There is little in the Vodafone/Amárach report on the digital divide that should come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the issues with the State’s broadband infrastructure.
If you are living in rural Ireland, there’s a higher than acceptable chance that your broadband internet access will either be non-existent or slow. That risk decreases if you live in a village, even more so in towns, but the fact is that it’s still there.
Broadband, we are often told, is as important now as electricity. It has become the tool that facilitates commerce, social activity and entertainment. It’s a lifeline for families who have scattered all over the world, allowing them to stay in touch. It’s an educational tool, a business tool, a recreational tool. Retailers, offices, the hospitality industry, educators – all have use for broadband.
And yet, in 2016, we are still arguing about decent internet access for what amounts to a good proportion of the population. The Vodafone report highlighted some important facts. There are about 1.8 million broadband users in rural areas of the country, who, between them, spend €2.6 billion online each year on goods and services. Some 150,000 adults are avoiding a commute at least some of the time because they have the facility to work from home, but 30 per cent of those surveyed said their internet connection was too slow or unreliable to facilitate it. And almost a quarter of those who do have high-speed access say their speeds aren't fast enough.
So it must have been yet another blow to rural dwellers to discover that the National Broadband Scheme may be delayed. The grand plan, which aimed to bring high-speed broadband to citizens by 2020, may not land in time due to wrangling over contracts.
Once it gets under way, it will have two masters to answer to: the Department of Communications, which will oversee procurement, and the Department of Rural Affairs, which will oversee the implementation of the plan. Minister for Communications Denis Naughten seems positive this will accelerate plans; you’d forgive people for being sceptical of this claim.
If the Government is as keen to establish Ireland as a force to be reckoned with in the digital world as it makes out, it needs to live up to the promise of the National Broadband Plan – and speedily.