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Should people in rural areas pay more to get broadband?

While almost half of those with slow speeds would be willing to pay more, the majority of people in rural areas are against it.

A castle based in Co. Clare.
A castle based in Co. Clare.
Image: Kman999/Flickr

ONE-IN-FOUR BROADBAND USERS in rural Ireland say their internet speeds are too slow with the majority of those people say they just ‘put up with it’.

In a rural broadband report compiled by Amárach Research and Vodafone, it found that 44% of those with slow speeds said they would be prepared to pay for access to higher speeds at home.

However, the vast majority of people surveyed (81%) disagreed with the idea that people in rural areas should pay more for fast internet because it’s more expensive to provide the service there.

The Chairperson of Amárach Research Gerard O’Neill described the report as an “optimistic” look at rural broadband and said the problem of broadband quality “wasn’t a split [between rural and urban areas] but a spectrum”.

However, he acknowledged there was frustration among those in rural areas having to cope with slow speeds, with some having no choice but to put up with it.

“I think it’s just that they [those with slow speeds] have given up,” he said. “There aren’t any alternatives, they’ve exhausted all the options in terms of different providers with mobile and fixed and so there’s a resignation there which is not a good thing either”.

Catching up

One of the big surprises for O’Neill was the impact such speeds have on smaller businesses.

A significant proportion (62%) claimed that faster broadband and mobile coverage would allow them to grow their company and create more jobs, yet slow speeds have slowed down their progress. Almost seven-in-ten have said that slow and unreliable internet speeds prevent them from working efficiently.

In general, one-in-five people said they can’t get access to broadband at all with the figure rising to one-in-four in villages. On top of that, a third of people said that slow and unreliable internet prevents them and family members from working from home and it isn’t fast enough for family requirements.

The gap between urban and rural is also prevalent with a 22% gap between broadband penetration in villages (69%) and suburbs (91%).

While there is cautious optimism about the new broadband plan, the biggest concern for O’Neill is the possibilities of further delays.

With speeds and data demands increasing – and the advice is not to aim for a minimum speed as it would likely have risen by the time the plan is completed – more problems with the rollout could end up increasing the divide between urban and rural areas.

The biggest challenge is it’s been delayed already and I think the worst case scenario is you get greater inequality, digital inequality in Ireland… there’s a worry that we end up with parts of the country with 20th century connections and others with 21st century connections.

img2.thejournal The broadband map of Ireland. Blue represents areas that will be covered by end of 2016 while amber shows areas covered by National Broadband Plan. Source: Dept of Communications, Energy and National Resources

Planning ahead

At the beginning of May, the new Programme for Government was released with broadband being one of the issues covered. To help solve the problem, it will establish a taskforce within 100 days of announcing it to help come up with solutions.

The National Broadband Scheme, which was announced in 2015, has already been delayed with the contracts not being awarded until June 2017. The aim is to have high-speed broadband in 85% of premises by July 2019.

Vodafone’s CEO Anne O’Leary said the company hadn’t been approached yet to be apart of the task force but it’s expected it will be at some point. Alongside the telecommunications industry, the task force would include the Department of the Environment, Transport and Communications, ComReg, and consumers.

O’Leary said she hopes that the usual barriers that must be overcome when dealing with such plans will be relaxed when the new plan is set.

“My view is if barriers are removed and we want to do it… it will happen faster. It must and I think the government will need to look at that,” said O’Leary. “People don’t want planning problems and planning rules and different charges and that’s what we come across now, but we expect that to be dealt with as part of the [contract] appointment.” 

While the method to connect rural homes to broadband hasn’t been established yet, O’Leary suggests using electric cables to bring fibre to homes across Ireland and future-proofing it (The company already has a joint venture with the ESB to invest in a fibre-to-the-building network which will be completed in 2018).

90347601 Former Minister Pat Rabbitte TD, CEO Vodafone Anne O'Leary and CEO ESB Pat O'Doherty launching the broadband agreement between Vodafone and ESB. Source: Sam Boal/RollingNews.ie

“Everybody has an electricity cable so we can get [broadband] over or under… [the method is] very cost effective,” explained O’Leary.

It’s a once in a lifetime chance to do it and do it right…because it’s the most cost-effective [method].

O’Neill’s advice for those shaping the new plan is “don’t just focus on the costs as the benefits are huge in terms of family and communities and in terms of businesses and employment”.

It’s really about the bigger picture, the return on investment.

The report carried out a face-to-face survey of 1,000 adults aged 18 and a telephone survey of 100 micro businesses (1-2 person operations) based in rural Ireland. The full report can be read here.

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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