TippFM with Fran Curry
April 11, 2016
Delivering Jobs to Ireland
April 12, 2016

DIGITAL DIVIDE


Slow speeds stop rural companies going global



When I started executive search business, Claddagh Resources, I decided that it would be global, and would be headquartered not in New York, London or Dublin but in Lisfannon, just outside Buncrana in Donegal.

We are the IDA's dream - a solid employer, willing to give employment in a less populated area in a technologically advanced and probably future-proofed industry.

For me, it is a dream location - it has a great educational system, good available health services and water - even the rural roads, once in deplorable shape, are quite adequate and getting better.

But one item of vital infrastructure is not only far behind the rest of Europe, but a world apart from the likes of Dublin, Cork, and much of Belfast.

As an Irish business owner at the start of the 21st century, I discovered that Irish broadband, outside of the big cities, was anything but broad.

Here I was, bringing a global company to Donegal. But, for a long time, the best I could get to access the internet and interact with the world beyond Lisfannon was two ISDN lines.

We were the first Irish company to have VOIP (Voice-Over-Internet Protocol with breakout) so we could dial American companies locally from Buncrana, taking out the international charges.

Incredibly, it was 2010 before we got anything consistently better than dial-up - and today, while a major provider offers a fibre optic system capable of 50 Mbps (megabits per second), by the time it gets to our copper-wire "last mile", it's reduced to 6.5 Mbps down and just .5 up - far behind just about any internet-intensive businesses elsewhere on the planet, including Dublin or even Letterkenny.

We have recently invested in cutting-edge technology that will allow us to conduct live interviews with anyone on the planet.

However, we won't be able to use it in our Irish HQ with its current connectivity unless we want to create a very bad impression with people that we want to hire for our clients.

This also reflects badly on our reputation as a high quality provider.

I grew up in Derry and came to know and love Donegal from a very young age.

I've invested my money, mind, heart and sweat here. My business is here. Although it's a business that depends more than many on digital connectivity, it is still here.

But the digital infrastructure the Government has promised us for a long time now is not. And that, for me, is a major problem.

How many other modern business owners have sufficient love for a place to put up with a Third World digital infrastructure - and an expensive one at that?

An EU broadband survey in March revealed that Ireland's entry-level broadband costs are the third highest in the European Union. Yet the nation ranks 43rd in the world for internet speeds, behind Lithuania, Romania, and Bulgaria.

The study put the average download speed across all EU countries at 30.37 Mbps during peak hours.

This includes all means of accessing broadband, the fastest of which are via fibre optic and cable infrastructures.

But most Irish subscribers access broadband via xDSL - that is, through the copper wires of the local phone network. On average, they get just under 6Mbps, compared with a EU xDSL average of 8.7.

Irish cable broadband users enjoy an average download speed of 57Mbps, higher than the 48 Mbps EU average.

Who in Ireland gets cable? Urban dwellers, who live and work in markets big enough to tempt ISPs to invest in cable networks.

In Dublin, it is possible to buy 100 Mbps service - great for doing business in an intensively connected world.

The democratic proposition that the internet gives everyone an equal opportunity to access information, education, and commercial opportunity is a myth.

Internet access depends as much on physical space as it does on cyberspace. The best speeds are delivered by fibre or cable. Live at any distance from urban Ireland, and you won't get anything approaching the fastest service.

And just because your ISP offers the latest fibre optic infrastructure, doesn't mean you'll get fibre running to your modem and router.

The so-called "last mile" of infrastructure is whatever wire or cable runs to your particular house or business. And that can really slow you down.

If you rely on xDSL, your speeds will be slower than fibre or even cable, but they can still be adequate even for business purposes only if you are near a DSLAM (digital subscriber line access multiplexer), which connects individual users to the telephone exchange connected to the internet.

If you are located 300 metres from a DSLAM, you may get 25 Mbps. Half a kilometre away, however, and you're down to a crawl at 0.8 Mbps - too slow to do business or stream entertainment.

Rural Ireland is on the wrong side of a vast digital divide. On the right side is well-connected continental Europe as well as urban Ireland. Those of us in the country? We're a world away from both places. A third world away, in fact.

Take a look at the amount of empty business premises in the typical village or town these days.

We cannot let this go on. A recent World Bank study found that for every 10-percentage-point increase in the penetration of broadband there is an increase of 1.3 percentage points in economic growth.

Broadband is essential to business and very good for any country. If only the cities have it, the countryside suffers economically, culturally, and politically. Disconnected, lovely towns and quaint villages become places to leave.

In August 2012, former Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte outlined a National Broadband Plan promising to deliver 70-100 Mbps to at least 50pc of the population, with at least 40 Mbps available to a further 20pc, and a minimum of 30 Mbps to everyone else, no matter how remote.

The minister explained at the time that the Government will not step in until private investors have either acted on their announced broadband plans or have failed to do so.

All was quiet until April of this year when it was announced that a mapping process is under way for the government's scheme, which will encompass 1,000 locations. The process will only be completed by the end of the year. Who knows how long identification and implementation will take after that?

In the meantime, we sit and wait, enviously peering over the border at our neighbours.



Project Kelvin - Hibernia Networks' trans-Atlantic and terrestrial cable directly connecting Northern Ireland with North America - has reached Portrush and will soon connect with the University of Ulster's Coleraine campus to provide the fastest transAtlantic research communications connection anywhere in Europe.

Yet connections from the Kelvin cable to the rest of rural Ireland have yet to be made. For the most part, it remains an untapped spigot.

Releasing the flow of world-class connectivity requires immediate government action.

It calls for the leadership of the Republic and of the North to co-operate in an infrastructure venture that will not only close the digital divide, it will also exponentially increase commerce and understanding between the two regions.

We are always boasting about our highly educated work force, but there is not much point in training people if they cannot communicate with each other and the rest of the world.

This digital inequality between urban and rural communities is making the economic inequality between these regions even greater.

Web-based firms are continuing to locate in Dublin and are recruiting more staff than ever. They come for the language, the staff, the incentives - and the guaranteed connectivity.

Take one of these away and you are on to a loser.

If we are serious about avoiding the mistakes of the past, and operating in a more managed economy, avoiding property and wage bubbles in the capital, then we need to connect the rest of the country.

Quality, high-speed broadband is a necessity rather than a privilege in today's society, and should be available in all areas, not just the largest.

Otherwise, we are in danger of creating fast Ireland and slow Ireland, the latter seeing areas such as Donegal continuing to slide to the bottom of the economic table.

The more realistic foresee a political-psychological crisis created by the necessity of instituting border controls between the Republic and the North to prevent smuggling and collect taxes.

Would Frontex, the EU border agency, have to be called in to augment a newly-created cadre of Irish border police?

Unless the border is going to be reinstated and have police/border controls between the Republic and the North reintroduced, it will be impossible to prevent smuggling and enforce the payment of taxes.

And just who would place that call to Frontex? The Taoiseach? I don't think so. The First Minister in Northern Ireland? Doubtful, as Sinn Fein now have seats in every constituency in both North and South of Ireland.

Or would an EU bureaucrat authorise a police invasion of Irish territory?

Sinn Fein, whose influence is growing in both the North and the South, would never agree to any form of restoration of a border.

But these are moot questions, since it would be political suicide for any leader to support reintroduction of a border. Interesting times could lie ahead.

In the absence of any border between the North and the Republic, Ireland - in particular the border counties - potentially become the plugholes that drain the European Union bathtub.

UK companies would have a compelling incentive to set up distribution centres in border counties in Northern Ireland, from which goods and even services would be transferred across the non-border to the Republic of Ireland, an EU member free to exercise its free trade with the rest of the European Union.

In this scenario, the benefits to the UK economy of this post-EU trade are obvious, as are those to UK-based companies and, of course, to the Irish economy.

Less obvious, but most interesting of all, are the potential benefits to the border region.

Come 2017, should the voters of the United Kingdom vote themselves out of the European Union, some of Ireland's poorest counties, my home base in Donegal included, could suddenly find themselves at the centre of a smuggling industry in European finance and trade.

What a transformation that would be. Welcome to free enterprise.