Rural areas still losing at broadband

Fibre optic cable
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31 May 2018 | 0

Billy MacInnesRural Ireland has a lot of infrastructural challenges. Transport links can be poor; parts of the country are reliant on badly maintained roads with no alternative means of transport; the rail network is non-existent for many towns, with stations shuttered, lines overgrown and rails long gone.

So should we be surprised that it is suffering from the same poor quality of service when it comes to broadband? As the line from the song says: “same as it ever was”.

Except it’s not. It’s worse. Because poor broadband quality is arguably a bigger inhibitor to business than poor roads or inferior transport links. If you believe the argument that the Internet can act as a leveller for businesses wherever they may be, then having a presence on the Web and being able to conduct business online will becoming increasingly important to many companies.

It’s a trend reflected in a survey of more than 250 business owners and managers across Ireland conducted by online accounting software supplier Big Red Cloud, in which 75% reported that 10% or more of their business originated through their online presence.

That level of business is obviously going to increase, but it’s not going to happen for those companies stuck in the slow lane because of their broadband speed.

No wonder 96% of those surveyed agreed that businesses in rural Ireland suffer a huge competitive disadvantage because of poor broadband quality. Separately, 56% identified broadband as the single biggest challenge facing Irish SMEs.

The National Broadband Plan is supposed to address this issue but it’s not going quickly enough for those without high speed broadband. Will it ever?

Big Red Cloud CEO, Marc O Dwyer, makes the point that poor broadband provision has a detrimental effect on local economies in areas that aren’t major cities and urban business centres. With high tech firms keen to access high speed infrastructure, such as metropolitan area networks, “locations that are unable to deliver in those areas will lose out when it comes to business start-ups”.

Set against the inexorable drift of business and employment to Dublin and, to a lesser extent, Galway, Cork and Limerick, equal access to fast broadband offers a way to try and mitigate and reverse that trend by enabling companies in rural locations to operate on a national (and international) basis.

Many will argue that it is much easier to install high speed broadband infrastructure in metropolitan areas (and the economic case is stronger in terms of numbers) although you could counter that the disruption involved affects far more people than similar work conducted in rural areas.

Implementing high speed broadband to rural areas may appear more costly than in urban centres, just as it is for building and maintaining roads, but the long-term costs may well be lower if people can continue to live and work in smaller towns rather than be forced to relocate to working in the more expensive capital city and its environs where housing costs are rising at an unsustainable rate. Keeping people in small towns will ease the pressure on Dublin, give the country a better balance and spread the wealth further around Ireland by making it more sustainable for businesses to operate in more places.

Sadly, the fact that our politicians are struggling to achieve the objectives for delivering high speed broadband to the country with the National Broadband Plan says all you need to know about what our political class think ‘national’ means.

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