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How Vodafone helped Skibbereen reach out to the world

High-speed broadband helps rural start-ups compete with their urban rivals

Ireland's first-ever National Digital Week took place at the beginning of this month in the west Cork town of Skibbereen. The four-day event attracted more than 1,600 entrepreneurs and technology enthusiasts and featured more than 70 high-profile international and national speakers, including Google EMEA chief Ronan Harris, Dr Laurence O'Rourke, Rosetta mission science operations coordinator at the European Space Agency, and Ingrid Vanderveldt, founder of Empowering a Billion Women 2020.

National Digital Week aimed to develop entrepreneurship by making digital technologies more accessible to entrepreneurs and companies of all sizes and stages of development. What made the event truly unique was its location in a non-urban area in Ireland, which was facilitated by the high-speed broadband connectivity being provided to the town by Siro, the joint venture between Vodafone and ESB.

Skibbereen will enjoy high-speed broadband connectivity as the first Siro rural town to receive 1GB connectivity. National Digital Week also aimed to demonstrate that rural digital hubs can compete on an equal footing with urban centres and on the international stage.

The event has its genesis in the Percy Ludgate Digital Hub, a new digital innovation centre currently under development in the centre of Skibbereen. The initiative aims to create a digital entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region and is expected to attract 75 start-up companies and create 500 new direct jobs in the first phase of its development.


Vodafone is also providing dedicated connectivity for the Percy Ludgate Digital Hub. “This new hub illustrates that once connected you can successfully work from one of the most beautiful locations in the world,” says Vodafone CEO Anne O’Leary. “And this week we have witnessed a digital community in the making. Skibbereen has now been firmly placed on the map as Ireland’s first ever rural digital hub – a showcase for other rural communities to achieve similar great things.”

According to O’Leary, connectivity is a critical ingredient in the success of both the new centre and National Digital Week. “Connectivity is the oxygen of innovation and creativity in today’s world; it is also the means by which we can address many of the economic disadvantages faced by rural communities around Ireland. We have heard much about the digital divide within Ireland in recent years, and more recently there has been talk of a two-speed economic recovery. The recent turnaround in our economic fortunes has been very welcome. But the benefits are not being evenly spread. Urban Ireland is recovering at a far faster pace than the rest of the country.”

She points out that this is not necessarily the fault of any organisation. “The government can’t force industry to set up in locations it deems unsuitable,” she notes. “Large-scale employers need to be close to large population centres. They also need to be close to high-quality services in terms of transport and logistics, energy and other utilities, and of course broadband connectivity. While they can certainly find some of these things in rural Ireland, finding all of them is almost impossible. And frequently the crucial missing element is high-speed broadband.”

This digital divide is highlighted by the statistics for 2014 which showed that only 35 per cent of Irish business premises had broadband speeds of 10Mbps or higher. The remaining two-thirds were left with speeds of less than 10Mbps, a speed identified by the EU and other authorities as sub-standard for many emerging web technologies. “We need to change the national mindset in relation to broadband connectivity,” O’Leary argues. “The Government has done tremendous work over the years in addressing the digital divide nationally, and the National Broadband Plan has the potential to be a game-changer in this respect. But we need a change in the national consciousness as well. High-speed broadband must be perceived as being as essential to business as electricity or running water. It has to be seen as a basic necessity and not some kind of luxury. Broadband can be potentially transformative for small businesses. Local entrepreneurs can gain global reach. Ideas and concepts which were previously beyond reach become reality.

"New business models, new ways of working, and completely new businesses become possible," she adds. "It has the capacity to transform rural areas into digital leaders on a global level. High-quality broadband connectivity allows start-ups based in Skibbereen compete on an equal footing with their counterparts in Singapore. Vodafone wants to support the vision of creating a level digital playing-field for businesses in rural towns like Skibbereen."

This connectivity is vital for future investment and jobs, according to O'Leary. "To give you some global context for the challenges ahead, workers in Ireland are already competing with 230 million knowledge workers across the world for job creation and foreign direct investment," she points out. "By 2025, two to three billion more people across the world will have access to the internet, allowing unparalleled access to mass education and the output of knowledge workers in the developing world. Dublin will be competing with New Delhi and these workers will be able to offer cost savings and flexibility that Ireland may not be able to compete with."

This will mean finding ways of lowering the cost base for doing business and investing in Ireland.

“This doesn’t have to mean cutting wages and corporate tax rates,” she says. “It means being creative. One way to lower the cost of business and increase productivity is by embracing the concept of home-sourcing. Imagine Irish companies giving their employees the flexibility to use high-speed broadband connectivity so that they can work from home. Home-sourcing is not only cheaper than traditional outsourcing, but home workers are 25 per cent more productive than employees in-house.”

This will offer parents the flexibility they need for childcare and time off, and enable others to remain in their local communities instead of having to go to large towns and cities for employment.

“The benefits for local communities like Skibbereen will be immense in terms of economic and lifestyle impact,” says O’Leary.