Ireland needs a digital master plan for its regions

15 May 2017

If Skibbereen can do it, then so too can towns all over Ireland. Image: Jeanrenaud Photography/Shutterstock

Broadband on its own will not bring rural Ireland into the digital age. We need a focused strategy and we need to pick our victories, urges John Kennedy.

If you ever thought for a second that the digital revolution – or humanity’s dependence on technology – was just a fad, then just look at the disruption that has been caused by the WannaCry malware attack since Friday. Hospitals, factories, telecoms networks, universities – in all, 200,000 organisations in 150 countries – have been hit with a ransomware attack, believed to have originated in cyber weapons stolen from the NSA.

The wheels on which the world turns are now digital.

‘You need a digital master plan that has the regions at its core. It’s about economics, not just technology’

But what was most alarming about the attacks was the state of IT in organisations that were easy prey to the attackers. Many were running on outdated Windows XP machines that Microsoft stopped supporting years ago. In 2014, the Irish Government signed a €3.3m deal with Microsoft to handle sensitive security issues when support for Windows XP ended in April of that year.

This morning (15 May 2017), HSE staff were being urged by the Government to turn on their machines and wait at least two hours to let antivirus software do its work.

While these matters are issues for the Government’s Office of the CIO and the HSE’s CIO, no nation must allow itself to be on the back foot in any way in an era where hackers are ambitious enough to hold the world to ransom.

Ireland’s dependence on the digital economy is both its opportunity and its Achilles’ heel.

It’s an opportunity because the digital economy already contributes to 6pc of the nation’s GDP and will reach €22bn by 2020, according to Virgin Media. The sector employs hundreds of thousands of people, and many of the world’s digital giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook are not only employers, but they are putting critical data centre infrastructure here, too.

It’s an Achilles’ heel because we are failing to bring our small firms and SMEs along on the digital journey. Research by the IEDR estimates that 91pc of SMEs that have websites do not have e-commerce capabilities.

There is so much yet to do. And that is why I was saddened to hear this morning of the decision by Sir David Puttnam to step down as Ireland’s digital champion after four years of work on a pro-bono basis. Puttnam was quite a catch for the Government and his vision led to the development of the School Digital Champion Programme.

Always encouraging and ambitious, the Oscar-winning producer who made his home in West Cork always pressed for the integration of digital technologies into learning, with characteristic energy and enthusiasm. He saw digital as an opportunity for greater inclusivity in Ireland, and he will be sorely missed.

But the business of digital must continue and Ireland needs to take a cold, hard look at where it is actually at in terms of a digital master plan, not just from an educational perspective, but also an economic one.

And it must put its regions at the heart of this plan.

Connectivity alone won’t cut it

The contracts for the National Broadband Plan (NBP) are expected to be announced next month, although Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, has signalled that this could be delayed, potentially pushing the plight of disconnected communities out until 2022.

The plan was recently changed when the Government brokered a deal with Eir to allow the incumbent operator to connect 300,000 of the more than 900,000 premises in the intervention areas. Eir has committed to spend €200m connecting 890 communities to fibre.

The move reduces the number of homes in the NBP, requiring intervention to around 542,000 premises, including an additional 84,500 identified for the Department of Communications’ High-Speed Broadband Map. The number in the redrawn area now includes 990,000 citizens, or 21pc of the national population, and 381,000 members of the labour force.

However, in recent weeks, reports have emerged that rival contenders to Eir for the contracts – Siro and Enet – are less than happy at the development as it leaves them with premises in harder-to-reach areas. Siro is making noise about walking away, which is a worrying development.

Whether the winning contractors are revealed in June or in November, people in rural areas of Ireland – especially business owners – are at their wits’ end and any roll-outs will be jealously vied for.

This brings me to my next point: connectivity alone will not cut it, and the Government and its various agencies – from Enterprise Ireland to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht – need to bolster the infrastructure with realistic economic policy and regional development objectives.

Last week, I spoke with Kieran O’Hea, the Irish man who left Ireland in 2012 to take up the coveted role of chief digital officer of Brisbane. The Australian city became the second in the world to appoint a chief digital officer and, prior to taking up the role, O’Hea helped to develop and implement digital strategies for the European Commission for online projects worth €200m.

At the time of O’Hea’s departure, I couldn’t understand why Ireland would allow such an accomplished individual to leave.

Now back in Ireland, he is anxious that the digital strategy for the nation extends beyond solely broadband.

“A lot was achieved over there, including engaging with 30,000 SMEs a year and creating a hub for 200 digital start-ups,” O’Hea told me.

He is currently looking at how his native region of Cork could develop its own digital development plan, and he reckons there is a vital opportunity to be seized regionally in terms of the digital hubs that are springing up across Ireland, from the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen to hubs in Sligo, Kilkenny, Dún Laoghaire and elsewhere.

A focused strategy that is economical as well as technological

Ireland needs a digital master-plan for its regions

Man with a vision: Kieran O’Hea, the Cork native who became chief digital officer of Brisbane. Image: LinkedIn

His conviction matches mine: a broadband plan is not enough. Joined-up thinking connecting local authorities, entrepreneurs and broadband deployment is needed, especially to ensure that businesses in broadband-deprived areas get access sooner in order to create and sustain jobs.

“Strategies are needed for what a town can use its broadband for. In Brisbane, we did a digital audit of the city and that was effective in helping us focus our strategy,” said O’Hea.

“We need to predict the capability levels of towns and villages to absorb broadband and put it to work; prioritise where you would roll out broadband, where there are individuals who have the capability to help get a swifter return on investment.”

O’Hea knows that each town or region that gets intervention will have individuals clamouring for access. He reasons that priority should be considered for local businesses that can generate jobs first.

“My own opinion is that there is more to be gained from a regional digital economy strategy rather than one driven out of Dublin.

“The nationwide focus on infrastructure and education is important but, for the digital economy to develop regionally, think about the collective digital capability of all of these towns and villages with digital hubs, and what they could be 10 years into the future.

“One clever approach would be for the Government to provide digital hub start-up kits to villages and towns that want to develop, attract investment and help start-ups to grow. What is happening in Skibberreen and Sligo and 30 other towns is great – approach them and take their learning, and create a model for other towns and villages to build upon.”

The trajectory of the digital economy is hard for many in traditional businesses and industries to comprehend.

Taking Cork into account, O’Hea said there is an opportunity to capitalise on digital.

“As a region, Cork contributes to 17pc of Ireland’s national GDP. Cork city has been a merchant city for more than 200 years. But the digital economy is already contributing to 6pc of Ireland’s GDP – that’s almost a third of what Cork contributes and that is only after a few years.”

Avoid a digital crevasse

Instead of trying to be the next Silicon Valley or Silicon Roundabout, O’Hea warned that Ireland must not slip into a Silicon Crevasse. “That is where the digital economy slips between a city or country’s ICT strategy and its development strategy.”

The key here is planning, O’Hea said. “There are so many buildings that can be repurposed if you look at what’s happened with Ludgate in Cork or the old Smithwick’s brewery in Kilkenny. But there are lots of old buildings sitting empty. We are shutting down Garda stations and post offices. We should be looking at using them as hubs.

“What we need is a regional development strategy that audits the viability of towns or districts with businesses bursting to take the broadband roll-out and do something with it. We need to make these people a priority.”

O’Hea knows what he’s talking about. “In Brisbane, we figured that a 1pc increase in productivity in the city by digital would boost revenues by A$600m.

“We did an audit of the city and its region, and knew we had a digital maturity score of six out of 10.

“In Ireland, if your average town could achieve a digital maturity score of 4.5 out of 10, then, with the right connectivity and motivation, a corresponding increase in productivity through digital could potentially add half a million euros in revenues annually in towns like Kinsale or Dún Laoghaire.

“For that, you need a digital master plan that has the regions at its core. It’s about economics, not just technology,” O’Hea argued.

I, for one, find it hard to fault O’Hea’s logic. Broadband connectivity alone is not enough. We need to give regions and entrepreneurs the necessary skills and know-how, and a greater sense of their destiny, rather than solely relying on directives from Dublin.

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