LAST SUMMER, I was in Glenties at a conference attended by the taoiseach. It was an important event and I was happy to be there. But I was also trying to close a deal.
My business is in Donegal. My potential client was in San Francisco. And that is not normally a problem in the twenty-first century.
But I found myself staggering about, desperately searching for a spot in the Glenties where I could eke out more than two iffy bars on my mobile.
Groping in vain for a digital sweet spot, I was glad I hadn’t spotted the approach of an invading army because I couldn’t have called the taoiseach to tell him. We would have been overrun before he got word on his mobile phone.
Ever since I set up my company in Donegal in 2000, I’ve been complaining passionately about our pathetic bandwidth. Mine was the first company in Ireland to implement VoIP (calls over the internet) using twin ISDN lines.
Since then, every supplier has faithfully promised us faster broadband. Fifteen years later, our office in Donegal still gets its internet from Derry.
I don’t have to tell you that broadband is no mere convenience. It has become as critical to twenty-first-century business life as water, gas and electricity. Even more critical these days is the mobile phone. This is how people and businesses communicate.
Anyone who has travelled from Belfast to Dublin knows the problems transitioning from the Irish to the UK network. The road from Dublin to Belfast is littered with the digital dead, patches where you lose connectivity altogether.
A greater problem
My problems in Donegal are important not only because they are local issues but also because they are symptoms of something much larger.
Ireland has proved its potential as a world-class location for business. If the nation and its people are to fully realise the benefits of that potential, the government must mandate that every green patch in this green country have access to five mobile bars.
If Eircom, Three and Vodafone will not or cannot make this happen, take the licenses off them or fine them until they do.
Reliable mobile communication is basic to small businesses if they are to survive and thrive in rural Ireland. In fact, fifteen years into the twenty-first century, it is basic to commerce, security and daily life in any country.
Reliable mobile communication is useless if you don’t happen to have it, wherever you are. That makes it a nationwide issue. And this particular issue is, in turn, part of something larger.
The digital divide puts rural Ireland at an enduring disadvantage. Closing that gap will not only level the playing field outside of Dublin, it will open opportunity for all of Ireland.
But fixing mobile and broadband is only one of the many things that need doing to end the curse of emigration and unemployment draining rural areas of their lifeblood.
As in most other countries, large corporations are attracted to major cities, where talent pools are larger and transportation access easier. But it is important to remember that Ireland is also unique .
We are the only country on the planet with a diaspora that outnumbers the in-country population by a factor of ten.
We also have the dubious distinction of being the only country in which the population has decreased dramatically over the last 150 years without a change in our borders.
As long as rural Ireland lacks the critical twenty-first-century infrastructure to provide twenty-first-century opportunity, our people will continue to flee our country. Yet the magnitude of the problem also reveals the magnitude of the opportunity.
Here are two things that can be done to get rural Ireland, especially in the border counties, working:
1. Incentivise small business
Small business is the lifeblood of every economy. Let’s encourage budding entrepreneurs to set up in rural Ireland.
I recommend offering fifteen years of capital gains relief – time enough to build your business in a rural area and sell it without having to pay capital tax on your gain.
Not only will this offer draw lots of entrepreneurs, it will draw private equity investment to the countryside.
2. Appoint a minister for cross-border collaboration
There are so many opportunities in the rural border, not only to increase the efficiency of business but also to enhance quality of life.
Project Kelvin has ported into Derry the fastest internet in Europe. Why can’t we get it ported to rural Donegal? We don’t need hundreds of huge masts.
Satellite technology provides the means today to give everyone in Donegal high speed connectivity to the rest of the world. Let’s do it!
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