Govt to create a new digital strategy for Ireland

10 Nov 2011

Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte

The Irish Government is to draw up a new Knowledge Society framework to ensure greater digital engagement among businesses and citizens, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte said. Urgent issues including broadband, skills and the use of e-commerce by businesses need to be addressed, he said.

Rabbitte revealed at the Digital Future Forum think-tank at Farmleigh yesterday that a new strategy needs to be drawn up to reflect the areas Ireland seriously needs to catch up on.

Yesterday, a Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study ranked Ireland 22nd out of 50 countries in terms of digital inclusion.

“The digital economy is accounting for 5pc to 7pc of GDP in some countries,” explained David Dean, senior vice-president at Boston Consulting. “Seven per cent of the UK’s GDP comes from the digital economy. Germany is at 3.5pc. Ireland could be just a little higher than 3pc of GDP. So how can we encourage the country to up its game?”

He added: “What I want to know is, does Ireland have a digital Ireland master plan?”

Addressing the think-tank, Rabbitte admitted the research paints a stark picture and said it is unacceptable that 30pc of households do not have access to the internet.

“Our SME sector has been slow to embrace the huge opportunities online for sales and marketing. They are likely to say they have other preoccupations in the present economy. Their adoption of technology is in fact lower than households. The lost business opportunities being incurred is of great concern.”

Rabbitte is making no secret of the fact that the level of investment in communications infrastructure in Ireland over the last decade has been below par.

“Unfortunately, Ireland is playing catch-up due to years of under-investment. I am pleased that there are now many commercial service providers in the Irish market investing €400m to €500m in recent years. To address the market failure, the Government here has invested €300m in infrastructure.

“We are in a position to meet the first of the EU milestones of basic broadband in advance of the deadline.

“The Next Generation Taskforce comprising the CEOs of the various telecoms companies will complete its work by Christmas and hopefully I will be in a position to bring proposals to Government early in the new year.

“This investment will be led by the private sector but the State will play a role. I’m determined that this investment occurs and that we will not create an urban/rural digital divide.”

The digital divide Rabbitte is talking about directly affects the unemployed, the poorly educated, senior citizens and the disabled. To appreciate how fundamental basic digital skills are for people today, Dean pointed out that 7m jobs were advertised in the UK online last year. Without a basic internet connection applying for jobs would be impossible.

“Because of our unusually geographically dispersed population, there is a serious risk of excluding rural populations and it is a lucky for us that we have an enthusiastic voluntary sector,” Rabbitte said, referring to the €1.8m BenefIT 3 scheme involving 20 training projects that could allow 40,000 people to benefit from IT training. It involves local authorities, national representative organisations, universities, VECs, trades unions, enterprise and development groups, disability representative groups, job and resource centres, as well as a wide range of local groups.

The master plan for a digital Ireland

Rabbitte said that in relation to the issue of ICT investment in education, web-based learning is the future and 78 schools countrywide have so far been equipped with 100Mbps broadband, which is contributing to changing the teaching and learning experience in those schools.

“I am determined to see a wider roll out to all second-level schools by the 2013/2014 school year.”

He hinted there has been opposition voiced to rolling out 100Mbps broadband to secondary schools. “Some would argue that 100Mbps is too costly and unnecessary and also there are those who believe that if we have any chance to develop core IT skills then this is precisely the type of investment that is required.

“But the challenge is not installing broadband, the technology is just a mode of delivery; the challenge is pedagogical. Changing the curriculum is essential if we are to optimise the investment.”

To give a picture of the kind of impact the investment is making, Rabbitte said the decision was taken to deliberately include isolated areas, as well as socially disadvantaged communities.

He cited a school in Tallaght kitted out with high-speed broadband and where each student was given a netbook. “The results have been positive, absenteeism has been reduced and grades have improved. So much so, that the school is now a school of choice for parents. They are receiving applications from outside the traditional catchment areas.

Rabbitte said Ireland can no longer wait until the economic tide has turned. “There is a serious need for a national strategy for digital. We are going to liaise with all parties to devise a framework for how Ireland will respond to the challenges.

“I’m making a personal commitment to make sure Ireland gets on top of the issue and ensures access to the digital world, especially for those in marginalised areas of society,” Rabbitte said.

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