'We're a first-world country with third or fourth-world infrastructure'

With the National Broadband Plan being delayed until 2022, the need for high-speed internet in places like Donegal only grows
THE GREAT THING about Donegal is you can take a picture of anything, and it’d always look nice.

I was told this on my way into Donegal town and on a bright, sunny day, it was a hard claim to argue against. Coastal views, mountainous and hilly regions as far as the eye could see, and picturesque towns featured during the drive. Even the wind turbines blowing away without a care in the world have a certain charm to them.

It’s easy to be enamoured with what the countryside has to offer when you’re driving through it. Yet the county tells a tale that will resonate with many in rural areas, one that sees many fall further behind as plans to bring broadband to all households face even more delays.

Location, location, location

As a way of solving this problem, the first National Broadband Plan was announced back in 2012 as a way of giving communities high-speed broadband, and bringing the most rural places speeds up to 30Mb/s while half the population would have 70 – 100Mb/s. Fast forward to today and there’s still a game of catchup underway.

The latest iteration, which originally promised to deliver fibre broadband to Irish homes by 2020, will now be delayed until 2022 at the earliest. The situation many find themselves in is one where speeds and accessibility can differ greatly depending on where you’re based.

The descriptions of internet quality in Donegal can range from “brutal” and “backwards” to “great” while others spoke to went for more diplomatic answers like “it’s grand”.

While opinions differed, the reasons for such answers almost always came down to location.

There was a sharp contrast between the type of broadband connection offered between rural and urban areas. Tales of only having access to 1Mb/s speeds despite living two or three kilometres outside of urban areas like Donegal town or Letterkenny appeared regularly. And a situation where the outskirts of Donegal town had fibre broadband for almost two years before businesses in the town centre did.

In short, it’s a mess with the slightest change in location being the difference between having fast speeds or struggling to keep up with a basic standard.

IMG_1602 One of the roads in Kilclooney, located at the west of Donegal. Quinton O'Reilly / Quinton O'Reilly / /

One person trying to run a business in rural Donegal is John McCloskey, who has an accountancy business located 10 minutes away from Letterkenny. Describing the broadband situation as “absolutely terrible”, he found out his area wasn’t covered by the current National Broadband Rollout plan with the line stopping roughly 200 metres from his home.

With the main speeds being roughly 2MB/s, it hinders the amount of work he and his employees can get done.

“My broadband is my lifeline, and I could have more employment if I had faster broadband,” he said. “If broadband was fantastic, people wouldn’t have to travel to Letterkenny… it affects everything”.

It’s as important as electricity and if they want to serve the rural community, broadband is essential, it’s number one… it will create employment and it will keep the rural communities alive. It wouldn’t solve the problem but it would give people a reason to stay.

While McCloskey’s situation is bad, it’s better than the one that faces Jerry Ward, who is based around the Crove and Carrick area in south-west Donegal.

Living in a complete blackspot, where broadband and 3G/4G access just isn’t possible, he had to invest in a satellite connection through Qsat as it was the only option available. It also happened to be an expensive one where he’s paying €79 a month for it.

“I’ve two teenagers and everything is online now,” he said “You’ve no option but to have it… the teachers assume they have broadband at home and it’s a serious disadvantage”.

While satellite is the only option for him, despite him and his neighbours living on the main road between Carrick and Ardara, the issues with latency means tasks like streaming, using Skype or just making a voice call online just aren’t possible.

“I’m in the Defence Forces, I know guys who have gone to Liberia and they look at their phones and have 4G broadband [despite being in] the middle of the desert, miles from civilisation and miles of sand and sun.”

That’s how far the infrastructure is behind. I don’t know what’s wrong with this country.

While the problems both in Donegal and other counties have been well documented, the solution has been slow to roll out. In Donegal town, the residents have access to fibre speeds but up until 12 months ago, the businesses in the town centre didn’t have it while the outskirts of town did.

AccuBook, which creates and helps hotels manage their online presence, is one such company based at the triangle and relies on such infrastructure heavily.

While its director Andy Bassett says the town has been “a little bit spoilt as our connection has been upgraded several times in the last 10 years”, many of them have to travel to the office if they want to get any serious work done.

“Because most of us live outside the town, I live only three miles outside but my internet connection is so poor, I have to come into the office if I want to do any serious work,” he said. “It’s restrictive”.

And it’s something that Kieran Kelly, the owner of Kelco communications, has seen in his 20 years of working in the area. The lack of investment and forward planning has left the vast majority of the country playing catchup yet it wasn’t always this way.

“Fifteen years ago, Ireland was ahead of nearly everyone else in Europe from a telecoms point of view,” he explained. ”We were ahead and everyone else was playing catchup… [but] they forgot they had a network on the ground that needed investment and needed upgrading. There are areas still with copper cable trying to run broadband over copper”.

That situation is something independent TD for Donegal, Thomas Pringle, describes as “a disaster” for locals, and criticised the approach the government has taken with the National Broadband Plan.

“It’s insane the way the government is going about it,” he said. “The market is providing to me and they’re not even meeting standards”.

IMG_1612 (1) Quinton O'Reilly / Quinton O'Reilly / /

No easy solutions

While the problem is obvious, bringing everyone up to speed is inevitably going to be a costly and lengthy affair. For Pringle, his fear is that the National Broadband Plan will end up being a mashup of wired, mobile and satellite solutions, and proposes something a little different.

“I think the only solution is wrapping fibre on the ESB network, he said. “It’s future proofed and everyone has seen the limitation of wireless and satellite”.

We have to think about the future but this government and previous governments relied on market solutions. We can’t rely on the market to provide [broadband] and we should know that by now.

Kelly also suggests a similar solution: having the government buy back the infrastructure that’s already there.

“What that should do is invest money in it, substantial money and bring it up to a European standard or a benchmark,” he says. “There has to be a benchmark for what is the minimum requirement for running a business today and then charge the businesses using it accordingly but put in the infrastructure. Buy it back from whoever owns it or go out and build their own.”

We’re a first world country with third- or fourth-world infrastructure. There are countries in Africa that have better communications.

Yet the main problem with any solution, including the current one, is that it’s going to be years for it to properly roll out and by the time 2022 arrives, chances are we’ll have vastly different requirements for the internet.

At the moment, we already have PCs, laptops, smartphones and consoles using it but as the number of devices using internet grows, so too will the demands.

Broadband was supposed to be the great equaliser for the country, a way to put both rural and urban areas on the same page. Instead, it’s only sharpened the divide further.

Read: I tried to do my normal job using broadband in rural Ireland. Here’s how it went >

Read: There’s a battery on the way that could change everything… >

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