News that Dublin City Council has greenlighted a series of Wi-Fi hotspots across the capital will cause those who promote Belfast as the best location for inward investment on the island green with envy.
Yet, in reality the North of Ireland remains one of the best-connected regions in Europe when it comes to superfast broadband. Indeed, thanks to the Kelvin connection to North America, it’s now possible to transfer data from Belfast to Boston faster than from Boston to Baltimore.
With the infrastructure in place, however, how is it to be exploited to benefit our people? For in truth, internet infrastructure can be viewed as the city of Belfast once viewed its canals, railways and then motorways: vital transport arteries boosting our attractiveness to those who wish to live, play or invest in the city.
In that respect, then, what is needed now is the ‘traffic’ to use this new online network.
Weaver’s Court in Sandy Row has led the way with its ‘Ten Gig’ connection, giving it some of the fastest speeds in Europe for data transfer. Hopefully, go-ahead businesses which specialise in transferring huge volumes of data will flock to this inner-city business park to ply their trade.
But the key to progressing the populace in tandem with business lies in ensuring that access to the internet becomes a right rather than a privilege.
Belfast knows all about the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Indeed, that gap has widened since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 — despite promises of a peace dividend for all.
To allow a two-tier city to develop: the well-off enjoying the benefits of internet access and working class neighbourhoods isolated from the global gateway which is the web, would be disastrous.
That’s why it’s crucial Belfast’s bid to outstrip Dublin and become a ‘super-connected city’ must ensure that those connections reach down to the grassroots.
Our libraries, community centres, public places and schools must benefit from the £13m bid being made by City Hall to the Urban Broadband Fund for super-connected cities.
There has been much talk of tourists being able to access the web at Wi-Fi hotspots — the first being trialled at City Hall and its grounds — but it’s even more important that the common five-eights of Belfast can enjoy fast and free access to the web: the most-important tool of education and empowerment thrown up by the 21st Century.