Nestled in a scenic valley in the hills of Mayo, the digital revolution that has swept Belcarra will soon sweep the rest of rural Ireland.
Eircom yesterday demoed what could happen in a community when it is connected to high-speed fibre broadband. In this case the village of Belcarra was connected to 1Gbps fibre and in truth the immediately obvious benefits were both economic and educational.
First let’s look at the context of what’s happening. After years of broadband being ignored as a social and economic imperative both the private sector and the Government are stepping up to the plate.
The private sector – including players like eircom, UPC, Vodafone, ESB and others – have committed to providing high-speed broadband connectivity to 68pc of the population or 2.3m premises by 2016.
The remaining 30pc is to be dealt with by the Irish Government in a project that could be as fundamental as the electrification of rural Ireland in the 20th century. This will be a mammoth task because serving 30pc of premises involves traversing 96pc of the land mass of Ireland, or the equivalent of dragging fibre across 100,000km of roads. This will connect 600,000 homes and 100,000 businesses.
Financially the National Broadband Plan could cost around €516m and the Department of Communications has conducted a mapping exercise to qualify for vital funding from the European bank.
As confirmed by Communications Minister Alex White TD yesterday, various bidders from the private sector will shortly be invited to bid for all or part of the project and by the end of this year procurement will commence for rollout next year. By 2020 every home in Ireland will be capable of receiving a minimum of 30Mbps on a fibre-to-the-home network that will be future-proofed to handle even higher speeds.
Yesterday’s proceedings in Belcarra could be considered the opening barrage of a broadband war between various providers competing to deliver on the Government’s vital project and eircom set up its stall perfectly. Later this week Vodafone and ESB will also present their plans for connecting rural Ireland at an event in Dublin.
In eircom’s case the company has already reached nearly 1.2m of the 1.6m homes and businesses it plans to pass with fibre broadband by the end of this year. The company also yesterday launched its new 1Gbps service, which will use more than 90,000km of fibre optic cable to connect 66 communities with these speeds.
Bringing home the beef
Being a farming community, the economic advantage of 21st century connectivity has been fully embraced by the farmers of Belcarra. The local mart – a vital social and economic hub of Irish life for centuries – was in the front line of e-commerce as bidders around the ring and online were able to bid for animals during a live auction.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD got into the spirit, auctioning off a one-and-a-half year old heifer for €1,400.
“This capability will give us competitive advantage over other countries and opportunities to sell to markets we previously couldn’t access,” said Tom Canniffe of the local mart in Balla.
“We’ve been lobbying for this for years,” agreed Thomas Joyce of the Mayo chapter of the Irish Farmer’s Association. “Farmers will be able to do their online bidding from home and also we can attract more buyers and sellers from around Ireland and outside the country. This will have to be rolled out throughout rural Ireland. The people of rural Ireland are entitled to the same advantages as their urban counterparts.”
The system of connecting marts online was developed by Pat Agnew of AgManor, using a four-camera system to view the ringside and allow bidders to buy cattle using a free interactive smartphone app.
Ray Doyle from ICOS, the umbrella organisation for the co-operatives in Ireland, says the onset of online marts is a natural progression for the cattle marts of Ireland. “The customer dynamics of the sector have changed in 60 years. Back then there used to be 100,000 dairy farmers, now there are around 16,000. I would see the development of broadband in rural Ireland as a major step forward.”
Proof of that step forward was demonstrated in the example of local farmer Conor Heaney, who uses the availability of broadband coupled with infra-red cameras to keep an eye on his cattle during calving season. Instead of having to troop out into the farm in the middle of the night in winter to inspect cows he simply uses a smartphone app or turns on his internet TV in the living room to ensure the cows are okay.
“This has transformed farming for me,” said Heaney, who is also raising a young family and holding down a full-time job. “One touch of a button and I have crystal clear vision and I no longer have to get neighbours to help or get up in the middle of the night.
“I now have the potential to double numbers. The calving season is the hardest part of the year for farmers but this time the season passed and if felt like it didn’t happen and I was able to get a good night’s sleep.”
The local primary school also got in on the action, with students able to demonstrate via a video link how they managed to get up to speed on Roman history, weapons and architecture in seconds rather than spending hours pouring over encylopaedias and history books.
Local entrepreneurs can scale faster through broadband
Falling in love with a local Mayo lady was the precursor for Dubliner Brian Smith settling in Belcarra. The fast-talking businessman has become so ensconsed in country life that approaching the M50 gives him a headache.
Being located in rural Mayo did not prevent Smith from setting up a thriving online business called MedicalEquipment.ie that provides more than 5,000 medical products to 140 countries.
Smith’s services are so globalised that he has even won business providing medical props that feature in the forthcoming Disney movie Tomorrow Land.
“When we saw a slowdown in the economy we decided that instead of a few large customers we needed more customers paying us less. We built our website and in the first year it accounted for 5pc of our turnover. Now we are running six websites and they are responsible for 90pc of our turnover.
“We’ve been running websites since 2008 and were initially relying on 2Mbps broadband. Now with the 1Gbps fibre we can upload 3,600 images to our websites in less than a second.
“It has also changed our quality of life. No more waiting in traffic for an hour. We can do everything from here.”
Eircom’s head of wholesale, Carolan Lennon, said that the examples of Heaney and Smith represent precisely the kind of impact that high-speed broadband can have on a rural economy.
“It’s all about what it enables people to do. They can farm the way they want to farm, work the way they want to work and enjoy hugely important and beneficial advantages in the quality of their lives.”
Eircom CEO Richard Moat agreed: “This vision we all share can’t be achieved entirely by commercial needs. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to do it right the first time. Not just today’s broadband but future-proofed for the needs of tommorow.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD said that with fibre cable coming to Killala and Apple’s data centre being built in Athenry, the west of Ireland is very much in the vanguard of the digital age.
“This is all part of the big change happening to our country and I’m happy that eircom chose Belcarra. Everywhere we go people ask about broadband and here’s the opportunity to see what could happen. Farming is a science, business a commerce. They are responsible for billions of euros in exports and products and traceability has to be of the highest level of integrity.
“1Gbps is bringing you to the highest level that users in other countries have – there is no reason why we can’t have it in Ireland – town and country, county and province.”
Communications Minister Alex White TD added: “When we had rural electrification the State was there to deliver it and we’re here to do it again. State intervention will go to tender at the end of this year to roll out broadband to the 30pc of homes and businesses who need it.
“Fibre broadband can transform life, it can transform how we do things and ensure that everybody has access to what is now a basic human right.”