BETWEEN March and July this year, business owners, employees and the public were faced with an immediate shut down of our economy and society. Recent studies from the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) show that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) lost between €6 billion and €10 billion during the period. As Ireland grapples with a sense of deja vú, this time many are better prepared and equipped for lockdown.
Connectivity has undoubtedly had a significant role to play in this. It has afforded us a sense of normality in truly abnormal times and has supported the dramatic and necessary shift to remote or smart working and the rise in online learning, shopping and social interactions. I am proud that despite such an immediate transformation of our society, the telecommunications sector has been able to respond in kind and manage the unprecedented rise in demand.
As new ideas and projects are created and delivered – despite very challenging circumstances – we must continue our focus on rebuilding our society and economy to be more resilient, competitive, digital and inclusive. One of the most vital projects for businesses and communities in rural areas, in the short-term, is the rollout of Broadband Connection Points (BCPs), through Connected Communities, an initiative of the Government of Ireland, in partnership with Vodafone. This project provides free, high-speed public access WiFi, as part of the National Broadband Plan, in a range of locations including, community halls, schools, libraries, GAA facilities, enterprise hubs and tourist locations.
To date, over 50 sites have high-speed WiFi and a further 250 will be connected by early next year.
Once BCPs are operational, these areas become Connected Communities with opportunities for remote work, study, community and digital skills training, filing of forms and applications and a host of other digitally enabled services and amenities now available to people in the locality.
From as far west as Bere Island to as far east as Inch near Killeagh, 17 towns and villages in Cork will become Connected Communities by early next year. To-date, eight BCPs in Cork have been connected, helping to create equal access to connectivity even in the most remote parts of the county. These include Whitechurch Community Centre, Aghabullogue Community Centre, Ballindangan Community Centre, Castletownkenneigh Community Centre, T.O. Park Community &; Sports Centre in Labbamologga, Laharn Heritage Centre, Lisavaird Community Centre and Bere Island Heritage Centre.
As we continue to contend with the global health pandemic, this connectivity provides an interim opportunity to transform the economic and social fabric of rural towns and communities by addressing the digital divide, improving lives, creating jobs and stimulating rural economic growth.
In the long-term, digital hubs, with high-speed broadband, will play an important role in supporting businesses and economies to thrive once more and support a rejuvenation of towns and villages. Last year, Vodafone Ireland conducted a study, which evaluated the economic and social impact of the introduction of a digital hub in each county in Ireland, including the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen. It found that the Ludgate Hub, which was launched in 2015, and opened for business in early 2016, is home to 21 businesses, or 75 people, with net wages of €2.81m, providing €0.71m in taxes for the exchequer. Industries supported include tech, aviation services, e-commerce and media production.
On a national level, the research revealed that there is strong demand for a more expansive network of digital hubs due to the significant economic, social and financial contribution they bring. The opportunity that is clearly offered through the smart working model and rural connectivity must be an important factor in any strategic planning.
During the height of the pandemic, in Spring 2020, Vodafone data revealed a 50% increase in mobile and fixed traffic during the weekdays and a 70% increase on weekends, we also saw a 66% drop in traffic in commercial centres as the nation retreated into their homes. In the Dublin Docklands, one of Ireland’s most heavily populated areas commercially, mobile usage activity reduced by 60%.
Similarly, mobile traffic on roads reduced by 50% in March 2020 and recently this figure remains 30% - 35% below normal. My team responded quickly, redirecting network capacity, analysing how and where our network infrastructure is being used and accelerating high priority upgrade programmes to tackle these new pain points. We have worked hard to manage the change effectively, support our communities and help business activity to continue – allowing us to create a sense of normality in a new reality.
As our data indicates, there is a need to accelerate access to high-speed connectivity outside of urban centres. In a short space of time, we have graduated from a society where urban centres were the focus of the majority of commercial activity and employment to one where it’s dispersed across urban and rural areas. Connected Communities is a significant step to support this new normal.