Wednesday 13 December 2017

How slow broadband hurts business

542,000 businesses and homes - at least a quarter of the population - won't see any broadband until at least 2019. (Stock picture)
542,000 businesses and homes - at least a quarter of the population - won't see any broadband until at least 2019. (Stock picture)
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Another week, another reported delay in rural broadband rollout. It now looks likely that 542,000 businesses and homes - at least a quarter of the population - won't see any broadband until at least 2019. Even by 2021, 200,000 premises will still be left in the lurch, according to the Government.

For those now designated to remain in a broadband-free zone for the next four to six years, what does life look like?

Here is a list of 20 basic work-related activities that hundreds of thousands will not be able to take advantage of over the next half-decade.

1 Work email: It seems like the most undemanding online service in the world. But sending and receiving emails when you have no broadband (and almost no mobile signal) is a real problem in some Irish rural communities.

Managers from small businesses such as Moran Motors in Longford village Legan (officially named as having the worst broadband in Ireland) frequently need to leave the town to send emails via a mobile signal. "I have had to climb a tree to see if I can get a mobile signal to send an email," said Anica Louw, head of the world-renowned Shawbrook School of Dance, which is also located in Legan.

2. Booking a flight or hotel: Many travel arrangements are now done online. Ryanair imposes a surcharge of €50 if you can't check in online and need to do it at the airport. Hotels and rental cars, meanwhile, are now entirely handled online through services such as Booking.com or apps such as Hotel Tonight.

3. Taxes: Filing and researching taxes is a one-way street online. From motor taxation to business-related fees, the Revenue Commissioners are now requiring more and more official transactions on their website.

4. Banking: Irish banks are closing rural branches in the expectation that those communities can adapt to online banking in the same way as urban customers have. There are now extra charges for those who need paper statements.

5. Utility bills: Like banks and the Revenue, utility companies, such as the ESB, Eir and Bord Gais, all expect bills to be managed and paid online. If not, customers are charged extra.

6. Critical farming administration: Farmers have been told that they will be required to complete their EU Basic Payment Scheme applications online.

7. Growth and development aid: Getting access to grants and subsidies from trade bodies, such as Enterprise Ireland, is now mostly initiated online. Even researching them is valuable work: there are hundreds of €5,000 'innovation voucher' grants available to small businesses who can apply for them.

8. Applying for a job: Recruitment is mostly done online now. Those seeking work without access to broadband are at a fundamental disadvantage. There are even some extreme cases where a handful of multinationals (one in particular, in Cork) are less likely to employ you if you don't have access to a minimum level of broadband at home. This isn't draconian, it's a reasonable expectation that you live in the modern world.

9. Remote working when you're in a job: Most forms of remote working in Ireland fall into two categories - those who do it by arrangement and those who do it by necessity. Highly-paid multinational firms have an allowance for some workers to log in from home and work a full day. Others will allow you to work from home when you have the occasional personal requirement, such as in the case of an ill child. But both scenarios are dependent on access to broadband.

10. Keeping your communications costs at a reasonable level: It is possible to get satellite broadband into a business in rural areas. But the cost is four to five times (and sometimes more) of a conventional urban broadband service. This puts an onerous burden on a rural business trying to compete with an urban one.

11. Basic marketing: Figures from the Government suggest that when small firms engage an online strategy, they see an average increase in sales of 21pc. They also see an average increase in customer enquiries of 84pc.

12. Pricing comparisons: Constant awareness of what your competition is charging and offering is almost impossible without regular online access.

13. How-to videos for small problems: Whether it's work-related or domestic, YouTube has now become a global repository of how-to videos in solving practical or technical problems. A broadband connection is crucial for this.

14. More vulnerable to thieves: Modern security systems almost all involve live online monitoring alerts. Mostly, these are live streams that can be accessed from a smartphone through systems such as Nest. The disadvantage to CCTV cameras that don't have cloud-backup capability is that thieves have a reasonable chance of destroying evidence if there's no relay to a back-up service.

15. Inability to back up crucial files: One of the most important defences against cyber attacks or physical disasters such as fires is the ability to back up critical information up online.

16. No tenders for valuable public sector contracts: Council, government and state body contracts, worth millions every year, are all tied up in public tender notices on services such as etenders.gov.ie. Missing out on these is a huge chunk of potential business foregone.

17. Not being able to collaborate on projects with colleagues or customers: The rise of online collaboration in real time, using basic software, is becoming the norm for young companies in Ireland. It is impossible to do this without broadband.

18. Less chance at exporting: Government-quoted figures say that three out of five small firms that engage online start to export naturally.

19. Recruiting staff: The same government-quoted figures say that an SME with good broadband engagement recruits 1.4 times more employees than those without.

20. Becoming a third-tier businesses: Figures from the European Commission's recent Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) show that when small firms in Ireland get access to broadband, they outperform European competitors. As such, Ireland ranks first out of 28 countries when it comes to small firms selling online, turnover from eCommerce and cross-border ecommerce.

Sunday Indo Business

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