April 13, 2024


Epicurean Science & Tech

What happened when the remote Irish island of Arranmore finally got broadband internet.

8 min read

Five years ago, Arranmore, an 8.5-square-mile island situated 3 miles off Ireland’s Atlantic coast, was facing a serious crisis. The 2016 census showed that the population was 469, down from more than 600 in 2006, with 45 percent of residents 65 or over. With few young families, schools were in danger of closure. Its fishing industry was dying. It appeared the newest and smallest generation might be its last.

Concerned, residents formed a community council to discuss solutions for reviving their livelihood. “We had to think about how to get our young people to move home,” Adrian Begley, chair of the Arranmore Community Council, tells me. “Ireland is a very rural country. And a lot of people have what we call a grádh—a big love—for where they are from. People want to return home. But they can’t always, and that’s a difficult thing.”

The council launched its #ComingHome campaign in 2017 to encourage people to move to Arranmore, offering information and advice for anyone wishing to do so. In an open letter, it promised “fewer people than would fit in a couple of Amtrak carriages, but enough musicians and good Irish whiskey to keep the party going well into the night.” The campaign received floods of responses from around the U.S. in particular.

But warmth and sincerity are not enough to get people to relocate, even back to where they’re from. The council reached out directly to the Arranmore diaspora, mainly in the U.S. and U.K., but also within Ireland and as far as Australia, to ask what it would take for them to move back home. Employment opportunities and faster internet topped the list. At the time, Arranmore had only mobile broadband, and it was very hit or miss.

“An American with family connections to the island had moved here around this time, and was going to be working remotely,” Adrian says. “But they had to move to another part of Ireland. He just didn’t feel he could work securely or productively because of the standard of the internet. We thought, we can’t let this happen again.”

For business, connection speeds were far too slow and signal strength too unreliable. “It was grand for checking email,” Begley says, “but for business it wasn’t productive. Reliability is the issue.” It was clear that without high-speed broadband internet on the island, it had no sustainable future. “It may sound like a First World problem, but this is about more than Netflix. This was about sustainability. This was about the future,” Begley told me.

Our conversation took place via Zoom, which should tell you that the island’s internet fortunes changed. Through a stroke of serendipity, in 2018, Three, an Irish mobile operator, was looking for a way to highlight how high-speed connectivity can transform rural areas and—to the surprise and delight of Begley and the rest of the community of the island—approached Arranmore and asked if it would serve as a model case.

The company launched a well-documented partnership with Arranmore, and by 2019, the island was provided with high-speed broadband. Down the road, there are plans to deliver the country’s first subsea high-speed broadband cable to the island, which would sustain through anything from a tsunami to a shark attack and offer the highest bandwidth, reliability, and security. But the current setup—point-to-point broadband, which sends a signal over land, air, and sea—provides the same high speed the rest of the well-connected world enjoys.

A coworking hub was also set up in cooperation with Three, but work didn’t stop there. “They showed us how they could use their technology to solve problems,” Begley says. “They provided connectivity to the community center, a place where we have youth clubs, offer courses, have computers. They also supplied it to the local builders cooperative, which also supplies the island with oil and heating. They provided it to the health center.”

And they’ve seen tangible results. “There are 15 or 16 people now working remotely on Arranmore that were not able to before,” Begley says. “Our population went up over 10 percent from 2016. Families have moved here. We’ve exceeded our target.”

Among the new residents are Jean Pierre Trocmé, who is French, New Yorker Marie Benedict, and their two sons, 15 and 14. The family moved to Arranmore in the summer and told the Donegal News they will never move again. Others who had familial connections to the island have returned, including some younger residents who came back during the COVID lockdown and now work on permanent remote status—including, in one case, for Twitter.

“We’ve got a lot of great youth here,” Begley says. “They’re very engaged in their community, and very proud of it. They want to see it survive.” And they’re highly educated, which has led to an unexpected problem. “The pub quizzes are now a nightmare,” he says. “You’ll never win. Once the quizmaster had to split a group of young ones up, saying, ‘There’s seven master’s degrees at that table.’ I found that a very proud moment.”

And the value of connectivity goes far beyond work opportunities. “We have to get a ferry to get to the hospital,” says Begley, whose background is in mental health. “Loads of people were making long journeys for a 10-minute consultation with a doctor. With telemedicine, we can prevent that. We also connected one of the schools. These were all the concerns of the diaspora.”

The technology is also helping residents look after elderly relatives who live alone, via devices that can track everyday behaviors such as when a door is opened or the kettle is boiled. “If their behavior changes,” Begley explains, “you can go around to check on them.” And connectivity is helping to improve efficiency for the fishing industry on the island, in order to preserve it. “When we lose that tangible heritage, those things that we know, those things that we are, you tend to lose your culture and your community,” Begley says.

Preserving culture and community has been one of the main hopes hung on internet technology in Ireland from the start. Barry Flanagan is the man behind Ireland’s first internet service provider, Ireland On-line, which he started in 1992. He believed from the onset that internet connectivity would bring about real social change. “I thought that if the technology was widespread,” he tells me during a telephone call, “it could revolutionize Ireland and just change the country completely.”

Flanagan is the son of emigrants who had left Ireland seeking opportunity elsewhere, as countless have done for hundreds of years. Born in Canada, Flanagan returned to Ireland when he was 13. “I just loved it, and I wanted to stay,” he says. “I was an idealist, and thought I could make sure the next generation wouldn’t need to leave Ireland to have opportunity.”

He started IOL in Galway, on the west coast, deliberately not basing himself in Dublin. “The point was that not only should you not have to leave Ireland to have opportunities, but you also should not have to move to Dublin,” he says. After building it up for seven years, Flanagan sold IOL in 1999. “My attitude was, right, that’s my job done,” he says. “The country is going to be connected. I’ve been of some service.”

It certainly served me. In the late ’90s, I was a book editor living in San Francisco. It was the era of internet-based startups and new technologies promising to change how we live—while inadvertently making the Bay Area unaffordable to a young person like me with such analog career interests as books. It seemed inevitable I would leave.

My mom, who was from Ireland, had died in 1992. I had spent a lot of time in her home country as a child, and in 1999, with a mix of sentimentality and hubris, I moved to Galway. It was just as the Y2K programming bug was threatening to wreak global havoc. If anywhere was safe for a digitally disrupted world, I thought, it was the west coast of Ireland. My bank still issued handwritten deposit receipts.

But while old-school had its charms, my opportunity to live and work from a quiet corner of Ireland required me to have reliable internet. My U.S.-based employer had let me keep my job, decades before a pandemic made remote work common. IOL provided me with dial-up access that was pretty slow to connect and carried per-minute costs. I’d connect, check email, download files, and disconnect. It was enough. But today’s businesses and remote workers need substantially more speed and reliability in their internet solutions to operate. Rural areas in Ireland continue to be left behind the connectivity curve, leading to forced emigration within and beyond Ireland.

Although some reports show that up to 92 percent of Irish households had internet access as of 2020, these statistics do not take reliability or speed into account. In 2017, when the #ComingHome campaign debuted, 88 percent of homes technically had access, but it was too poor to really serve as such.

To put speed into perspective, the government’s broadband plan committed to providing more than 30 megabits per second to homes across Ireland.* With its high-speed broadband, Arranmore currently enjoys internet speed up to 100 Mbps. And in 2017, speed tests revealed the village of Legan in County Longford had the slowest internet in Ireland, with average speed of just 2 Mbps. “It’s faster to drive from Longford to Dublin than download a film there,” read an Irish Times headline in 2017.

“You’ll have to forgive me if I sound a bit jaded,” Flanagan says. “The actual footprint of internet availability in Ireland until recent years had not changed immensely. The same proportion of the population had decent internet access as it did in 1999. And that is disappointing.”

It’s a problem the government is aware of but has been slow to act on. In 2012, the Irish minister for communications announced the National Broadband Plan, which promises every home and business in Ireland access to high-speed broadband by 2026. The plan was heralded as “the rural electrification of the 21st century,” but has had delays over the years. The initial target for delivery by the end of 2021 was 115,000 homes, and as of October, according to the Irish Examiner, only 23 percent of that target—27,000 homes—has been reached.

Arranmore was lucky to have corporate behind its broadband initiative, but other areas are still relying on the government program to move forward. “These things tend to be very slow and then stop,” Begley says. “And they start in places that already have fantastic internet coverage and then spread out, and rural areas are put three to five years down the line. That’s a hell of a long time for a rural community that’s going downhill. We couldn’t wait. It was a simple as that.”

He, like Barry Flanagan—who now works to deliver broadband to rural areas, including some that aren’t part of the government’s plans, using wireless technologies—firmly believes the more isolated areas should be the starting point for connectivity initiatives, and that connecting those areas is the key to sustainable change in Ireland and elsewhere in the world.

“If you can get your rural communities to survive, society as a whole can survive,” he says.

Correction, Oct. 22, 2021: Due to an editing error, this article originally and incorrectly referred to an internet speed as 30 megabytes per second. It is 30 megabits per second.

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