Wednesday 26 June 2019

Connected Futures: how digital connectivity can change rural Ireland for the better

Rural connectivity
Rural connectivity

One-quarter of Ireland’s rural population would be forced to move to urban locations if it wasn’t for broadband, a new study into digital connectivity in rural Ireland has revealed.

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.

These findings and more are contained in the research report, Connected Futures: Bridging Ireland’s Urban-Rural Divide, produced by Amárach for Vodafone Ireland. 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.

“This report gives an insight into the views and realities of people living in rural Ireland,” explained Vodafone CEO, 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.”

SIRO is a venture between Vodafone and ESB that uses the existing ESB infrastructure to provide fibre into homes and buildings and is the first of its kind in Europe being trialled in places such as Skibbereen in West Cork. 

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“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.  SIRO is then going to move on the to local businesses who want to trade and sell online by providing them with fibre connectivity.   This is a cost effective solution which will be providing technology and speeds future-proofed for the next 25 years to drive economic growth and prosperity across the country. 

So how can connectivity enable rural dwellers to maximise home and work life outside of the main cities?  Of the estimated 1.8 million broadband users in rural Ireland, nearly 1 in 4 (430,000 adults) uses the internet at home in relation to their work: and nearly 150,000 of these choose to avoid commuting some or all of the time because they can connect to work through the internet (that’s about 1 in 13 workers in Ireland as a whole).

Almost seven in ten micro-business owners (69%) agree that slow and unreliable internet speeds currently prevent them and their staff from working efficiently.

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.

- While nearly half the respondents (44%) would be willing to pay more for access to higher speeds at home, the vast majority (81%) disagree that that they should be expected to. 

- 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.

25% of those surveyed said they would move from rural Ireland if they had no broadband while, conversely, more people said they would move to the countryside if they had the same levels of connectivity as the cities and towns and which would enable a better quality of life in turn.

“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 wuold 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.”

With €10-12 billion to be spent online by Irish consumers by 2020, ecommerce is a huge growth area to be developed to meet the needs of Irish consumers and to keep money in the local economy.

“The possibilities and benefits of digital connectivity are endless not just for rural Ireland, but the country as a whole,” added Anne O’Leary.  “The majority of our population still live in rural Ireland and it will be critical that all of society is in a position to take equal advantage of the digital revolution.”

The full Connected Futures report can be viewed here.

Sponsored by: Vodafone

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