By Stephen Cadogan
Rural dwellers can be forgiven for not getting excited by the Government’s €116bn Ireland 2040 plan for infrastructure, housing, health and the environment.
With the National Broadband Plan (NBP) already two years overdue, yet another plan is just that — a plan, and no more.
Plans seem to take forever, but farmers can’t hang about.
For example, this is the year all farmers must apply online for the EU’s €1.2bn per year Basic Payment Scheme, the CAP funding without which most farmers would be broke.
How all farmers can apply online by May 15, in a country which has less than 70% broadband penetration, is preoccupying farmers now.
Agriculture Minister Michael Creed may point to last year’s 87% of Irish farmers applying online for the BPS, an impressive figure.
However, it may prove as difficult for the remaining 13% to apply online as it is for Communication Minister Denis Naughten to get past 70% national broadband penetration.
For Mr Naughten, Communications is turning out to be the new Angola, a nickname for the Department of Health once attributed to former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, because of the “land mines” lying in wait for ministers.
Mr Naughten has now been left with just one bidder in the procurement process to select who will rollout high-speed broadband to 542,000 homes and businesses in areas where it it is otherwise not commercially viable to deliver broadband, so the NBP subsidy is needed. The roll-out contract signing is not expected before September. Therefore, it could be 2019 at least before the remaining 13% of farmers have a broadband facility to apply online for the BPS.
Between now and May 15, farmers and their agents will have to learn the rural tricks of getting by without broadband, in order to make valid applications for the €1.2bn BPS. They could try taking a laptop to the car park of a hotel with good wi-fi. They could try investing in a mobile or satellite internet service.
Many rural dwellers now cannot even get a land-line sufficient to carry a good broadband connection; some have to settle for a very slow (2 Mbps) fixed line broadband.
Some get internet through a mobile phone that only works in one corner of the house.
The Oireachtas was recently told by Cork North West Fianna Fáil TD Michael Moynihan of an agriculture consultant who says it takes up to an hour to send an email.
Mr Moynihan also said companies spend €800 a month for a broadband service in north Cork (available for €50 a month in Dublin).
High-speed broadband is the one service which can put rural people on a level playing field with city-based counterparts. But it has been an empty promise for too many rural people, leaving them with little faith in the much, much more ambitious Ireland 2040 plan.
Irish farmers say they must compete on world markets with countries where food production is much cheaper due to low standards.
Now, with Ireland ranked about 40th globally for distribution of high speed broadband, they must compete with countries like Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, which have 94% to 97% fast broadband access.
It isn’t just about applying for the BPS.
Many believe the future of sustainable global agriculture depends on precision farming, which could enable huge reductions in use of fertilisers and pesticides, if enough data can be remotely recorded to show where these are needed and not needed.
But efficiently collecting, cleaning, and analysing large amounts of farm data, shared with employees, managers, external advisors, farm inputs companies, and even environmental regulators, depends on connectivity, on fast and widespread broadband.
EU commissioner Phil Hogan puts great store in such technology to solve farming problems, because 80% of the EU’s rural areas have access to 4G connectivity.
Unfortunately, Ireland is a connectivity black spot holding up hopes the Commissioner may have for a brave new “AgTech” world,