Tuesday 27 September 2016

Rural firms on the wrong side of digital divide losing out on huge opportunities

Rita McInerney

Published 02/06/2016 | 02:30

Broadband is an economic necessity for rural businesses Stock photo: PA
Broadband is an economic necessity for rural businesses Stock photo: PA

At the Chamber of Commerce in Ennis, which represents rural businesses, we see firsthand every day how dependent on their connection to the rest of Ireland and the wider world our members are.

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For them, broadband is an absolute economic necessity, not a luxury. The ability of rural Ireland to connect with customers and suppliers is crucial in the information age for businesses of all sizes. Customers are unforgiving on issues such as slow response times, a poor web presence, no online payments, booking or review systems. Customers expect these services from all business, rurally based or not. It doesn't factor in their minds that a company might have an incredibly poor connection, it simply reflects badly on the business and how it is run.

Not being able to manage these things can lead to reputational damage and a serious competitive disadvantage for businesses.

The recently announced delays to the implementation of the National Broadband Plan have left many of our members despairing. There is now no real end in sight to the poor connectivity they are constantly trying to work around and grow their businesses in spite of. The longer rural Ireland waits, the further behind we fall and the more strained and disadvantaged our businesses become.

The delay in the rollout of the National Broadband Plan is extremely frustrating for us and is a serious threat to our business members. So many aspects of doing business are affected by internet access, from recruiting employees, to taking payments and making produce available online.

Companies are unable to continue competing on this unlevel playing field where they begin from an automatic disadvantage.

Many want to grow their markets and trade further afield, but cannot do so.

Engagement online should be a cost-effective way in which businesses can communicate with customers, conduct marketing, and manage the brand of the business. But for many, their online presence is limited and frustrating, for both the business and the consumer. A good online presence also enables companies to broaden their reach to a new demographic of younger, tech-friendly consumers.

Simple tasks which are part and parcel of doing daily business, such as online banking, downloading attachments and using cloud-based services, should not be out of reach.

This Government's stated aim of revitalising rural Ireland must be reflected firstly by connecting rural Ireland. We have a real opportunity now to empower the entire country, urban and rural, and harness the strength and creativity of our entrepreneurs to our advantage internationally.

Given that the European Commission wants at least half of EU households to have speeds of at least 100mbps by 2020, the same target completion date for the National Broadband Plan, the Irish plan's minimum speed of 30mbps is under-ambitious and we do not believe it will stand the test of time.

The State has committed €275m to the National Broadband Plan and it is critical, given the cost and scale of the operation involved, that it be completed to the highest possible standard, and that it delivers the best results in terms of service provision nationally.

It has been warned that the amount of data being consumed has been growing at about 25pc to 30pc per annum, with industry forecasts projecting similar compound growth rates over coming years. So 30mbps is not a sufficient speed to keep up with such growth.

Our region has been particularly badly hit by youth emigration and so many of our young people leave for cities and towns in which they can do business and be connected. Improved broadband infrastructure would enable our highly educated young people to stay where they are and where their families and friends are, to establish businesses and create or find employment opportunities in their own localities.

Educational resources are also increasingly managed online and we risk leaving huge portions of the country behind in this area too if the digital divide is not addressed as soon as possible. There is much talk of up-skilling and re-training those in employment, but for rural Ireland we would largely rely on online tools and distance learning for much of this.

The Government must prioritise the National Broadband Plan to achieve the target of 100pc rollout as soon as possible. Small businesses have so much to gain from increased online capabilities and the entire country has so much to gain from connecting rural Ireland. Being on the rural side of the digital divide means missing out on many economic and social opportunities, and has a serious effect on the ability of rural businesses to grow, to trade and to carry out simple day-to-day operations.

Rita McInerney is CEO of Ennis Chamber of Commerce

Irish Independent

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