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Sunday 21 October 2018

EU rolls out scheme to bridge digital divide between town and country

Stock picture
Stock picture

Sarah Collins

While smart technology is well-known and widely used in cities, rural areas have been somewhat neglected.

But the EU is attempting to bridge the gap with a multimillion euro project to determine what makes a village "smart", and pass on that knowledge to other areas across the bloc.

By June, the European Commission aims to draw up a sort of checklist for smart villages, studying success stories all the way from Skibbereen to Lapland. They will then use EU money to test those ideas in 10 other villages.

The European Parliament has set aside €3.3m of its own budget this year to fund the project.

It is being pioneered by two MEPs: Slovenia's Franc Bogovi and Hungarian deputy Tibor Szanyi, whose mission statement is "to create rural areas where people can and want to live, because innovative, digital solutions make their lives easy and comfortable".

But €3.3m is not going to go far.

Smart village

"If we really want to see a large roll-out of smart villages, we need to talk about billions of euro rather than millions of euro," agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan said earlier this month at a conference on smart villages in Bled, Slovenia.

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His preference is to use financial instruments to leverage private money from EU funding, which could subsidise loans for farmers and local businesses.

The Commission's recent paper on the future of the Common Agricultural Policy namechecks the smart village idea, and is set to require national authorities to come up with digitisation strategies as part of their CAP plans, which would then need to be approved by the Commission.

The EU's rural development budget can also help.

Because success begins and ends with a fast internet connection, programmes like the bloc's €10bn LEADER programme are also useful for funding smart villages.

Only 40pc of rural EU households currently have access to high-speed broadband, compared to 76pc of urban households, the European Commission says.

The English village of Alston Moor set up a community-owned broadband service, Cybermoor, in 2002, after it was passed over by larger service providers. The movement has spread, and the village now has a community-owned bakery, gym and many other businesses.

Providing education and medical services to cut-off regions is also a priority. City dwellers are almost twice as likely to have third-level qualifications as their rural counterparts, and are much more likely to have better access to healthcare.

An Italian government strategy to revitalise remote inland villages has helped to fund a community car-pooling app, virtual classrooms and online medical checks in local pharmacies.

While most Europeans live in cities, Irish people tend to do the opposite, with over 40pc of people living in the countryside (compared to an EU average of under 30pc).

The EU is already looking to the success story of Skibbereen in West Cork, where the Ludgate digital hub provides superfast broadband, video conferencing and desk sharing for local entrepreneurs and freelancers.

EU officials also point to Lapland's "smart Arctic" network, which is connecting remote northern Finnish food producers with consumers halfway across the world.

The Commission sees smart villages as climate pioneers. Cloughjordan ecovillage in Tipperary, set up on a 27-hectare farm in 1999, now has 50 families living in low-energy homes, growing their own food in allotments, and has a carbon footprint that is less than half the Irish national average.

And in Denmark, 70-80pc of wind turbines are community-owned, while in Sweden, close to 50pc of local fibre-optic networks are owned by municipalities or community-run enterprises.

Farm focus

But farmers must be at the heart of smart villages, says Alan Jagoe, a Cork farmer who was also head of Macra Na Feirme and the European Council of Young Farmers.

"There needs to be a strong ­agricultural sector to make sure people are in villages to begin with," says Mr Jagoe.

"If you can ensure farming is profitable and sustainable, then people will stay in rural areas. And so many people are now choosing to move out of cities and move to rural areas. If we don't have basic services, they won't come."

Farmers need broadband to do everything from banking to precision farming, Mr Jagoe argues.

Moo monitors - sensors that use heat to optimise when to feed, milk, breed and medicate herds - are one of the innovations Jagoe has recently installed on his Carrigaline farm.

"If you said this to my dad 20 years ago, even 10 years ago, he wouldn't have believed it," he said. "Smart farming has changed the way we farm today."


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