For a country so hell-bent on becoming a ‘smart economy’, Ireland’s lack of broadband coverage is simply astonishing.
As I write this post, in the lobby of the O’Donovans Hotel, nestled amidst the seaside town of Clonakilty, in West Cork, I’ve just driven 5 miles from an even smaller village in order to gain internet access, meandering through country roads just to check what’s in my inbox.
O2, Meteor, Eircom, and the rest of the Irish telecom sector have all been unable to bring anything but dial up internet to large swathes of county Cork - and indeed Ireland.
Despite Ireland’s best endeavours to kick itself out of recession, and woo back the many foreign investors who jumped ship when they saw a squall on the horizon, if it doesn’t put effort into ensuring that it has an adequate and nationwide broadband network, things aren’t going to get very far.
In the year 2010 the internet is as valuable a commodity as they come. A business trying to export goods in the back and beyonds of County Cork could probably manage better without running water than the internet (provided, of course, that there were Ireland’s famous lush green fields to make do as toilets), yet this precise internet-dilemma is one facing many hundreds of potential and current start-ups around the country.
And if the the internet began as the preserve of geeks, then of pornographers, and finally of social networking junkies, the era has finally dawned when the internet has gained widespread use and acceptance as an invaluable tool for everybody.
Everyone from tele-workers to research academics to high-flying enterprises are using the ‘net to do business, forge inter-continental contacts, and promote their businesses in ways which never would have been possible before the net-age.
Yet if that’s the case, why are we so slow to roll-out nationwide broadband, and why - as an article in the latest Sunday Business Post noted - are our hotels charging customs an average $25 just to get on the internet? If it doesn’t beggar belief, it certainly defies logic.
The problem is perhaps best described as a typical case of the ‘Dublinitis’, as some Corkonians are fond of saying. As anyone who’s ever holidayed in Ireland is probably aware, when the weather forecaster heralds some ever-scarce ‘bright weather’ for tomorrow, it means that Dublin - but not necessarily the majority rest of the country - is going to enjoy sun.
Likewise with broadband. Although Dublin and Ireland’s metropolitan areas enjoy fairly decent broadband coverage, there are large chunks of the country - almost all rural - which do not, and despite the fact that these rural regions often tend to be sparsely populated, lower income, and geographically peripheral, depriving them of broadband access is a bit like kicking a man who’s down in the teeth.
A local Fianna Fail councilor last week summed up the wistful attitude of residents here to the broadband problem very well.
With the kind of refreshing technical don’t-know-how that you only nowadays get from your grandparents, he told the Southern Star newspaper that an “information superhighway” was available just off the southern Cork coast, and although he confessed that he wasn’t “the most technologically aware” himself, he felt that , “We [Irish] should be tapping into it.”
The problem is that many of us can’t.
If the Irish government would return from their summer-long hibernation and realize that there are more pressing issues than stag hunting legislation such as not having a reliable and nationwide broadband network then we could perhaps have some faith that things will finally turn around - as they keep promising.
Until then I’ll continue to drive