Saturday 1 October 2016

Low target for rural broadband speeds are short-sighted and unacceptable

Sean Finan

Published 03/06/2016 | 02:30

High-speed broadband is as essential as electricity for many businesses (Stock picture)
High-speed broadband is as essential as electricity for many businesses (Stock picture)

Rural communities are consistently experiencing speeds of less than 1Mbs during peak usage times, while their urban counterparts are capable of receiving 360Mbs in some areas.

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This 300-fold gap is having a negative impact on the life and economy of rural Ireland.

High-speed broadband is as essential as electricity for many businesses.

Email, video calls and cloud storage are all used on a daily basis in some industries. IT/engineering businesses can require the download of large files regularly. In some extreme cases, it is quicker to drive significant distances into urban centres to download these files, before returning home to use them.

Such a disadvantage would in itself be enough to prevent anyone from considering setting up many types of business in a rural community, hindering our rural economy.

But our concerns are not merely centred on commercial imperatives. The social life of rural Ireland is also severely affected by the country's poor broadband infrastructure.

Use of social media and video streaming is becoming more prevalent in parts of the country where it is possible. It is considered a given in most urban places. But both require high internet speeds. People working for companies that offer the chance to operate from home are not able to do so in rural areas. This is a direct consequence of having to live with poor broadband connections.

This, along with a lack of investment in other rural infrastructure has a serious social cost. It is a contributing factor in rural-urban migration.

The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA) report in 2014 called for the delivery of broadband speeds of at least 30Mbs to all rural areas by the end of 2015, while the current National Broadband Plan (NBP) plans to start providing this speed only later this year.

Not only have previous governments not acted on the recommendations of the CEDRA report, the NBP targets are not ambitious enough.

Average internet speeds are increasing exponentially. If the current global growth continues at the same rate, rural Ireland will again be left lagging behind our global counterparts within the next five years.

A long-sighted goal of 100Mbs must be set to ensure the digital divide between rural and urban Ireland does not increase any further.

Lack of availability of broadband services in rural areas is something I hear about as president of Macra na Feirme regularly in my travels across the country serving the membership.

From my own experience, availability of fast, efficient broadband is vital for the running of a successful farm business. Tasks traditionally carried out on paper are now carried out online. This has improved efficiency and expedited the registration process on the farm. Practical examples include registration of calves and this year farmers were encouraged by the Department of Agriculture to complete their basic payments applications online.

The option to complete such tasks bring efficiency in the running of the farm and speed up processing times. However, broadband is crucial to performing the tasks successfully.

Seán Wallace, who is a member of Donoughmore Macra na Feirme and sits on the Macra na Feirme National Council representing the Muskerry region in Co Cork, works as an information system engineer with a qualification from UCC in computer science.

Seán also has first-hand practical experience of when poor broadband has posed a problem for him.

When completing his final project, Seán worked on some elements of the project from home. As his degree was in computer science, it involved the need to download substantial files.

Because of this it was quicker for Seán to undertake a 25-minute journey to Cork City to download the files on campus and return home to complete his work than it would have been to attempt to download them at home.

There just practical examples of the need to prioritise investment in broadband infrastructure so that young rural people and young farmers can run successful businesses in rural areas.

Enterprise is the lifeblood of rural Ireland and young people are energetic, educated and would love the opportunity to live and work in rural Ireland but poor broadband infrastructure is limiting this potential enterprising entrepreneurial spirit.

Macra na Feirme understands that broadband technology is improving all the time.

The challenge faced by the Government in its rollout is that the technology is changing at a faster pace than the infrastructure is being rolled out. Access to markets, suppliers and services by rural businesses is dependant on high-speed broadband.

Business in rural areas face enough challenges and obstacles and poor broadband connectivity due to lack of investment and prioritisation by policy makers is not acceptable and Macra na Feirme will continue to lobby for the roll out of a high-speed broadband across the country.

Sean Finan is national president of Macra

Irish Independent

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