Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Dennis Naughten has been on the airwaves to promote the roll-out of broadband facilities for rural Ireland. He is very proud of a new online mapping tool which claims to show the areas that will be covered by the current phase. According to Minister Naughten, 300,000 households in rural Ireland will receive broadband coverage “within 90 weeks”.
But, by his own admission, “the remaining 542,000 households, just short of a million people, [..] will be waiting for high speed broadband”. Of these, Naughten said “the vast majority will be covered by 2020”, but with the proviso that “if you're up the side of a mountain we can't guarantee you'll be covered”.
Rural communities are hopeful that this roll-out will actually happen, but this is not the first time we have been promised broadband services. Numerous press calls over the years have raised people's hopes, but these schemes did not fulfil their ambitious promises. Nobody is getting too excited.
As recently as last May there was a similar announcement. It seems like the department see rural broadband as a great opportunity for a photocall and a bit of positive publicity for the government, with some nice soft press coverage. But they cannot expect us to fall for the same trick every year.
Speaking at the 2016 National Broadband Plan announcement IFA president Joe Healy said that the IFA would “hold the Government to account” on the realisation of rural broadband, adding that the “pricing structure for rural customers must be affordable”. So far there has been no new comment from the IFA. It is time for Mr Healy to deliver on his promise also.
Farming has become highly reliant on internet access. The smart technologies that are driving greater efficiency depend on reliable network connections to operate. Coming at a time when rural areas are feeling beleaguered and neglected, this announcement is a big test of the government's commitment to food producers.
Most services and schemes are moving towards paperless online applications. Every farmer now needs to have access to internet facilities. Next year all Basic Payment Scheme applications will have to be made online. Many older farmers will find this difficult to accomplish, but without internet it will be a major headache.
Many rural communities have already lost mainstream public services like post offices, Garda stations and bus services. Without internet access, these places cannot support small businesses or hold onto their young people by creating employment opportunities. The days of being impressed by internet facilities are long past. We now need it to survive, so the latest broadband promise had better be real.