Thursday 22 June 2017

Lack of internet access no longer a first-world problem to be sneered at

The latest series of surveys show that up to a third of Ireland’s population do not have access to basic communications. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire
The latest series of surveys show that up to a third of Ireland’s population do not have access to basic communications. Photo: Yui Mok/PA Wire
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

We used to sneer about it being a first world problem. But what happens when you can't keep in touch with family over Facebook? Or you don't have the internet speed to Google basic information? Or even email a friend or a business contact?

That's the untenable situation experienced by tens of thousands of Irish homes and businesses today. The latest series of surveys show that up to a third of Ireland's population do not have access to basic communications.

No filing tax returns. No Facetiming loved ones abroad. No extra research for homework assignments.

As a result, a move to cities and large towns now seems inevitable for rural dwellers. Indeed, one in three working people in rural areas now say they face forced migration to urban areas for broadband reasons. Who can blame them? Running a business or keeping kids up to date with the latest digital opportunities is a non-runner in large parts of Ireland.

It's a lose-lose situation, even for those in cities. The more compelled everyone is to crowd into tiny geographical pockets of our country, the more unaffordable rent and house prices become.

As an exercise in national planning, it may turn out to be a cautionary tale. So are things likely to change soon?

Unfortunately, the Government's National Broadband Plan looks as far off as ever, with the first connections now likely to be pushed into 2018 rather than next year (or the end of this year, as was initially promised). It seems with every six months that pass, a further delay pops up as negotiations stall or the criteria changes. Government planners say such a vital project must not be rushed and that it is imperative for conditions to be correct in advance of public tenders. But it's starting to seem interminable.

What of Eir, Virgin and Vodafone, the biggest broadband operators? Only Eir and Vodafone are building more services out themselves, and even then only at a slow pace that favours large towns over more rural areas. Both operators admit there are some 400,000 homes and businesses they will never seek to reach. Virgin, meanwhile, has no solid plans to expand beyond its current city footprint.

In the long run, it is still likely rural Ireland will get connected. When it is, the quality of the State-subsidised service should be second to none, with Minister Denis Naughten pledging all qualifying homes will receive speeds of 1,000Mbs if they want.

But even here, there is a catch. The Government's qualifying criteria for a community's inclusion in the State fibre rollout is 'under 30Mbs'. Those who scrape over that metric won't get access to fibre broadband, meaning they will soon be overtaken by modern life's broadband requirements. Thus the cycle may repeat itself anew in 2023.

Irish Independent

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