Bridging the Digital Divide
With a new government set to be announced, those caught up in areas affected by poor broadband coverage have their say. Philip Morrissey reports.
The unspoiled areas around the West Cork towns of Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen should provide the ideal location for entrepreneurs and businesses looking to set up their bases. There is a young and educated workforce, it is close to the main airport and it allows for a more enjoyable standard of living. Particularly those people wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of city life and allow them the chance to see their families grow up. What can be achieved in London, Paris and New York can also be done right here at home.
Not so according to those that operate in these areas. The jobs and investment that should be arriving here are being hindered by slow and unreliable broadband coverage. Delays in coming to a decision on the formation of a new government has not helped their concerns. Frustration, annoyance, anger; all sentiments expressed by many that I spoke with.
Two areas currently showing no high-speed fibre broadband. (www.irelandoffline.org)
Despite the level of investment by technology firms into the economy, many areas of Ireland, do not share the same level of the major urban centres. According to a survey from 2014, Ireland was ranked as being 43rd in terms of broadband speeds. In stark contrast, they were also ranked as being the third highest in terms of entry level costs. The answer to this had been the development of a national broadband plan that had been rolled out under the previous government. It stated it aim to have full coverage by 2020 through a private-public partnership deal. The problem is that its future remains to be seen. Until a new minister for communications is appointed to replace outgoing Alex White, nothing is certain.
Technology expert Niall Kitson puts this down to two reasons; commercial and political. “Private firms are not willing to invest in areas that they see as being unviable. Remote areas don’t provide the same return on return on investment as urban areas” As chief editor of Tech Central, he can see the differences between the two areas. “I occasionally have to use a tethered system that leaves me at the mercy of local operators. The boarder areas can be a mess”.
Map of West Cork. Areas in Amber showing where is not currently covered by high-speed broadband
“We must be careful not to rush this…it is too important for that”. The words of Fine Gael TD for Cork South West Jim Daly. Since the last election, he has directly seen tide shift radically in terms of politics. The rise of independent candidates, particularly in his own constituency, has put even more focus on the policies of the ruling party. Time, he feels is needed, before the implementation of the broadband plan though. “We have seen the problems caused in places like Bandon as a result of trying to rush the process. Attempts to speed up the drainage scheme to relieve the flooding, ended up in a legal challenge over the tendering process and put the whole thing back by a couple of years”. He agrees that it is an aspect of the infrastructure that requires attention, particularly in rural areas, if we are to drive the economy forward. “We don’t want people in rural areas to be isolated anymore”
What has been proposed by some is to develop hot-spots or hubs. This is where people can use multiple ports that are connected to a common devise. These have cropped up across the country in response to consumer and business demand. One such example of this is O’ Donovan’s Hotel in Clonakilty. Installed about three months ago, it was to satisfy demand for such a service.
Dena O’ Donovan, owner of the hotel, explains. “We would have a lot of professional customers coming in whether they were journalists, business people or technology experts. So they were relying on a reliable service. Previously they would have been travelling back and forth to Cork everyday” The speed offered was in contrast to the surrounding area. “Many of our regulars would be coming from places like Courtmacsherry or Ardfield. The coverage would be very slow or non-existent”
A regular to the hub from such an area is Hans Winklemann. He is Managing Director of ‘The Games Company‘. Moving to the West Cork area, he felt that this service was ideal for his needs. “As I am dealing with clients from around the world, I need to have a connection that I can rely on.” To demonstrate this, he conducts a speed test on the computer at which actually faster he is working on. It is showing as being around 40 Mega Bytes per second (M.B.S)
“If I was working from home, this would be around 5 M.B.S. It is than where I was based in London.” Being locally based is also an advantage for him. “I can be here in ten minutes from home as opposed to having to travel long distances. I had enough of that from living in London.”
When pushed to what the incoming government should do, there is a common opinion. According to Kitson, to not implement the broadband plan would be a mistake. “Broadband is a utility as vital as water and electricity. Any stalling of the programme would hurt Ireland’s economic recovery and competitiveness.” Mr. Daly agrees with this. “The decision on the tendering process is due to take place next month between the companies involved. This shows that the political will is there for this to be brought in”. Ms. O’ Donovan was somewhat more sceptical. “Critical issues like this were left to stall over the last five weeks whilst they meant to be talking with each other.”
As he is a business person, last words will be left up to Mr. Winklemann. Like most he is awaiting the next steps made by the incoming government. “If this broadband plan was brought in, it would certainly be a major step forward for the region and the country. When this happens to be, remains to be seen.”