moving to the cities. Farmers, already worried about their kids' apathy in taking over the family business, are now resigned to their sons and daughters leaving their historic townland to start a new life in one of the booming electricity-rich urban zones.
The government of this alternate Ireland says that it has a plan to extend electricity to rural homes but that it won't happen for another six years because it's a "state intervention".
Electricity availability outside cities, the government says, must compete with other general spending promises it has.
Meanwhile, rural residents' complaints about a lack of electricity are commonly dismissed as "first-world problems".
"You'll just have to wait a bit longer to play all your electronic games and fire up your Nespresso machines," say city-based radio-show hosts.
Does this sound far-fetched? Maybe. But substitute the word 'broadband' for 'electricity' and you have an appropriate picture of the monumental problem Ireland has allowed to fester.
Broadband is now the online glue that ties together most of our communications, work, learning, entertainment and basic daily tasks. And its absence in vast swathes of the country could soon become ruinous.
In all, one in three Irish homes and businesses has little or no broadband. One in five say they have no access whatsoever. And now people are starting to talk about abandoning their rural homes because of the broadband deficit.
"No broadband means no jobs and no village," says Adam Coleman, an entrepreneur who set up a business in Lahinch but is now reassessing the location's viability because of poor broadband availability.
"It's getting very difficult to run a business off three megabits. Sometimes, our developers need to drive into Ennis to connect online."
Coleman isn't alone. A national survey last week reported that one in four rural residents has considered relocating to a city over the issue of broadband.
They have no choice. The same Amarach survey reported that 25pc of those in rural Ireland now need the internet at home for work. Without it, they can't earn a living.
"If it wasn't for the library in Tullamore, I'd be in real trouble," says William Edgill, a businessman who runs Mount Briscoe Organic Farm in the village of Daingean, Co Offaly.
Edgil is one of the growing hordes who have to drive to their nearest town centre for a Wi-Fi connection to send an email.
Expert groups, from chambers of commerce to start-up founders to community organisations, say that the situation is now unsustainable.
"Regional broadband is now the number-one issue for our regional members," says Mark O'Mahoney, director of policy for Chambers Ireland, the country's largest business network.
This is an inflection point, they say.
"For creating jobs in rural areas, high-speed broadband is probably the only game in town," said Ibec's Torlach Denihan.
This stark message is being repeated over and over again by anyone who looks into the issue.
"Businesses and potential employees won't consider places with poor broadband infrastructure," says Gerard O'Neill, chairman of Amarach Research. "Our survey also suggests that having proper broadband improves the chance of attracting returning emigrants, many with skills."
If broadband was simply about jobs and industry - as crucial as they are to the fabric of a functioning community - we could probably confine it to the list of infrastructural projects needing maintenance, alongside motorways and ports.
But there is overwhelming evidence to show that broadband access is as much about family connections and fighting isolation as keeping jobs.
The most recent figures from polling firm Ipsos MRBI show that more than two-thirds of Irish adults use social media services such as Facebook to keep in touch with friends and family. Half of us use at least one such service every single day. (Irish people are now reliant on social media to keep in touch more than any other country in Europe, according to other industry figures.)
So broadband is now a critically important utility in our basic social lives, as well as in our work lives. Without it, people face a heightened risk of isolation and loneliness.
Ireland's new Government appears to think that the problem isn't as stark as the evidence suggests.
Its new Programme for Government has reiterated that 300,000 rural homes and businesses will have to wait until 2019 for a state-subsidised National Broadband Plan process to even begin. (Around the same number are planned to be connected by that time, starting in the middle of next year.)
At present, Ireland's rural broadband roll-out is not due for completion until 2022, barring further delays.
But rural Ireland's fate cannot wait until 2022. The country is now at an inflection point, with broadband more central to progress than any other single absent resource. Our cities are booming, partly because of their excellent connected infrastructure. And urban companies are reaping the benefit. The EU's latest Digital Scorecard statistics show that Irish small firms with broadband outperform all other European small firms when it comes to selling and trading online.
But in rural areas, business-owners have to drive into the nearest town libraries just to send an email.
It needn't be this way. Irish telecom companies say that our rural network can be built out fully in far less time than 2022. Access to broadband could also be a right under a universal service obligation law that countries such as the UK have just adopted.
We now need to look again at rural broadband roll-out. What seemed to be a valid timetable in 2012 or 2014 is no longer fit for purpose.
Broadband has become a basic, indispensable utility. Not having it is now threatening to wreck areas of the country.
Our rural regions deserve to share in the social and economic basics that broadband brings.