A closer look at why farmers need access to high-speed broadband
The National Ploughing Championships 2016 saw thousands of people walk the fields of Scrageen in county Offaly. Many issues were discussed over the three days as people walked the 800-acre site and navigated their way through the 1,700 exhibitions that were on display. One key issue was the rollout of the National Broadband Plan.
The European Commission published one of their Digital Scorecards earlier this year, which showed that only 8% of rural Ireland has access to fast broadband. This is significantly lower than the European average of 25%. I asked Ger Bergin, National Treasurer of the Irish Farmer's Association, how big of an issue broadband, or lack there of, is for the farming community.
"Broadband is a huge issue in rural communities. It's the new infrastructural issue; we've had roads, power and a whole host of other issues that are required for modern day living. Broadband has become such a big issue now because farmers are dependant on it and on online services. For example the majority of the schemes from Department of Agriculture, whom we mainly have interaction with, require online application," explained Bergin. "There's over 2 million calves to be registered online every year in this country. All interactions now require access to broadband. That's only going to go up. By 2018, the single farm payment applications system will probably be fully online."
Many of the systems and ways in which farmers work have changed in recent years. John Comer, President of the Irish Creamery Milk Supplier Association explained how this is a big change for many farmers.
"There's a huge amount of paperwork. I mean the amount of paperwork compared to 20 years ago in phenomenal. I'm 20 years farming myself this year, and when I started off you'd have a book in the corner, but now you have a whole office. You just have to have traceability for every single thing you do."
Farmers who do not have access to broadband or any form of internet connection have to hire contractors to do their paperwork for them, which costs money. All of these issues are impacting the income and, indeed, the output of farms in Ireland.
The Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs had a significant presence down at the Ploughing and I met with their Principal Officer, StJohn O'Connor who gave me some insight into the types of questions people have for him and his department.
"The biggest question generally is 'when is it coming to my area?' and that's really what we're trying to communicate with people today. At the moment the Department of Communications is engaged in an extensive procurement process and once the winning bidder or bidders are chosen, we'll have an idea of the rollout plans. It's going to be done on a national basis, but it does depend on whether there's one, two or more winning bidders."
A taskforce, put in place by Minister for Communications Denis Naughten is currently working to identify key issues with mobile signal and broadband access around the country. Members of this taskforce will report back to the government, in the hopes that this will reduce the number of speed-bumps along the way.
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