JOE GILL: High-speed broadband key to reviving rural areas

Last weekend, my wife and I spent a few days tootling around Clare and Tipperary.

During the holiday, we spent time in a few towns, including Kilrush and Roscrea.

Both felt a long way from the febrile atmosphere around Dublin where the terms “economic recovery” and “full employment” are circulating like snuff at a funeral.

This juxtaposition of a booming economy and one that is not can be analysed in two ways; the world is becoming urbanised and city living is where national resources should be focused to optimise our future; or, there is a systemic failure in the way Ireland has engaged with the fast evolving world economy to create a dynamic economy in smaller rural towns and villages.

I prefer to opt for the second analysis.

Kilrush and Roscrea are just two examples of many urban centres across Ireland that are currently struggling.

A random walk along the main street in either town contains a set of commercial premises that are either for sale, to let, or abandoned.

Each of them, in my eye, contains the ingredients to re-boot these urban centres into work environments plugged in to the most important infrastructure of all — the internet.

First of all, consider costs.

These commercial properties, usually small shops, are available at a fraction of the cost for a square metre of workspace in Dublin.

Secondly, they exist in an environment that offers an alternative — but highly progressive — lifestyle. Kilrush has a marina at the end of its main street.

It is surrounded by a rural and coastal landscape much envied by the futurologists who believe managing stress and commuting time is a key challenge to cope with the modern world.

To this mix, spend two minutes gawking at one of the estate agent windows in any of these towns. There, you can find today perfectly liveable family homes, often detached, on their own piece of land, for €200,000 or less.

This package — comprised of workspace, a community environment and a family home — exists in an economy that has a tax, social and legislative system identical to that existing in Dublin or Cork.

Yet, there is no rush to take up the offers on any of these assets.

Indeed, based on the state of some of these premises and the signage on houses, they have been on offer for years.

Of course, it is all well and fine for pampered Joe to meander into rural Ireland and quickly head back on the nearest motorway to our comfortable life in Dublin.

Opining from an ivory tower is a great habit of many columnists. It needs hard-headed local community leaders and politicians to decide if this analysis has any merit.

I’m convinced the key to unlocking this conundrum lies with the quality and breadth of telecom, and specifically, internet provision.

High speed cost-effective internet access converts a premises in Dublin to one in Kilrush as far as the mainland European, Asian, or American consumer is concerned.

Without that high-speed infrastructure asset, the prospects for these rural economies is grim indeed outside of seasonal tourism and fast consolidating farming.

This is why a concerted effort is required by the local community leaders in these towns.

Every one of them should have a telecoms communication plan.

That plan should connect with a package that can provide start-up, small and large IT companies, that are targeting global markets, with internet-based products and services a welcome to these local urban centres.

Find ways to bring both young or old software engineers, developers, and support crews, to establish a base in your local town.

I bet if you can convince five of these type of employers to move in, they will create an eco-system that feeds off itself and helps re-generate and re-energise towns that are currently being left to wither on the vine.

Joe Gill is director of corporate broking with Goodbody Stockbrokers. His views are personal.

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