Tuesday 12 December 2017

Will firms quit rural Ireland over the lack of broadband?

A lack of broadband will impact on the success of small businesses in rural areas
A lack of broadband will impact on the success of small businesses in rural areas
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

'No broadband means no jobs and no village."

Last week I was talking to an entrepreneur who has built a tech business in an Irish village, but is now reconsidering his options.

Adam Coleman used to be a senior executive in O2. He moved to Lahinch in Clare and set up an online business called HRLocker. He now employs almost 10 people.

But the pace of change in his industry means that he now needs better broadband than 3Mbs to survive. Alas, in common with hundreds of thousands of Irish businesses and homes, 3Mbs is all that's available to him in Lahinch.

"I have a decision to make which will affect eight jobs," he said. "I love Lahinch. But it's getting very difficult to run a business off three megabits. Sometimes our developers need to drive into Ennis to connect online."

Coleman is what regional policymakers crave: a proven entrepreneur with senior experience who is willing to set up a business outside an urban area.

But right now, the lack of broadband - as well as slim prospects of getting more in the next one to three years - is making the prospect of attracting such entrepreneurs ever more remote.

"Regional broadband is now the number one issue for our regional members," said Mark O'Mahoney, director of policy for Chambers Ireland, Ireland's largest business network.

"Industry requirements are very different from those of householders. Things move much faster. And our worry now is that is by the time they get to rolling out broadband rurally, it will be redundant."

This is a sense of urgency that has passed policy-makers by in the newly-elected minority Government. The new administration has reaffirmed the same six-year, 2022 completion date for the state-subsidised National Broadband Plan. None of the recently-announced delays are to be reversed. No construction will begin for at least a year from now (and five years from the plan's first announcement in 2012). And for the last 300,000 rural businesses and homes, no work will now commence before 2019.

It's not the news that Adam Coleman wanted as he plans HRLocker's future.

"It's not just me in this position," said Coleman. "I know there are other companies in similar situations around the country making decisions for the future with this in mind."

This is roundly backed up by those who deal with businesses around the country.

"For creating jobs in rural areas, high-speed broadband is the only game in town," said Ibec's Torlach Denihan. "It really is the solution. Lack of it is a major inhibitor to job creation."

Up until last Friday, several TDs appeared to get this point. Kingmaking rural politicians such as Denis Naughten and Noel Grealish had seemed to suggest that an accelerated timetable for rural broadband rollout would be central to their support for a new government.

That precondition disappeared on Friday. Rural TDs - as well as the entire Fianna Fail party - now appear to have come into line with the outgoing government's 2022 timetable.

There will be no imminent revision of the State's rural broadband rollout plans, according to the Government's policy guide.

Unlike water, turf, banking and other controversial policies which have been subject to revision in line with popular demand, rural broadband stays on a fixed rollout plan. It will happen far off in the future.

So as Ireland's economic recovery gathers pace, a clear investment dichotomy is materialising.

Dublin may be overcrowded and overpriced but it has broadband coming out of its ears.

So all things being equal, it continues to suck any hope that rural towns have of establishing future-leaning start-ups and young companies.

And this is going to continue for at least the next five years, according to the timetable of the new minority Government, backed by rural TDs.

Ireland isn't the only country grappling with this issue. But we're the only country that appears to accept such a long timetable for delivery.

Last November, British prime minister David Cameron announced a universal service obligation re-designation for broadband, putting it alongside water and electricity in the UK.

"Access to the internet shouldn't be a luxury, it should be a right," said Cameron. "It is absolutely fundamental to life in 21st Century Britain."

Some 95pc of British homes are to be connected by 2018, according to the UK government's timetable. And that includes enormous areas of sparsely populated lands in Scotland.

Should Ireland similarly regard broadband as a universal service obligation? At present, Ireland has an archaic law that guarantees a phone line to every home in the country (built and supplied by Eir). This universal service obligation law was drawn up in an era when phone lines were considered critically important to rural connectivity. It was a planning matter of strategic national importance.

Oddly, today's policy makers don't acknowledge broadband in the same way.

When it comes to government, we usually get what we deserve. Thousands of rural businesses, it seems, deserve 3Mbs.

Sunday Indo Business

Promoted Links

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Promoted Links

Also in Business