Digital divide still very wide despite Coalition promise

Issue of broadband access illustrates the Republic’s urban-rural disparity

Counting votes in Keenagh Community Centre during the Westmeath-Longford byelection last may: photographers had no access to wifi to send photos of the winner back to newsrooms; the mobile phone signal was also too weak for the task. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien.

Counting votes in Keenagh Community Centre during the Westmeath-Longford byelection last may: photographers had no access to wifi to send photos of the winner back to newsrooms; the mobile phone signal was also too weak for the task. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien.

Mon, Aug 18, 2014, 01:00

As the counting of votes in the local and European elections got under way last May, candidates and media packed into community halls around the country. In the GAA hall in Keenagh, Co Longford, counting was also under way for the Longford-Westmeath byelection. Barry Cronin, a photographer based in the midlands, waited to capture the moment the winner was announced.

Though wifi was available in many count centres that night, there was none in Keenagh. Cronin feared the GSM network was so poor in the area that his plan B, to use the hotspot on his smartphone, was not going to work either.

Having photographed Gabrielle McFadden being congratulated by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Cronin and other photographers battled to get pictures to their news websites.

As others pooled Sim cards, Cronin knew sending pictures by that method in that location would be next to impossible. He had a plan C: a mental map of the region and the locations at which he could get a four-bar GSM signal.

He drove eight kilometres to a hilltop from which the images were swiftly dispatched. Cronin says such a scenario is repeated daily by those trying to send and receive data with mobile devices in rural Ireland.

Declan McPartlin, a former councillor and political adviser to MEP Marian Harkin, is based in north Co Wexford. In the southeast, he says, even voice calls are problematic.

The issue of broadband access illustrates the Republic’s urban/rural divide. In Dublin, businesses can avail of broadband speeds of up to 500mbps, while some rural villages do not have fixed landline broadband access.

In 2013 about 66 per cent of homes had a broadband connection. But just 42 per cent of that number could subscribe to broadband services delivering 30mbps or more, putting the Republic 27th of 31 countries in a European survey.

Referring to the roll-out of mobile phone coverage across the State, Techcentral.ie editor Niall Kitson says the GSM operators are merely responding to demand by prioritising urban areas.

In April, in a bid to tackle the “digital divide”, then minister for communications Pat Rabbitte announced a “build-out” of broadband access to about 1,000 communities in rural Ireland.

Speaking in Loughrea, Co Galway, he welcomed the investment plans of commercial bodies including Eircom, UPC and ESB/Vodafone which involved spending about €2 billion on fixed-line broadband.

But he said this would still leave about one million homes and businesses that would need State intervention to “address the connectivity challenge in rural Ireland in a meaningful and sustainable way.”

He said a comprehensive implementation strategy would be published later this year. An indicative list of the 1,000 communities is available on the department website, dcenr.ie.