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We can transform our rural communities by bridging the digital divide

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'As we hit the restart button, mobilise our economy and learn to live with Covid-19 in the medium-term, there needs to be recognition that everything has shifted on its axis' (stock image)

'As we hit the restart button, mobilise our economy and learn to live with Covid-19 in the medium-term, there needs to be recognition that everything has shifted on its axis' (stock image)

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'As we hit the restart button, mobilise our economy and learn to live with Covid-19 in the medium-term, there needs to be recognition that everything has shifted on its axis' (stock image)

As coronavirus begins to loosen its grip in Ireland and across Europe, families and friends are now emerging from isolation and carefully returning to elements of normality.

Public libraries, parks, playgrounds and shops are once again open and being enjoyed, showing our society is starting to understand how to live with a new norm.

Businesses big and small are also implementing plans to reopen. Many will be focused on managing the severe impact on revenue and growth as a result of this pandemic, while all will be focused on the next chapter of our recovery.

As we hit the restart button, mobilise our economy and learn to live with Covid-19 in the medium-term, there needs to be recognition that everything has shifted on its axis.

Prior to Covid-19, it was reported 216,000 people in Ireland were working from home. Owing to the pandemic thousands of businesses and employees were thrust overnight into working from home. With schools and colleges closed and the majority of people required to stay at home, connectivity to services and activities such as video streaming, collaboration tools and online learning were critical. This dramatic shift in online behaviour resulted in a sudden and abrupt change to our mobile network traffic profiles. For instance, mobile traffic volumes were up 50pc during the working week and fixed traffic 60pc.

If the pandemic had taken place as little as seven years ago, the operating capacity provided by the then 3G network would not have enabled us to connect people so they could work from home. We would not have had the option of buying everything we need online, nor would it have been possible for most of the student population to carry on with their studies.

Thanks to the advance of technology and digital connections, we were able to support the community and continue business activity.

Recovery will bring its challenges. In launching its recent Quarterly Economic Outlook report, Ibec warned of the long-term economic impact of the pandemic and predicts a contraction in GDP of 11pc in 2020 and a fall in consumer spending by 14pc. Unemployment is also expected to remain high at 16pc towards the end of 2020 and at 7pc in 2021.

The EU recovery plan announced recently highlights the importance of investing in our future and in digitalisation, which is a good start. Additionally, the new programme for government recognises the central role of technology and connectivity to our economy and society: "Ensuring access to high-quality internet connections for people across Ireland is essential to the development of all parts of our country, socially and economically."

These are sentiments I fully embrace. Our collective ability to recover will require strong leadership by our government and from institutions. We must rebuild our societies and economies to be more resilient, more sustainable, more digital and more inclusive.

I believe there are four key elements we must now focus on:

  • The recent Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), published annually by the EU, ranks Ireland sixth out of the EU member states for digital competitiveness. While on the surface this is positive it masks some underlying issues.

For example, when it comes to take-up of high-speed fibre to the home (FTTH), Ireland ranks as one of the lowest in Europe. Vodafone is proud to be playing our part to address this connectivity deficit. With our joint venture partner, ESB, we have invested more than €500m in Siro's high-speed FTTH network, which is now live in 45 regional towns and urban areas, and accessible to almost 400,000 homes and businesses.

However, we must acknowledge this crisis has touched us all differently. The level of digitalisation has drawn an unseen dividing line, leaving many on the wrong side of it. Recent research among school principals revealed 39pc felt there was a clear digital divide across hardware, software and technological skills that was impacting the ability of children to learn online. The elderly have also been disproportionately impacted.

The task ahead for Government is clear: no matter where they live, whatever their age and income, citizens must have digital access and tools, as well as literacy.

  • Secondly, businesses must recognise a new reality: diminished physical interaction with customers or employees. According to the latest CSO figures, the SME sector accounts for 99.8pc of business in the Irish economy and employs more than two-thirds of workers. These businesses must be able to function digitally to be able to flourish in the future.
  • Thirdly, we need to accelerate the provision of critical government services through digital means and I am pleased to see a commitment to this in the programme for government. Ireland ranks ninth among EU countries in digital public services, well above the EU average. This shows a healthy demand but when it comes to use of e-health services, for example, Ireland ranks near the bottom of the EU table.
  • Finally, it is long overdue to bridge the perpetual digital infrastructure investment gap which, in its recovery plan, the EU Commission has estimated to be €42bn annually.

Attracting and mobilising private investment remains important, but the real game-changer will only happen if governments adopt a new, comprehensive approach, and face up to policy choices driving the poor returns on digital investment in Europe.

The opportunity is now to chart a new course to enhance digital infrastructure and accelerate the digitisation of all citizens, businesses and key government services - for the benefit of society, its resilience and its future competitiveness.

We have an opportunity in Ireland to transform the economic and social life of rural towns and communities by addressing this digital divide, improving lives, creating jobs and contributing to a low-carbon future.

At Vodafone, we are ready to play our part.

  • Anne O'Leary is CEO of Vodafone Ireland

Sunday Indo Business