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Darragh McCullough: 'Bruton's big decision will save us from another decade of broadband stagnation'


Leap of faith: Richard Bruton has bitten the bullet on delivering high speed broadband to rural communities

Leap of faith: Richard Bruton has bitten the bullet on delivering high speed broadband to rural communities

Leap of faith: Richard Bruton has bitten the bullet on delivering high speed broadband to rural communities

Call it a coincidence. After voicing my frustrations about rural internet on the national airwaves at the weekend, two shiny vans rolled into the farmyard last week to install...high-speed internet.

I didn't know whether to laugh out loud or cry with tears of joy, such was the anticipation of being able to finally pack in the dreaded dongles once and for all.

So it was somewhat of an anti-climax when I realised that all the fuss had been over a 200m reel of innocuous black cable connected into a box no bigger than a pack of rashers in the office.

Boom! A few hours later we were connected the Eir's fibre-optic network.

The next job is to extend the service around the farmyard using a Cat6 cable.

While we are paying for the highest speed available of 300 megabits per second (Mbs), once you pipe it through the wifi into the phone or laptop you're back to just over 100Mbs. However, that's still at least 25 times faster than what we had before, either via the copper landline or the darned dongles.

I'm forever scarred by my experiences of going a few gigabytes of data over our monthly limit on the dongles. During one episode I got a bill for additional charges of over €900. So one month was going to cost me the same a subscribing to the service for nearly eight years!

The constant threat of punitive extra charges is a notion that makes most urban dwellers smile in the same way we do when we recall people reading by candle light and oil-lamps.

Avoiding going online during heavy showers or at times when most people were logging on in the evenings is another quaint reminder of times gone by in our cities and towns.

Rows over whose turn it was to restart the internet will soon be in the same bracket as the pre-remote control era when somebody had to actually get up to change the channel on the telly.

Of course the economists tell us that these 21st century problems shouldn't require the Government to ransack the State's coffers for up to €3bn.

They will argue that if broadband is really so critical to the survival of businesses in rural Ireland, businesses should be prepared to pay for a connection, in much the same way that every new business premises pays for a connection to the ESB.

Marian Finucane recently cornered me on this exact point on her show.

"Would you offer two grand (for a connection)?" she asked.

I squirmed, but conceded the point. If it was a choice between no quality broadband for the next 20 years or a fee of €2,000, I would part with the cash.

However, there are two problems with this approach. A notional €2,000 fee would immediately put the vast majority of budding entrepreneurs off whatever start-up they had in mind - at least until they upped sticks and moved to the nearest city or town with high speed broadband. And so the gravitational pull of youth and innovation away from rural areas would continue unabated.

The second issue follows on from this but is by far the more important one.

If the State allows the gap in opportunity between urban and rural areas to grow ever larger, a deeply divided society will surely follow.

You can argue that society is already divided and that urban areas will always have greater opportunity - that's why people are prepared to pay multiples of the price of a house in Delvin to get one half the size in Dublin.

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But societal rifts lead to all kinds of mayhem. Brexit is the result of big chunks of the British population believing that they are permanently losing out. The election of Trump had a lot to do with large parts of American society feeling forgotten and left behind by the urban elites.

The Irish Government knows that it's not getting the best broadband deal in the world.

But the other bidders for the contract didn't walk away because they thought there was a fortune to be made. If these industry experts felt that this was not such a great business opportunity, how much longer would it take to get more bidders into the mix?

In the meantime, rural Ireland stagnates, housing and traffic pressures grow in urban areas, and the urban-rural divide deepens, possibly beyond the point of repair.

Richard Bruton has gone with the least worst option. At nearly €5,000 per house, it's not cheap. But it's the first step in ensuring that Ireland prospers together rather than in parts.

Donogh O'Malley ignored the advice of his civil servants when he announced free secondary education for all in 1966 - a decision that generated opportunity for all that followed. Sometimes you've just got to follow your gut.

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