In the digital age, there is unprecedented access to information for more people than ever before but is this a true democratisation of access to data and the possibilities that data promise for how we live and work?
I was interested to read a recent opinion piece in the Irish Times in reaction to a controversy over the cost of subsidising a rural rail line where the columnist put the focus instead on the issue of rural broadband (Taylor). Taylor sees provision of broadband as a highly significant long term investment by the government. As a rural dweller, I agree. We live in a digital world and having broadband is now not a choice but a necessity for work, life and play.
The National Broadband Plan, announced in 2012 has had a slow start. The 2012 plans were altered to extend the reach to 927,000 households and businesses. This figure represents approximately 35% of the population. Put that another way – 35% of the population currently have poor broadband connectivity. The national plan is still in the procurement phase and it is now likely that it will be mid to late 2017 before roll out can begin over a period that will extend to the end of 2022. Even then, the speed being worked towards is likely to need to be increased.
Earlier in the same week another Irish Times columnist (Burke-Kennedy, Rural broadband speeds are up to 36 times slower) drew attention to broadband speeds in some rural areas that are up to 36 times slower than some towns and cities with only one quarter of households with speeds of 30 megabits per second (mbps), the minimum target set out in the National Broadband Plan. Burke-Kennedy has been writing on this topic for some time and sees the urban / rural broadband divide as ‘digital apartheid’ – something that is having a devastating effect on small businesses, on education, on quality of life and on rural isolation (Burke-Kennedy, Can broadband plan end our ‘digital apartheid’?).
Those of us who live in areas of low broadband speed know the frustrations of not being able to see or access what other people can. Whether it’s online banking or access to Netflix, as digital businesses grow and predominate, the analogue options shut down – a trade off that is unnoticed by the many but leaves some of us wishing we could forget about our troubles by watching the latest DVD releases from the local rental – if only the rental shop hadn’t closed last year!
Burke-Kennedy, Eoin. “Can broadband plan end our ‘digital apartheid’?” 2 June 2016. www.irishtimes.com. 1 December 2016.
—. “Rural broadband speeds are up to 36 times slower.” 15 November 2016. www.irishtimes.com. 1 December 2016.
Taylor, Cliff. “Broadband not railway lines the key to rural survival and development.” The Irish Times 15 November 2016: 16.