High-speed broadband levelling the playing field for rural Ireland
Government is working to get countryside connected and transform experience of working outside cities
Data flow: High-speed broadband is the new necessity for modern living and working. It lets people live where they choose, work from home, run web businesses or use apps to farm more efficiently
Rural Ireland was last in the queue to get electricity in the 20th century. The government’s Rural Electrification Scheme started after the second World War but only reached remote areas in the mid-1970s. It took until 2003 to get the islands of Inish Turbot and Inishturk, off the Galway and Mayo coasts, connected to the mains.
High-speed broadband is the new necessity for modern living and working. It lets people live where they choose, work from home, run web businesses or use apps to farm more efficiently. Hoteliers say it has become the new breakfast: if the wifi is bad, guests will not come back.
But it has not yet reached parts of the Irish countryside.
The Government hopes to remedy this with its National Broadband Plan, bringing high-quality broadband to homes, schools and businesses in rural areas. It will partner a telecom company to connect the first people next year and the last by 2020.
Telecom companies have already launched rural high-speed broadband schemes in some areas that promise to offer internet speeds on a par with those in Tokyo and Hong Kong. According to providers, it has the potential to transform working in rural Ireland.
“Access to high-quality broadband is starting to become something everybody demands and wants. It shouldn’t matter where you live,” says Carolan Lennon, managing director of Eircom Wholesale.
Eircom is testing out its ‘Fibre to the Home’ proposal for the National Broadband Plan in Belcarra, Co Mayo.
Lennon calls Belcarra, a farming community with 350 people, “rural rural”. Now 156 homes, two schools, a community centre and a mart have high-speed fibre broadband offering speeds of up to one gigabit per second – the fastest speeds in the State.
“One of the reasons for doing the trial, apart from understanding how the technology would work, was understanding how people would use it and whether it would change anything for them,” said Lennon.
“We expected there to be opportunities from an agricultural point of view. At the 60th anniversary of the IFA [Irish Farmers’ Association] a while ago, the president got up and said farmers are up for [technology]. There are apps that can help them, but they need the infrastructure to support that.”
Conor Heaney, a part-time farmer in Belcarra, installed cameras in his cattle sheds.
Now, during the stressful calving season, he can keep an eye on pregnant cows from his smartphone instead of getting up to check on them three or four times a night.
“There are loads of other Belcarras across the country,” said Lennon. “None of us wants to see rural Ireland depopulated, but we have to make choices according to where the work is. We should get rid of all those challenges.”
Brian and Juliet Smith moved from Dublin to Belcarra 10 years ago. They own Mabtech, a medical equipment business, and operate six websites from their home. Every facet of the business is online.
“I’m dying with hay fever, one of the downsides of living in rural Ireland. The broadband can’t do anything about that,” says Brian. But it has made the business much more efficient.
The slower broadband Brian used previously would have been fine for the ordinary user downloading one email at a time, but not for a business with six websites that need regular updating.
“Beforehand, we would have considered it normal to sit and wait, make a cup of tea, watching something download. Now if there’s any delay, it’s just not acceptable,” he says.
Even before the new broadband, Smith supplied props for George Clooney’s new movie Tomorrowland. The production needed vaccine carriers, and Smith’s website was one of two in the world where producers could find them.
“Back in 2008 when our first website went up, internet sales accounted for 5 per cent of our overall turnover. Now it’s approaching 100 per cent. We would have gotten to 100 per cent sales eventually; it’s just that we’re getting there much quicker now. Having this one gigabit connection, it’s opening doors.”
But Eircom’s is not the only high-speed offering.
Cavan town was the first place to connect to Vodafone and the ESB’s new 100 per cent fibre-to-the-building broadband network. It is provided by a new company called Siro.
Customers will not be able to buy broadband directly from Siro. It will be sold by authorised broadband operators.
The plan is for Siro to reach 50 towns across Ireland over the next few years. The first 10 “fibrehoods” will be Cavan, Dundalk, Westport, Castlebar, Sligo,Carrigaline, Tralee, Navan, Letterkenny and Wexford.
For now, 300 homes in two estates are testing out the technology.
According to the company, over 80 per cent of the testers think the service is better than existing services; 50 per cent think it will make Cavan more attractive to foreign investors; and over 50 per cent think it will encourage locals to set up online businesses.
Vodafone Ireland chief executive Anne O’Leary said Siro will transform the business broadband experience.
“It will allow customers and businesses at last to have 100 per cent fibre end-to-end connectivity. This will give them high speeds, reliability and great quality. And it will ultimately let them compete nationally and internationally, which is really key.”
Enet, an open access network provider, is creating an alternative network to the large telecoms. While the company is investing in laying fibre cable directly to businesses in small towns, you will not be able to buy broadband directly from the company.
Again, telecom companies will provide the final service.
Enet’s four pilot towns are Claremorris, Loughrea, Ardee and Kilkenny.
“We’re not talking about IDA business park businesses, we’re talking about the local Chinese restaurant and the local hairdresser’s,” said Conal Henry, chief executive of Enet.
“It allows those businesses to do a lot of things they couldn’t do before. The lady running the health spa was saying she’s able to stream music and video content. The health centre can store its medical records in the cloud. Each business has a different story as to why this broadband matters.”
Henry says reliability is as important as speed. “Nobody talks about watts or volts of electricity in the house. They just know that when you turn on the light, it works. Fibre is like having mains electricity. You click on something, and it works.”
Jimmy Flynn owns a pharmacy in Claremorris and is the acting president of the local chamber of commerce. He is participating in Enet’s pilot programme.
He says using fibre in his business “has made a significant difference”.
It allows the pharmacy to “talk to” the HSE server in Dublin and makes transmitting electronic claims to the Primary Care Reimbursement Service in the capital much faster.
“I’m future-proofed. I have a fibre-optic cable coming into my building. As our technology needs and speeds grow, it will grow with me and adapt to my needs as long as I keep updating the hardware inside of my building,” he says.
“For someone like me, living in the west of Ireland, I’m always at a disadvantage . . . for the first time, our geographical disadvantage is levelled because we can communicate in real time with the outside world.
“It’s the first time that we’ve had a level playing pitch. It has made our business much more efficient.”
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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