Friday 9 December 2016

How digital connectivity can improve rural Ireland

Published 25/05/2016 | 15:35

This week saw the launch of Vodafone’s Connected Futures report which looked at the issue of the ‘gigabit society’ in rural Ireland and why Irish businesses need a much improved rural broadband.

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To find out more about the Connected Futures report, the Ready Business podcast spoke to Vodafone CEO, Anne O’Leary, Gerard O’Neill from Amarach Research, and Jerry Kennelly, the hugely successful Kerry entrepreneur.

Amongst the findings in the report was the fact that one-quarter of Ireland’s rural population would be forced to move to urban locations if it wasn’t for broadband. And while broadband penetration is as high as 90% in some rural locations, one-in-five respondents in the countryside say they still can’t get access to broadband at all.

The study is based on face-to-face interviews with 1,000 adults as well as a telephone survey of 100 micro businesses across rural Ireland and uniquely asks respondents about their current experiences and aspirations for a digital future.

Rural connectivity
Rural connectivity

“This report gives an insight into the views and realities of people living in rural Ireland,” explained Anne O’Leary.  “They’re embracing online but they need better speeds, better quality and a more joined-up approach is needed between telcos, the government, stakeholders and local communities themselves.  We need to remove the barriers and restrictions to make it happen.  Ireland can be turned into a gigabit society and compete with anyone in the world.”

So does this mean the likes of Skibbereen can compete with Singapore?

“Ludgate in Skibbereen is a fantastic example of a small town in rural Ireland  that said enough is enough,” said O’Leary.  “The recession, the boarded-up shops, the young people leaving, they had enough and decided to do something about it. 

“A local businessman, John field, donated the local bakery for 80 hotdesks and high speed fibre with speeds on a par with Singapore is being used by the businesses in this new digital hub space.  People are returning to the area now and creating employment as a result.”

But, the digital divide prevails:

- There is a 22% gap between broadband penetration in villages (69%) and suburbs (91%).

- Broadband penetration in small towns is 84%. One in five (18%) say they can’t get access broadband at all, rising to one in four (26%) in villages.

- A quarter (24%) of respondents say their broadband speed is too slow (rising to 44% living in detached houses in countryside) and one in five (20%) are currently forced to go to venues outside the home to access the internet.

- One-third (30%) say that slow and unreliable internet speeds currently prevent them and/or family members from working from home and that their internet speed at home isn’t fast enough for all their family requirements (33%).

Gerard O’Neill, chairperson of Amarach Research which carried out the study, says that it shows just how embedded tech is in people’s lives and by not having internet access it would affect them negatively.

“The majority of the population – three million – live in rural Ireland,” explained O’Neill.  “But it is extremely difficult for a lot of people to access broadband.  It shows the extent to which equality does not exist and how far the digital divide still has to go.”

As for SMEs and the improvements they need, O’Neill says the economy as a whole would grow if rural businesses were helped with better broadband speeds.

“As part of the study, one hundred SMEs were surveyed and over 80% said they would be able to hire more people and grow their business more if they had access to better digital connectivity.  We’re nowhere the real and full potential that can be achieved until better connectivity is attained.”

Jerry Kennelly, who founded Stockbyte and subsequently sold it for $135m to Getty Images says that being based in Kerry was always his plan for his businesses but it does come with difficulties.

“It is a challenge basing yourself in Kerry,” admitted Kennelly.  “But doing it in my own place in Kerry is an important part of my psyche and view of doing business.  Getting talent is difficult however and you have to diversify in locations around the world.  When you take the big vision with a business you can do it from anywhere in the world and you might as well be in a wonderful place like Killorglin.”

Kennelly is critical though of government efforts thus far in enabling good broadband connectivity in rural Ireland.

“I think the government have rarely taken entrepreneurship very seriously,” he said.  “They fail to understand what it takes and what is needed.  A one-person business making a job for themselves are the true entrepreneurs and if they don’t have decent connectivity it’s unfair for what they trying to create in this society and it goes against everything the government says.  We need to be inclusive whether its Cahirciveen or Dublin when someone wants to start a business.”

The full Connected Futures report can be viewed here.

The Ready Business show, in association with Vodafone, is available every Thursday via iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher and Independent.ie. Or subscribe to the RSS feed of the Ready Business Podcast using your favourite podcatcher.

You can check out the full Ready Business Podcast series here.

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