Adrian Weckler: Driving us online a waste while rural internet so poor
Published 29/04/2016 | 02:30
'If it wasn't for the library in Tullamore, I'd be in real trouble. It's a lifesaver."
The person talking to me isn't a pensioner looking for magazines and company. It's an established Offaly businessman whose only option for ordering goods or filing official documents is to drive several miles to a public library three times a week.
William Edgill runs Mount Briscoe Organic Farm in Daingean, a village in east Offaly. Broadband in his area, he says, is "non-existent". But business utilities, from banks to the Revenue, now require him to do more and more online by default.
Mr Edgill isn't alone. A blanket requirement to use 'the cloud' for previously available offline activities, such as banking, is causing rural-based businesses and householders considerable difficulty.
"The time is fast approaching when all farmers will be required to complete their (EU) Basic Payment Scheme applications online," said Seamus Sherlock, chairman of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association. "When you don't have access to broadband, it will cause serious difficulties."
Some doubt the validity of referring to a 'digital divide'. But there is evidence that such a divide is starting to have a quantifiable cost in economic development.
According to the European Commission's most recent research on e-commerce potential, Ireland is the most divided country in Europe. The Commission's 'Digital Scorecard' found that just 8pc of rural Ireland is covered by fast broadband, a fraction of the European average of 25pc.
For those caught in these internet no-go zones, the opportunity foregone is seismic. The same European Commission study finds that small businesses which happen to be in broadband-rich Irish cities are the most advanced in Europe for e-commerce and online trading. When surrounded by fibre, we flourish: a third of Irish small to medium-sized businesses sell products or services online, which is twice the European average of 16pc.
Similarly, Irish small and medium-sized businesses record 19pc of turnover from e-commerce activities, compared to an average of 9pc of turnover across the rest of the EU.
How much potential is being lost for rural businesses waiting for broadband infrastructure to make it to their areas? How many times have companies turned down the prospect of investing in a non-urban setting because of a lack of suitable modern internet?
The Government has a €500m National Broadband Plan to connect users like Mr Edgill to proper, modern internet lines at the same price as urban services. But it has been delayed, meaning that it won't be completed until 2022, at the earliest.
It looks like rural business owners like Mr Edgill may have to get used to public libraries for a while yet.