Farm Ireland

Sunday 17 December 2017

"I am tired of talking, dreaming, fighting and being lied to about rural broadband"

Stock image
Stock image
Eir top-of-the-range broadband service is due to be operational before the end of the year
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

I write this from a digital black hole somewhere in southern Ireland.

The year is 2017, a reality TV celebrity with an extraordinary hairdo is President of the United States of America, the electorates of England and Wales have voted to leave the planet, while the French have selected a fresh-faced toy boy to face down the formidable and implacable heroine of the resurgent right.

And here I am depending on the digital equivalent of carrier pigeon to keep up with the news.

Don't worry, I haven't lost my marbles, it's just that my broadband signal has evaporated yet again and my future as a home worker is looking increasingly dismal.

I am tired of talking, dreaming and fighting about rural broadband, and tired of being lied to while one much-heralded rural broadband scheme follows another into the bottomless pit of broken political promises.

I've had more broadband providers than I care to remember and, at times, my house has been so festooned with satellite dishes and receivers that the neighbours think I work for Nasa.

Average broadband speed by county
Average broadband speed by county

Many of my providers are genuine, hardworking rural entrepreneurs trying desperately to make a few bob providing a public good with limited technology and private means. At the end of the day, they are simply keeping the Government off the hook.

This week has been a bad one. The children were home for Easter and my monthly broadband allocation disappeared in two weeks. I contacted my provider, who told me there was nothing that could be done as my current contract did not allow me to top up my monthly ration.

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No matter how many credit cards I waved down the phone, the man was impervious to my desperate overtures.

I eventually got to talk to a manager who came up with a rather awkward, expensive but workable solution - I am to get a second receiver, now affectionately known as Modem 2, which I will plug into my satellite dish when the original receiver, Modem 1, runs out of space. As Modem 2 is under a new and cheaper contract, it can be topped up when it runs out of rations. The whole deal, before top-ups, is costing €134 per month.

I nearly forgot to mention that I also have a back-up supply in the form of a 'dongle', which my mobile phone company convinced me would solve all my problems. I must say that 'dongle' is an apt name for this piece of equipment, the word brings to mind those bits of useless and soiled wool that hang from the rear ends of sheep.

I have to acknowledge that an end to my digital tale of woe is in sight. The parish in which I live was runner-up in a competition run by telecommunications providers, Eir, where the winners and the runners-up were guaranteed fibre optic broadband ahead of anyone else in the country. This top-of-the-range broadband service is due to be operational before the end of the year... and it will happen - all the cables are down and I've seen the map.

I'm delighted about that and a great effort was made locally to put together an imaginative bid - an all-singing, all-dancing and serious talking-head video presentation - that won us a place in the digital sun.

However, when you think about it, isn't it absurd that rural communities have to compete with one another and have to sing and dance for the provision of what is nowadays an essential resource? The notion is Kafkaesque. Can you imagine villages in a drought-stricken part of the world having to compete with one another for the provision of water? If a movie were to be made about it, one wouldn't know whether to ask Ken Loach or Mel Brooks to direct it.

There is an obvious model to work from. The Rural Electrification Scheme launched in 1946 brought electricity to every house in rural Ireland. It transformed everything, levelling the playing pitch between town and country in terms of services, quality of life and opportunities. CEO of the ESB, Pat O'Doherty, in his foreword to the book Then There Was Light, a gorgeous collection of stories, poems and songs inspired by the roll out of the scheme, describes it as an enormous achievement.

"Cost was a major factor," he writes, "and like today's deliberations around rural broadband, which has the potential to be equally transformative, the Government had to be convinced that this was the right way to allocate scarce resources in the face of other political pressures."

He goes on the say: "The Rural Electrification Scheme was executed with what only can be described as patriotic zeal."

There has been a total absence of such zeal on the part of the political classes with regard to rural broadband. They either don't recognise the vital nature of the infrastructure or they just don't give a damn.

There is no doubt that making high-speed broadband available to every house in rural Ireland would transform rural communities - it would go a long way to levelling the playing field with the cities. It has the potential to repopulate, revitalise and revolutionise rural communities - and revolution is the key word. It appears to me the only way to achieve this is by a democratic revolution.

There is no policy with regard to rural broadband, there are only politics and posturing of the most reprehensible kind. The established political parties have shimmied and shied and lied about this for too long. I am reminded of the alleged antics of a Minister of State for Posts and Telegraphs a few decades ago who, just in advance of an election, allegedly laid hands on the list of those in his constituency waiting for phone installation. He allegedly filled the boot of his State car with telephone receivers and drove from house to house handing out the receivers while assuring applicants that "the wires will be connected nexsht week".

Thomas Gildea, a Donegal farmer from Glenties, was elected to the Dáil in 1997 on a single issue, to legalise deflectors that retransmitted British television stations to rural areas. These had been shut down on foot of legal action by licensed cable and MMDS operators. There is no reason why rural broadband candidates could not win a sizeable number of seats in the next Dáil and make the comprehensive and time-specific delivery of rural broadband the price of any support for a government.

There will be no wires coming "nexsht week" or the week after if we continue to depend on any of the current shower.

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