National Broadband Ireland (NBI) is examining the prospect of accelerating the rollout of its broadband plan, for communities across Ireland to be connected “possibly within five years”, rather than the scheduled seven years.

Sinn Féin MEP Chris MacManus has called on the government to engage with NBI on this, after a meeting he had with NBI representatives who indicated that they were “open to discussing the acceleration of the rollout”.

Key in reviving rural communities

MacManus said that it was “fantastic” in recent weeks to see the first homes connected under the plan and “it will bring enormous benefits to rural communities across the state once completed”.

“The rollout is scheduled to take seven years under the terms of the contract agreed by NBI and the state, and NBI expressed confidence to me that the rollout would be completed within this timeframe,” the MEP said.

NBI also indicated that they are favourable to acceleration of the rollout – possibly within five years – and open to discussion with government to achieve this.

“In fact, they already have personnel dedicated to examining the prospect and this is very welcome.

“The lack of high-speed broadband across rural Ireland is a major issue and has certainly been a significant factor in the decline of rural communities across the state in recent years.  

“This plan is key in reviving rural communities and tackling regional imbalance. It is especially important given the effects of the pandemic which has resulted in huge numbers of people now working and studying from home.

“I have no doubt this trend will continue into the future even after we have emerged from the pandemic.”

Like many other representatives have expressed for the last number of months, MacManus said his constituency office has been contacted “on an almost daily basis by frustrated constituents enquiring about the rollout of the broadband plan in their local area”.

“For them and the thousands of people across the state working from home on an unreliable broadband connection, the rollout can’t happen soon enough,” the MEP added.

“Therefore, the government should engage with NBI as a matter of urgency to explore the possibility of accelerating the rollout.”

First farm connected under plan

The first farm has been connected with high-speed fibre broadband under the plan, it was announced last week.

The farm, near Crossdoney, Co. Cavan, belongs to agricultural consultant Tom Canning, the president of the Agricultural Consultants Association (ACA).

Canning said that he “expects to benefit hugely” from the new broadband connection.

Recently, the government launched its five-year rural development policy –  ‘Our Rural Future’.

The policy commits the government to “targeting supports to enhance farm lives and livelihoods”.

High-speed broadband throughout the country is targeted, in order to “ensure equality of access to digital services and support the diversification of rural economies and jobs through digital technologies”.

“Our aim is to bridge the gap in urban-rural connectivity and enable rural businesses, particularly small and micro enterprises, to trade online and broaden their customer base,” the policy states.

The government is committing to “investing significantly” in remote working infrastructure, with the aim of allowing people to “live in rural communities while following their career ambitions”.

High-speed broadband crucial to its success

Labour spokesperson on rural development Seán Sherlock said that this policy “must not become a false dawn like the 2017 Action Plan on Rural Development”.

“What will be crucial to its success is the delivery of high-speed broadband, and access to sustainable transport options,” he added.

Deputy Holly Cairns of the Social Democrats said the slow national rollout of high-speed broadband “has put workers, students and businesses at a serious disadvantage when compared to those living in larger urban centres”.

“The creation of up to 400 working hubs with fast internet connection will go some way towards bridging this gap – but should not be seen as a substitute for proper investment in rural broadband,” the deputy said.