Monday 26 September 2016

Time to get connected - how absence of broadband is killing jobs

It is a resource that has become as essential in Ireland as electricity and water, and the absence of good broadband is killing jobs in areas that desperately need recovery, paralysing schools and leaving farmers on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30

Kerry dairy farmer Patrick Rohan with his son Liam on his farm outside Annascaul. Photo: Don MacMonagle.
Kerry dairy farmer Patrick Rohan with his son Liam on his farm outside Annascaul. Photo: Don MacMonagle.
Teacher Carmel Browne with pupils (from left) Rachel, Sean and Millie, showing their frustration at the broadband at their school, Melview National School, Longford. Photo: James Flynn

For vast areas of rural Ireland, the absence of good broadband is proving to be nothing short of disastrous.

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It is killing jobs in areas that desperately need thriving businesses in order to prosper and survive, and helping to create unemployment black spots.

If you talk to those running small businesses, there are plenty of stories of employees driving up to 10 miles to download orders out of sheer desperation when their connection does not work. Some are even moving parts of their operation to Dublin because they cannot cope with poor internet links with their clients.

In the local primary school, the teacher cannot use the interactive whiteboard to do sums with the children, and the principal tears her hair out trying to communicate with the Department of Education.

The farmer relies on good broadband to claim his or her grants, and deal with the local co-op. The go-ahead operator cannot research the latest equipment for his milking parlour if the broadband video link will not work.

"The lack of good connectivity is costing jobs in rural Ireland every day of the week. Every small business - whether you are selling spare parts or running a bed and breakfast - now depends on broadband," says Seamus Boland, chief executive of the campaign group Irish Rural Link.

"If you don't have it, you don't have a hope. This means that many areas outside the Pale are now becoming uncompetitive."

Currently, the Government has a plan to bring high-speed broadband to 750,000 homes and businesses, but the programme's completion has been postponed until 2022 as a result of bureaucratic logjams and technical difficulties. In the coming months, pressure on the new Government to be more ambitious and complete the job by 2019 will mount.

"We could become the first country to have broadband on a nationwide scale if the political will persists," says Eamonn Wallace, who campaigns for better broadband with the pressure group IrelandOffline.

Seamus Boland is not exaggerating when he says the absence of broadband is costing rural Ireland jobs every day.

This week, Monaghan company Universal Graphics advertised for five jobs in Dublin, largely as a result of the poor connections at its home base near Emyvale. It also now employs staff in the UK.

Co-founders Simon and Barry Murray have built up a good business in Monaghan, designing branding for lorries and vans for big names such as SuperValu, Guinness and Tayto.

The company employs 30 people, but Barry tells Review that its growth in Monaghan has been stunted because of the poor broadband connection.

"We have had to consider relocation from Monaghan and whether it would be better to base our operations in Dublin," says Barry.

The company now already has seven employees in a Dublin office, and the five new posts will also be based there.

"We need good broadband because we're transferring hi-tech graphics online," says Barry's brother Simon.

"If we are trying to download a lot of data, it is a nightmare. You can't do conference calls and many of the other things needed to run a modern business."

It is a similar story in Finnea, Co Westmeath, where Jason Coyle has built up a successful small business, Mr Crumb, which produces stuffing and breadcrumbs.

It is just the type of company this area close to the Westmeath-Cavan border needs, providing employment to 90 people, but Jason has been so bedevilled by poor broadband that he is almost tired of talking about it.

"At times we have had to send people from Finnea to Mullingar (10 miles away) to download orders late at night so that they could pick up a signal.

"Everything you do in a modern business - including paperwork, orders, payments and product development - is done online."

According to Coyle, there has been talk of upgrading the local telephone exchange since 1996, but it has never happened.

"Every minister that comes in says there will be an improvement and then the next one comes along."

The problem for the diffuse population of many parts of rural Ireland is that a home or office has to be within 5km of a modernised exchange which is hooked up to fibre-optic cabling to get a good connection.

However, it is not just businesses that are blighted by poor broadband.

Up to 1,500 primary schools, mainly in rural areas, are struggling to get by without high-speed connections - and teachers find it difficult to bring many features of the modern curriculum to their pupils as a result.

"A government initiative provided high-speed broadband for second-level schools, but there was nothing like that at primary level," says Peter Mullan, assistant general secretary of the Irish National Teachers' Organisation. "Many teachers will tell you that they have a better broadband connection at home than the professional one at school.

"At home, you might have four people going online, but in a school you might have 400 kids trying to connect, but they can't do it."

The poor broadband speed causes problems for teachers and pupils at Melview National School near Longford. It is typical of many primary schools across the country.

In schools where many teachers and pupils might be using devices, the optimum speed is 95Mbps. But at Melview and many other schools, the speed is often below 3Mbps.

The Department of Education went to considerable expense providing schools with interactive whiteboards, the most popular hi-tech tool in education.

"They are wonderful tools for teaching. You can do interactive maths and science games where the kids can come up and manipulate them," says teacher Carmel Browne.

"With poor broadband, we can't connect multiple devices. If I'm using the whiteboard in my classroom, then the one in the class next door doesn't work.

"Very often, if I start doing something on the whiteboard, it crashes and the kids are frustrated, and I am frustrated. Fortunately, I am an experienced teacher, so I can go to plan B."

Carmel also needs to get online to download curriculum plans from the Department of Education, but with poor internet speeds, this can take up to two hours.

For one recent homework assignment, kids in her class made videos of wild flowers, but when they came in to try to play them, they couldn't.

"Again, it was very frustrating for the kids," says Carmel.

For children, the problems are not always caused by poor broadband in the classroom. At second-level they could be left out in the digital wilderness at home.

With many second-level schools well-connected, students may be given digital assignments and encouraged to communicate with teachers online.

But that is not an option if there is no good broadband in the area around their home.

The absence of good broadband has become an even more pressing issue now that much of physical infrastructure of rural Ireland is withering away.

Post offices, garda stations, motor tax offices and banks are all closing, and in many cases, consumers are expected to obtain these services online.

Eamonn Wallace, of IrelandOffline, says: "The motor tax offices are closing around the country, and everybody is being pushed to do it online. What happens if you don't have broadband?"

By 2018, farmers will have to claim their EU grants online, and some worry that without broadband, they will have to drive many miles away to local libraries. It is the sort of job they prefer to do with all their documentation laid out on the kitchen table.

Farming may once have been considered a low-tech occupation, but that is rapidly changing.

Kerry dairy farmer Patrick Rohan says broadband has become a necessity for farmers, because most of the administration is now done online. He lives away from his Annascaul farm, where there is no broadband, and even at his home, the internet connection is haphazard.

"With post offices, district veterinary offices and lots of other services closing in the country, broadband is more of a necessity," says Patrick, who chairs the Rural Affairs committee of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association.

"We go online to register calves, and a lot of the co-ops send back your milk records online.

"Skype is very popular nowadays among farmers. If you are connected online, companies can check the settings on your milk tanks. If you don't have broadband, you don't have that facility."

Tourism is another area where broadband has become absolutely vital, enabling businesses to promote their attraction cheaply online.

"If you are looking for a bed and breakfast in Roscommon, the first thing you are going to do is type it into Google," says Seamus Boland of Irish Rural Link.

"If the bed and breakfast has good photographs, we look at them, but if it is just blank space and text we go somewhere else."

Dave Brocklebank runs year-round yoga holidays on the Burren in Co Clare through his website Burrenyoga.com. Two years ago, he was so frustrated by internet connection in his area that he started a local initiative to improve broadband.

"At the very best, I am getting 4Mbps, and paying €40 a month, while in the cities the speed can be over 50Mbps," says Dave.

In common with thousands of others in remote areas, he receives his broadband wirelessly on microwave signals from a mast.

"It definitely affects the quality of my website when I am trying to update it. When the internet is busy, it degrades in performance, and then it becomes impossible to update the website for a few hours in the day."

Dave warns that the absence of broadband in many areas is creating economic problems, because people are reluctant to set up businesses there.

"In many of these rural areas, unemployment is already quite high. By not having broadband, the Government is going to create unemployment black spots."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny could be accused of incoherence in giving the responsibility for rolling out broadband to two ministers, Denis Naughten in Communications, and Heather Humphreys in the long-winded Department of Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht.

Minister Humphreys said this week that broadband was the biggest challenge facing rural Ireland.

She does not have far to go to see the problems at first hand. Her own home is in Co Monaghan, the worst broadband black spot in the country, with average download speeds of just 8.2Mbps, compared to an average of 27.9Mbps in Dublin.

If the parts of rural Ireland still struggling to recover from the recession are to be revived, this Government will have to regard rural broadband as the great infrastructural project of the 21st century.

They need to think how our great-grandparents thought when they brought electricity down every boreen and up the side of every mountain at a time when this country was much less prosperous than it is now.

As Irish Rural Link's Seamus Boland puts it: "We need to understand that broadband is not a luxury. It should be given the same value as electricity and water."

Mega bits and pieces

1 in 5

people in rural Ireland who say they can’t get broadband at all

25%

those who have broadband who claim speeds are too slow

1 in 4

rural broadband users using connection at home for work

14.7Mbps

average broadband speed in Ireland

1,500

primary schools without high-speed broadband

700,000

Businesses and homes without high-speed broadband

Best

Waterford has the fastest download speeds anywhere in Ireland with an average of 28.5Mbps. This is followed by Dublin, at 27.9Mbps, and Kildare, at 26.5Mbps.

Worst

Monaghan is the worst broadband black spot with an average download speed of 8.2Mbps. Other black spots include Wexford and Kerry, with average download speeds of just 8.3Mbps and 8.6Mbps respectively.

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