On Friday 31 August the Examiner carried a piece with the headline ‘Rural areas losing out in digital divide’. It went on to say: ‘job opportunities are being lost because of Ireland’s digital divide, it has emerged’. It was the ‘emerged’ that incensed me and prompted me to post to my LinkedIn page with the comment beloved of the young – ‘doh’. It is a perfect expression for the frustration of those of us living in peripheral locations who have known for over twenty years that a functioning broadband system is a sine qua non for doing business in the 21st century. For goodness sake, it was a sine qua non in the last century. My headline would read ‘Government belatedly cottons on’.
In between the challenge of running rural businesses from peripheral locations, many of us have been bleating on ad nauseam about the necessity for faster connectivity.
Long-time Skibbereen resident Lord David Puttnam also made an appearance last week in the Examiner, giving the first of ten planned lectures to students in Brisbane, Australia, via high-speed links from his home. Despite us both being passionate supporters of our local farmers market, I only ‘know him to see him’ and, prior to today, have never spoken to the man. However, emboldened, I approached him and asked about his broadband connection. As good a chat-up line as any. He said it had taken him two years to install and it was at his own cost. So, while politicians make ‘plans about a plan’, someone with foresight and, admittedly, the means, goes ahead and does something practical.
Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte described the broadcast plan as the ‘rural electrification of the 21st century’. In the 1940s, the Electricity Supply Board prepared, at the request of Mr Sean Lemass, Minister for Industry and Commerce, a report on the provision of electricity to rural areas. On 2 September 1944, the Southern Star quoted from this report the intention to extend ‘on a national scale the electricity network in Éire with the object of making electricity supply available to the farming and rural community’. By the late 1970s there were still rural locations in West Cork where electricity was not available. Hopefully, the impetus to provide acceptable broadband connections will be less tardy than the provision of electricity.
Amazon recently held a recruitment drive in Bantry to employ, initially at least, thirty home-based workers – their application form asked candidates if they had access to 3Mbps broadband. Apple are recruiting workers in Ireland and they stipulate a minimum of 5Mbps to one’s home office. So, with unemployment levels rising – the stick we cannot but take notice of and the lure of elusive jobs the carrot – it may be that this time it will be different and real change will be effected. I am not holding my breath, however. The road to rapid broadband has been littered with many false dawns.
In 1988, the year I bought my first Apple Macintosh and headed ‘west’, the Irish Times was writing: ‘by the end of the century … it is estimated that more than 60% of Community employment may depend on telecommunications. With Ireland over 50% digitalised, an exciting future lies ahead for the country and the EEC, as we work towards a single broadband telecommunications structure’. The road to rapid broadband has been littered with many false dawns.
I have always been an advocate of the digital world, being an early adopter of both email and the internet. In business terms these tools have allowed me to provide a service and make a living which, in earlier times, would not have been an option. However, it is a double-edged sword. Latterly, competing with low-wage economies is not a game one can win. There is always somebody, somewhere, who can offer a cheaper service.
I am passionate about where I live and the community which has existed here for generations. However, as publishing is changing, so, too rural communities are changing. If we want a society which, as well as having thriving cities, also maintains a vibrant rural population, we need to embrace change.