Several issues will rightly be highlighted in the run-up to this month’s local and European elections. One question looms large: what is the Government going to do about the rural broadband crisis? This will be the biggest indication in many decades as to what level of priority Central Government attaches to rural Ireland. Many people will be watching this one very closely.
This issue has caused no little controversy over the past two or three years. Last year, the then Minister Denis Naughten lost his job in the middle of the whole controversy. Now, with only one bidder left in the race to supply the service, it’s reported that it could cost in excess of €3 billion to provide the scheme.
This challenge will test the Government – it’s a serious dilemma for Minister Paschal Donohoe and An Taoiseach. There are a small minority of people who don’t need (or want) broadband in rural Ireland, but the vast majority of our citizens now regard a good reliable broadband service as essential; comparable to running water and electricity. In fact it is probably more important to have the service in rural areas than it is to have it in the bigger urban areas.
There is the age-old argument that bigger companies will not set up in areas with a poor broadband service, but the biggest drawback in rural areas is that people do not have the option of working at home and that small businesses and farmers are precluded from doing their everyday work online. It’s like trying to go to Dublin on a donkey and cart while there is a train of bus service available on the same route. Remember that EU grants for farmers must now be applied for online. It’s only one small aspect of life in 2019, but it’s a very important one.
A reliable broadband service in rural areas would give options to people. It would help small businesses to survive, and the survival of SMEs can often mean the difference between a small local community surviving or dying. The alternative is to allow the complete depopulation of a lot of rural areas to continue, as has been the trend over the past decade.
There are so many more positives (in addition to helping small businesses) that a reliable broadband service can bring to rural Ireland in terms of, for example, education, health services, post office facilities – and so many more aspects of life that are taken for granted in the bigger urban areas.
There is no doubt that there are issues with the price of this scheme – and those should be looked at, for sure. But all you have to do is look at the National Children’s Hospital and several other major infrastructural projects that we have undertaken here in this country over the years that have run over budget. Now, when it relates to rural Ireland, there are question marks being raised about value for money!
No-one is suggesting that provision of quality broadband will cure all the ills of rural Ireland, but it would give a fighting chance to businesses and communities in their bid to survive and compete. Communities in many rural areas are dying with every passing year as young people leave to seek a living where they can get jobs and make a decent life for themselves. Then we have Dublin, a city that is so overcrowded that any day now it could tip into the Irish Sea. It’s a city of traffic chaos, crime, homelessness, rents that no-one can afford, house prices beyond the reach of any ordinary person, and problems with access to health and many other facilities.
In the national media last weekend, former Minister Naughten said that broadband was “a necessity of life” – and that’s basically what we are talking about here. It’s about treating citizens equally and it’s about giving rural Ireland a chance. It will be interesting to see what the Government does on this vital matter. It’s the most important issue that we have had in rural Ireland for many decades.