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Ireland’s Solution to the Rural Divide

Cashel, Ireland. Aerial view of small town in the evening.

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. So the government has announced a plan called “Our Rural Future” to 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 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 many 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, which is critical in 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 full support and funding from the federal government. However, individual communities can undertake 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.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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