The National Broadband Plan has been compared to the electrification of rural Ireland, but the consequences could be even broader than that, writes John Kennedy.
There is a beautiful but poignant juxtaposition between the electrification of rural Ireland in the 1930s and what people in rural communities in 2016 are now waiting for: light.
You see, in 2016, people want the power of light to pulsate down fibre cables or over wireless signals to unleash the power of being able to work remotely, run businesses from anywhere and consume and produce digital content.
In the 1930s, the electrification of rural Ireland did not only mean milk parlours could be run efficiently, it meant people could switch on a light at night and read the newspaper. That’s what they clamoured for at the time. And just like decades ago, once people heard their neighbours got hooked up, they wanted to get connected too.
People are ultimately the same, even if they are separated by time or geography.
Of broadband and bottlenecks
Last week, I attended a briefing at Leinster House chaired by the new Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources Denis Naughten TD primarily to get an update on where we are at with the National Broadband Plan, but also partly to get a measure of the man.
Minister Naughten is the latest in a succession of communications ministers I’ve dealt with going back to Mary O’Rourke in the 1990s. Just like O’Rourke, Naughten is a midlands TD who marries the straightforward, down home way of talking beloved of country folk with a savvy eye on the political and the media soundbite.
Struggling to get broadband connectivity himself in his native Roscommon and with a portfolio that includes the massive challenge of “climate change”, only time will tell if Naughten will be able to make an impact in a minority Government that may or may not survive.
“In one of my first public comments as minister, as far as I am concerned this is the rural electrification for this generation,” he said almost straight away.
When you attend these briefings with the Department of Communications, the language tends to be quite colourful, and by that I mean the terms “amber” and “blue” are said a lot.
When you look at the National Broadband Plan intervention map, there is a lot of amber and blue, mostly amber. Blue represents the places in Ireland that have broadband, amber the places without broadband. If you want to get a sense of the scale of the problem, study how the blue parts stand out like Polynesian islands in an amber sea.
This is the problem the €275m National Broadband Plan is trying to address: providing broadband to 96pc of the country’s landmass, 100,000km of road, 750,000 postal addresses, over 80,000 farms, 64,000 non-farm businesses and quintessentially 38pc of Ireland’s working population.
If you ask me, the emergency is that last statistic – more than a third of the working population of the country does not have a broadband connection. This is at a time when companies like Apple and Facebook are taking credit for generating hundreds of thousands of new jobs across Europe in the apps economy alone. At a time when Europe faces a digital skills shortage of some 700,000 technology workers.
And 38pc of Ireland’s working population are waiting for that light at the end of the pipe to be switched on.
The real update from the minister’s table was that the contract or contracts to provide a minimum 30Mbps (future-proofed) to each address in a book of Eircode postal codes 5.5in thick will be signed in June 2017 and 60pc of those addresses could be connected by 2019. Those 40pc in more remote locations will be connected by 2021 at the soonest, 2022 at the latest.
The other point worth noting is that, as soon as the contract is awarded, the Government will set a new universal service obligation (USO), moving away from the right to a copper line phone connection that has served the country for the last 40 years, to a new USO that makes at least 30Mbps a right for every citizen.
Imagine that, this is the closest Ireland has come so far to insisting that the internet is a human right.
Another question that was settled was the involvement of Rural Affairs Minister Heather Humphreys TD’s department in the rollout of the National Broadband Plan. Humphreys will be the lynchpin in ensuring that Ireland’s bizarre planning system – a system of republics and fiefdoms within the Republic – does not impede the civil engineering challenge that will come with connecting 1.8m citizens to the internet.
In one situation, Eir was prevented from connecting 100 metres of road to its fibre network for six months due to planning bottlenecks. In another situation, a local council suggested crash barriers be erected around every pole carrying fibre.
Using the Leader fund as a carrot and stick, Humphreys’ task will be to bring the council leaders into the fold to avoid bottlenecks interfering with the plan.
Some councils, such as that of Cavan, are already ahead of the pack because they have seen the evidence that broadband connectivity has vital social and economic consequences, bringing foreign direct investment into the area and creating room to manoeuvre for local start-ups. More power to them.
The future is the community
While all of this was happening, the painful realities of poor urban planning that is resulting in rents skyrocketing and increased homelessness – even though Ireland built more houses than it needed during the boom years – has become ever more apparent. It is an emergency.
On an evening out in Dublin at the weekend I was shocked by the increasing visibility of homelessness on the capital’s streets and, as the sun belted down during our brief summer heatwave, I even saw people sleeping rough on scenic routes such as the cliff walkway between Bray and Greystones; tourists and healthy walkers stepping gingerly around a prone figure in a grey sleeping bag, trying not to stare.
It’s almost as if the chickens are coming home to roost because of the cosy cliques that developed between politicians, developers and planners over decades. And it’s not pretty. Every action has a consequence and social problems from gang crime and drug havens to underfunded, alienated districts just yards from the gleaming towers of internet giants and fintech firms in our capital often stem from planning decisions made in the distant past.
While the future of the world seems to hinge upon smart cities, for Ireland the future will not only be smart cities but smarter regions where people can work locally and digitally but also shuttle speedily to and between the cities if necessary.
The key here is work: the dignity of a job and the dignity of a roof over your head have always been intrinsic. But very soon the connection between an actual job and having broadband will also matter intrinsically.
Just as we were getting to grips with the latest development in the National Broadband Saga, the newly-appointed Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Mary Mitchell O’Connor TD, announced 48 projects that were to get a share of a new €5m fund.
The €5m is aimed at “bottom-up” projects where Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) will join forces with community organisations working on job creation initiatives.
In reality, €5m is small enough potatoes. Divided by 48, that works out at about €104,000 per project.
But what was arresting about the projects – the full list is here – was the sheer amount of imagination and variety. Among the LEO awards is a midlands engineering cluster, a south-east artisan food initiative to support food exporters in five counties, and a project to develop a digital media and gaming corridor linking the mid-west and south-east regions.
The Community Enterprise Initiative Scheme projects include Enterprise Goal, a collaboration to harness the GAA as a vehicle for community enterprise development; funding for Meath Enterprise Centre, which will drive the development of a food innovation and research centre and a digital media hub, and Dungarvan Enterprise Centre, which will serve start-ups and early-stage firms in the south-east.
What is interesting here is local drive and passion. I have seen firsthand the hard work and imagination by individuals pushing to make the Boyne Valley Food Hub in Meath a reality, for example, turning the county into potentially the Silicon Valley for artisan food.
Despite our focus on high-tech industries, agriculture and food are critical to the future and this certainly bolstered the economy during the tough times.
It is no accident that 80,000 farms are vital to the National Broadband Plan’s success. It is no accident that research bodies like TSSG and Tyndall are factoring in the internet of things into the future of agriculture.
It is also no accident that one of the first communities to get high-speed broadband as part of Eir’s rollout was Belcarra in Mayo where the local mart – a vital social and economic hub of Irish life for centuries – accepted bids from farmers connected by smartphones.
It was no accident that local Belcarra farmer Conor Heaney showed by connecting broadband to infrared cameras he was able to keep an eye on his cattle during the vital calving season during cold winter nights and also get on with his job in a nearby hospital.
This is all about joining the dots. For farmers like Heaney and others, a second job is necessary as farms can no longer guarantee a single income to support a family. While some hold down additional jobs, many farms are being imaginative by branching out into areas like artisan foods or creating lifestyle or leisure experiences.
If you draw a parallel between the digital connection of rural communities and imaginative regional ambitions such as the Boyne Valley Food Hub or the games corridor linking mid-west and south-west regions, it is painfully obvious.
The connection between broadband and job creation is intrinsic. It is about independence and communities playing a vital enabling role themselves in their own economic futures.
It is about bottlenecks and the legacy of poor planning and cosy cliques being eradicated to allow this to happen.
In its place should be cool, logical and rational decision-making to allow creativity in all its forms to flourish.
The sharing of the National Broadband Plan between two departments – Communications and Rural Affairs – at first raised eyebrows.
But it makes sense. Because the economic fabric of the whole country depends on bottlenecks being removed.
Like the 1930s, people got tired of straining their eyes to read under paraffin lamps. They wanted more. And they got more, and it wasn’t just about reading.
It is 2016. People are once again waiting for the light at the end of the pipe. Only this time people have the power to turn that light into jobs, sustainable futures and lot more.
Rainbow image by Kathleen Tyler Conklin via Flickr/Creative Commons