Irish firms punch above their weight in ICT and digital economy

7 Oct 2010

Irish companies are already punching above their weight in using online commerce for sales and purchases and are above the EU average in online commerce adoption.

However, the country is lagging on the citizen and consumer side where more work needs to be done in terms of digital skills, online access for the elderly and disabled and more productivity and electronic government services.

These are the views of Anthony Whelan, the Co Clare man who is the chef de cabinet of European Commissioner Neelie Kroes, the key instigator of Europe’s digital agenda.

The TIF conference

Kroes will be in Dublin on 12 October to address the 17th Annual Telecoms and Internet Federation (TIF) Conference.

“If we were to look beyond the problems in the Irish economy, we need to lay the foundations for growth going forward and we can’t get there without taking digital seriously.

“Fifty per cent of Europe’s growth opportunities will come through ICT where I believe Ireland punches above its weight. Some 30pc of the rest of growth opportunities in the rest of the economy will come through efficiencies gained through ICT investment. Ireland simply won’t be at the races in the years to come if it doesn’t take the digital economy seriously. The EU is the second biggest ICT market in the world,” Whelan urged Irish firms.

He was speaking to Siliconrepublic after addressing a European Commission seminar on the digital economy recently.

Kroes’ Digital Agenda for Europe unveiled by the European Commission is built on the basis that digital will contribute significantly to the EU’s economic growth and will spread the benefits of the digital era to all sections of society.

The most important target for 2020 is to have internet speeds of 30Mbps or higher for all European citizens, with half of European households subscribing to connections of 100Mbps or higher.

Today, only 1pc of Europeans have a fast fibre-based internet connection, compared to 12pc of Japanese and 15pc of South Koreans.

ICT behind productivity growth

Half of European productivity growth over the past 15 years has already been driven by ICT and, according to Kroes, this trend is likely to accelerate.

Whelan said that in moving to telecoms networks where fibre and wireless will dominate, not copper, telecoms regulation will need to change.

“The key is open access systems where other players can get cost-based access to next-generation networks but at the same time maintain a competitive landscape where investors can get a return on investment. Investment in next-generation networks is high risk and requires substantial investment.”

“Member states need to move fast on practical things that make broadband rollout simpler and cheaper, involving one-stop shops for access to state fibre assets, making planning rules seamless and realising that digging up streets is inevitable. A lot of this is common sense,” said Whelan.

Fibre-optic network rollout

Last week, Ireland’s fibre opportunity for the regions was given a considerable boost when Bord Gáis subsidiary Aurora Telecom revealed it is rolling out a 330km fibre-optic network in ducting laid along Bord Gáis’ pipeline to the West. The route will take in Galway, Athlone, Mullingar and Ennis, while other towns along the route will be connected as demand requires.

Whelan said that Ireland has made considerable progress from investing in 100Mbps broadband to schools, increasing international connectivity via transatlantic fibre and investment in the Exemplar Network for example.

“It is all very encouraging. Ireland isn’t unique in the challenges it faces, particularly in extending high-capacity networks to its regions. One point for optimism in the Irish case is that when analogue TV is switched off in 2012 and efficient spectrum comes available, with the appropriate investment you can achieve much higher capacity in the wireless space. There’s a lot to play for but the assets are there,” Whelan enthused.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years