Live horse and you’ll get grass is a country expression with a long lineage. But in the last few days it has been upstaged by a more modern version. Google ‘rural dweller’ and you’ll get broadband. Eventually. Maybe. Probably. Or by 2020, at the latest – if there’s any light left on in rural Ireland by then.
If there is a note of scepticism to be detected in the above, it’s there for a reason. Anybody who has had to go out into their yard or head up the road to be able to open a document or read an important email will vouch for that.
For the best part of this new millennium, and spanning three if not four governments, we have been told that the “rolling out” of broadband to every home in Ireland, urban and rural, is a project about to happen or well under way. Except it hasn’t. Over three-quarters of a million homes in the country are still without proper coverage. And County Limerick’s small towns, villages and rural townlands are among them.
In a world where connectivity is both socially and economically vital, this is both disgraceful and deeply damaging. And it beggars belief that, throughout the period of the boom, no real inroads were made.
What is surprising, however, is that the country’s rural-based TDs and senators have remained so quiet about it over the years, especially given that they must all, at some stage, have had to endure poor coverage. Yes, there have been some noises in the Dail, but they haven’t been loud enough. Nowhere near.
The issue of broadband connectivity is not simply about being able to download the latest from Netflix or iTunes or being able to view whatever is going viral on YouTube. It’s about jobs, businesses and education and being part of a world where electronic communication is simple, easy and cheap.
It’s also about community. Without proper, high-speed broadband coverage, opportunities are lost for people to maintain or expand businesses in rural areas, for people to work from their homes within the community or to set up new, small businesses. And with that comes a loss of vibrancy in a community, the loss of numbers in local creches and schools and an eventual loss of business to local shops and services as population drains away and people are sucked into our ever-expanding cities.
Lack of – or poor – connectivity can also lead to an uneven playing pitch when it comes to education. And Skyping adult children living and working abroad is not an option for a great many rural Limerick dwellers.
There is, too, the financial cost. For many rural dwellers, broadband is not simply a matter of a click in the telephone exchange. Instead, to get any decent level of coverage, they have to have satellite aerials and expensive routers installed. And this also means that, unlike their city counterparts, they cannot avail of the bundles being promoted by the mainstream providers but instead must pay separately for broadband, TV and phones.
The latest Minister for Communications to address the issue of broadband, Alex White, sounds like he has a plan to fix this, once and for all. He has an Everest to climb. By the end of 2016, it is estimated 600,000 homes and 100,000 businesses will still be without high-speed broadband.
Like the horse and his grass, we live in hope.