Rural businesses pray for the arrival of decent broadband

Longford garage owner says her firm is suffering due to a lack of high-speed internet

Avril Moran with her brother and father outside their garage in Legan, Co Longford. Legan is officially the slowest area for broadband in the State, based on recent speed tests.

Avril Moran with her brother and father outside their garage in Legan, Co Longford. Legan is officially the slowest area for broadband in the State, based on recent speed tests.

 

Every Saturday Avril Moran, whose family owns a garage and car and van sales business in Legan, Co Longford, takes a half-day off work and drives into Longford town to check her emails.

Entering the larger town, her mobile phone chirrups into life, connecting with the 3G signal and filling up with notifications and text messages that failed to deliver during the week.

Legan is officially the slowest area for broadband in the State based on recent speed tests with an average broadband speed of just 2mbps (megabits per second). In fact, the numbers have got worse since the last test.

Each day, the Morans, who run a successful business built on hard work despite telecoms difficulties, battle with the credit card machine to process customers’ payments.

“We have credit card machines here that were set up with a GPRS signal but they had to be sent back because they didn’t work. Now they’re on broadband which means it takes up to 10 minutes to process a payment.

“It’s so embarrassing because the customer thinks there’s something wrong with the card.

“It takes me 15 minutes for my computer to load up in the morning and for all the emails to come in.”

Terrible phone coverage

“Even the phone coverage is terrible, you have to go outside the office to make a call,” says Moran, who like hundreds of thousands of people living in rural Ireland is praying for the day when decent communications systems arrive.

A key milestone in the efforts to deliver that came last week with the publication of the final details of the National Broadband Plan by Minister for Communications Denis Naughten.

It aims to subsidise districts that commercial operators will not supply if left to their own devices.

The scale of the undertaking is considerable; 542,000 homes; 52,057 farms; 47,096 rural businesses, along with shops and schools.

If all goes to plan, though many doubt it will, the first homes should be connected under the plan by the middle of next year with the bulk of the rest connected by 2020 or 2021, albeit some view this timeline as optimistic.

So what can rural dwellers expect? The three shortlisted bidders – Eir, Siro and Enet – promise high-speed fibre broadband right to the door capable of delivering one gigabit per second (1gbps) or 1000mbps.

For rural homes and businesses struggling with download speeds of 1 or 2mbps, which is barely enough for email – forget about web browsing or Netflix – all would be changed, changed utterly.

Such speeds, if realised, would be enough for the real-time streaming of broadcast-quality television, video conferencing and multiple internet users – far above minimum thresholds set under the National Broadband Plan.

Customers to Siro’s network, via Vodafone or Digiweb, are being offered 150mbps internet connections for about €40 a month, or one gigabit connections for €90 per month.

However, there is a major caveat. No one is financially or logistically able to run cable all across the Irish countryside, because of the State’s legacy of one-off housing and dodgy planning.

Abandoned

Similar plans had to be abandoned in the UK and Australia, because they were too costly.

The “last leg” of the road to one-in-20 houses might have to be finished by a wireless signal, not by fibre.

However, that figure could triple, critics warn. If so, that could mean 75,000 homes getting an inferior, soon-to-be obsolete technology that will not deliver internet heaven, even if it would still be an improvement on today.

Mr Naughten has thrown a curve ball by taking out 300,000 homes that were previously included in the plan, who will be offered a non-subsidised signal by Eir, separate from the State scheme.

By allowing Eir to hive off the low-hanging fruit, the bits that could be profitable for a broadband provider, Mr Naughten has increased the State subsidy required for the rest, which may now run to €700 million.

Perhaps more worryingly, he may also have permanently alienated Enet and Siro, who are unhappy at having the scope of the contract changed so radically at the last minute.

If they were to drop out, the cost of the plan and the technology used would be in the gift of Eir – which would suit the once State-owned company, but would do little for competition.

However, there is another issue. Today, the debate centres on broadband quality, but little attention has been paid to the fact that the take-up rates for highest-speed fibre, where it exists, is very low.

Last month, ComReg revealed that just 7,623 houses had signed up for 1GB fibre, or speeds running up to it, by the end of last year – despite a string of announcements and hundreds of millions in investment.

Suffering

Back in Legan, the Morans wait. Last month, they watched as Eir dug channels for its fibre broadband service nearby.

However, the cabling stopped just two miles down the road from the family business.

The Morans are not the only business in Legan suffering. The local pub cannot get its Visa machine to work, while Green Farm Foods struggles with online sales.

Fed up waiting, Avril Moran recently signed up for a trial with Meteor, paying €120 for an aerial on the roof of the shed outside the garage.

Since then, the internet signal has been slightly faster.

“When we ring up Eir to complain about our service they don’t have a clue what’s happening. All they need to do is come to this area and listen to the likes of ourselves and hear our view point.”

People living in Dublin cannot understand the frustration of poor signal, she complains: “We can’t go home in the evenings and turn on Netflix. Country people are forgotten.”