Ireland’s Solution to the Rural Divide

The pandemic has given the whole world a pause to consider if we should return to business as usual when the pandemic is behind us. Ireland has a unique reaction and is something that could make sense here.

Ireland plans to provide incentives to lure people from cities back to smaller rural towns. Like much of the world, Ireland has seen decades of young people moving to cities to find work, leaving behind shrinking and aging rural towns. The government has announced a plan called “Our Rural Future” that will hopefully lure residents back to smaller towns.

An obvious key piece of this plan is making sure that rural towns have fiber broadband – something the country has been tackling for several years. The new plan is to fund the renovation of rural city centers and to create 400 rural working hubs. The government will give tax breaks to people and corporations that shift to working in the rural hub towns. The government also plans to relocate at least 20% of the 300,000 federal civil servants to the newly established hub towns.

The hope is to rebalance the economy throughout the country, so that rural areas share the same growth and prosperity as cities. The Irish government tried something similar in 2000 when it moved some government jobs out of Dublin.

This is an idea that we should consider here. Two-thirds of US counties have lost population since 2010, representing a huge shift of the population from rural America to cities and suburbs. Further, the population in a lot of rural counties is aging, since much of the lost population are younger residents looking for better-paying jobs.

The US has already started down a path to bring a lot of fiber to rural areas – something that is a key factor for making rural America a place to work. We’ve had recent grants like RDOF along with the new state and federal grants that should give a big boost to rural broadband. Even bigger would be an infrastructure plan to build tens of billions of dollars of fiber. We have one significant difference compared to Ireland’s plan. The US government is funding better broadband for the most rural places in the country, but not funding broadband upgrades for county seats. It is those towns across America that could thrive and grow with the right incentives. Ireland is creating the work hubs in small towns that are the equivalent to small county seats here.

There are enormous incentives for the US to consider something similar. If rural communities continue to lose population while continuing to age, we’re going to find rural economies dragging down the economy as a whole. Luring people out of cities can also help to cool off the torrid urban housing market that is making it nearly impossible for young families to afford homes. Pushing new housing construction to smaller communities here would spread our prosperity, much as Ireland is hoping for.

To do this in a big way would require the full support and funding from the federal government. However, individual communities can undertake a programs to lure urban residents. I wrote a blog some years back about how Independence, Oregon had a program to lure Portland residents to its lower cost of living and its fiber network.

As a nation, we only get a reset button once or twice per century, and this could be one of those times. Newspapers and the web are full of stories of people who used the pandemic year to reexamine their priorities, and there are seemingly millions of people willing to step off the urban treadmill if we make it easier for them to do so.

It seems kind of a shame to spend money on better rural broadband networks if we don’t also make a push to get people to use them. Perhaps some of this shift will happen naturally from people who have found a way to permanently work from home – something that is made easy with new fiber networks.

I’d love to hear from any communities that are actively using fiber to lure new residents.

3 thoughts on “Ireland’s Solution to the Rural Divide

  1. I hate to be the perpetual downer, but the fundamental issues are promotion and “the next job.” (I’m currently hiring. What a mess. There are applicants from NC to New Brunswick to Brazil…)

    If we truly have durable remote options for senior and junior people that’s great and this could be viable. If, however, it’s easier to get promoted if you see your manager every day, and if you can’t find a new mid-level job that’s remote (either they aren’t offered remotely or there is too much competition because of all of the other candidates because…they are offered remotely)… that’s going to kill the ability to attract a full spectrum of workers

    Maybe you can attract only junior people or ICs, but that still means someone has to move to advance their career…

    There are all kinds of jobs. This is a weird time. But, for the high quality jobs, I don’t see things changing to where there aren’t enough local workers in cities that can and will fill them with city people.

    In an earlier life, I spent lots of effort trying to attract people to work in charming college towns with high quality of life. At that point (pre-covid) a great quality of life wasn’t good enough.

    Separately, I doubt that the whole “workers have the upper hand” thing isn’t going to last and we are seeing something that’s more like the early days of Uber or the Occupy movement than a real structural change…

    Not as I’d prefer it, but that’s my current.concern.

  2. Coldwater Michigan has been upgrading their citywide HFC plant to all fiber and has branded their marketing efforts “Gig city michigan” in fact that’s their website Coldwater is one of the oldest municipal broadband networks in the country and has leveraged their success over the years into a local attraction, using it for economic development and retention.

  3. Another excellent article, Doug Dawson. I can almost smell that Irish heather from here in Texas this morning. Or maybe it’s hops from that pub in Dublin. Either way, I appreciate the work you put into these fact-filled and informative posts.

    In Texas, politics plays a part in our ability to develop fiber into rural communities as much as we’d like. Curing the rural divide means competing with long-established incumbent carrier monopolies who don’t fancy competition. Winning RDOF is a great thing, but trying to get permits or anything else becomes problematic when the mayor and all the city officials have been getting “campaign funds” for decades. Residents be damned! We once had a city council decline allowing us to build simply because faster internet would bring porn into their community. I guess it didn’t matter that the local incumbent already had internet there. But, our internet would have been much faster, corrupting the children at a faster pace, evidently. Fiber can do that, I suppose.

    RDOF has requested and some carriers are already returning census blocks obtained by “gamed” the system, reverse-bidding a dollar to win big, virtually eliminating any possibility of relief to these communities in need. Maybe Ireland does it better? Not sure. I am hopeful that RDOF will have great impact on rural America. And, I’d love to see Texas big city traffic relax somewhat as web developers move to smaller towns. I’ll head there, too!
    Bobby Vassallo

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