West wakes up to cyber duty

21 Feb 2003

Over the October bank holiday in 1999, the Galway Chamber of Commerce held a jobs fair in Leisureland in Salthill in an attempt to fill the 5,000 vacancies generated by good times.

One man commented that things hadn’t been so good since Cromwell left. But when the downturn crash-landed in the city two years ago, the drive to bring in people petered out slowly.

The west is far from asleep, however. In the year to last November, the number on the live register was up by one thousand, but over the course of 2002, twice as many jobs were announced. Medtronic, Abbot and Churchill Insurances all promise substantial investment west of the Shannon. The population remains young and continues to grow – up nearly 15pc in the six years between last year’s census and that of 1996.

When it comes to matters electronic, business has one thing on its mind: more and cheaper bandwidth. Now, if not sooner.

Tony Dervan, MD of online trainer EssentialSkillz, says it’s like trying to run a courier company without roads. He’s based in Furbo, which is outside Galway City, and laughs when asked when he thinks DSL (digital subscriber line) will reach his firm. “There’ll be new technology along before it gets out to Furbo,” he says.

Under the National Development Plan, Galway City Council recently commenced work on the €9m, year-long Galway metropolitan area network project. It promises to place the city “at the forefront of fast and effective telecommunications”. In the meantime, both Esat BT and Eircom have rolled out DSL services, operating from two exchanges at either side of the city.

ISDN is, of course, available and adequately meets the needs of some businesses. David Martin of website and software developer Martec says distance from his core market in Dublin is a bigger headache than the lack of broadband access.

The tech slump has eviscerated the market in Galway, with the result that businesses in that sector have had to refocus on Dublin and beyond. “We’ve developed a lot of sites for companies where we’ve never actually met them. We work through email, fax and phone and the whole thing is done without any face-to-face contact, which an awful lot of people don’t think is possible but it is,” Martin explains.

He laments the passing of a local Enterprise Board scheme, funded under the joint Information Society Commission and Department of Enterprise programme, which offered grant aid to local companies to develop internet sites. The board’s chief executive officer, Charles Lynch, acknowledges the success of the scheme and says there is a possibility that it may be revived this year.

The board has also been active in providing website development training to small businesses and has grant aided teleworking initiatives. While the will is there to do more, it all depends on funding, and, as Lynch candidly concedes, e-business training is not a number one priority.

The board’s site (www.galwayenterprise.ie) is, however, well laid out and easily navigated and while its business directory is meagre to say the least, it provides an excellent facility for prospective entrepreneurs to submit their business plans online. “It’s not long in operation,” says Lynch, “but this week alone I had three business plans on it.”

The City Council’s site is extensive but primarily informative. An electronic planning file viewing system, or e-planning viewer, was recently installed in the planning department of City Hall on College Road. All planning files since 1990 are on the system for members of the public to view, though you must call in person. There is a long-term plan to provide the service over the internet.

Meanwhile, said members of the public in the West remain among the most reluctant surfers in the State. According to Amárach Consulting’s consumer trend watch in May, adult internet usage stands at 32pc in Connacht/Ulster compared to 43pc in Dublin.

Galway City Library provides free internet access at six terminals at its St Augustine Street premises. More substantial internet resources will be provided when a new library is opened in Westside next year, and plans are also being considered for a new library east of the city in Ballybane.

Understandably, supply and demand metrics mean it’s hard to reserve time on these machines, but the library has taken the somewhat bizarre view that the service should be used exclusively for reference purposes and does not allow people to access email at their PCs.

On the commercial side, Galway Chamber of Commerce has been active in building e-business awareness in the county. Last year, a Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment program provided funding for a full-time e-business development manager charged with building awareness in the SME (small to medium-sized enterprise) sector.

Michael Coyle, chief executive officer of Galway Chamber of Commerce, explains: “The overall project set out quite lofty aspirations. Not only would it create awareness but also it would actually bring skills for doing business on the internet and improve and increase the usage of the internet as a means of doing business. What we found was that when our resource actually sat down and talked to small SMEs, the reality was that their level of computing skills was very low.”

The chamber met this disappointment head on by providing extensive and intensive training over the executive’s 18-month tenure. Computer and internet training was delivered to between 250 and 300 firms while e-business audits were conducted with more than 500.

As with the County and City Enterprise Board, further work in this area will depend on further funding, though the chamber does hold frequent e-business events. This week, for example, the chamber hosted an e-security seminar as part of its Go Digital program.

By John Hearne