On Wednesday I was honoured to speak and chair a session on Local Digital Strategies at the UN’s ICEGOV (International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance) which is taking place this week at NUI Galway. It was great to hear the ideas and observations from experts and to learn of the experiences of other countries in this area.
Below are some of my speaking points where I referred to various topics including investment in ICT, the purpose of the investment, the challenges and objectives of the policy and the hoped for impact.
Firstly, as everything else is built on the infrastructure I think it is helpful to give a brief account of the work and progress of developing ICT infrastructure in Ireland.
Achieving universal access to high speed broadband is a key priority for the Irish Government and also the EU’s Digital Agenda for Europe.
National Broadband Plan
In Ireland we are progressing the National Broadband Plan which aims to ensure high speed broadband access to all premises in Ireland, regardless of location.
The procurement process is at an advanced stage and the Government is investing several hundred million euro to realise the aims of the Plan.
Thankfully, the Plan has also encouraged investment by industry with over €2.75 billion of investment over the past five years.
The result of the investment by State and industry is that today almost 7 out of every 10 of the 2.3 million premises in Ireland have access to high speed broadband. This will increase to nearly 8 out of every 10 by the end of this year and, by 2020, 9 out of every 10 premises will have access to a high speed broadband connection.
The State and EU-funded Metropolitan Area Networks are also playing an important role. Through the 88 MANs 94 towns around the country have high speed fibre broadband and it is estimated that in excess of 1 million individuals and businesses are benefiting from the MANs infrastructure.
700 Mega-Hertz spectrum
Another development is the release of the 700 Mhz frequency band which is currently used in Ireland and other parts of the world for digital terrestrial television services. The characteristics of this frequency mean that it is very well suited for the provision of mobile broadband services, particularly in rural areas.
Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce
As Minister of State at the Department of Rural and Community I am co-chair of the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce. The Taskforce comprises representatives from key Government departments, State agencies, the Communications Regulator (ComReg), local government and telecoms.
The primary aim of the Taskforce is to improve connectivity across our country. In February, we published the first annual implementation review of the Taskforce and launched the Action Plan for 2018.
Among the key achievements of the Taskforce are:
The establishment of Local Broadband Officers in every city and county council in the country. The Officers are a key point of contact and work with industry on identifying and addressing barriers to the roll-out of telecoms infrastructure locally;
- A mobile phone ‘blackspots’ mapping exercise to formally identify areas with telecoms coverage issues and draw up practical solutions to improve mobile phone coverage and quality;
- A programme to identify and use State assets for telecoms infrastructure for the benefit of communities;
- Work is also advancing on a new network coverage map by ComReg which, together with their work on the performance of mobile phone handsets in different conditions, will help consumers to make informed choices on products and network services.
Perhaps the obvious question is ‘Why’? Why are we prioritising and investing heavily in telecoms infrastructure?
There are several reasons.
The EU’s Strategy for Digital demonstrates some key reasons. It is based on 3 pillars –
- Access – better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services;
- Environment – creating the right conditions for digital networks and innovative services to flourish;
- Economy and Society – maximising the growth potential of the digital economy.
These pillars can also be viewed as challenges to be met. And they are challenges which face each county and each UN member.
For me there are other challenges. These include:
- Costs – How do we ensure that we have the resources needed to continue to invest in ICT? How do we ensure that we achieve value for money?
- Privacy – We have seen the recent developments in the use – or mis-use – of data and information and the potential uses that exist for private and sensitive information. So, the question of rights arises.
- Regulation – Another issue is that of regulation. With the fast pace of technological advancements and change how do Governments and legislators keep-up let alone lead? How do we regulate to ensure important concepts of transparency, of fairness, of equality are upheld?
The Benefits: Technology has brought and is bringing benefits that previously were the stuff of dreams or science fiction. The benefits to all our lives of the digital revolution are many including efficiency and convenience and for the most part are life-enhancing. We have vastly altered methods of communication. We have new ways of interacting, new ways of availing of goods and services. We have new ways of providing services more quickly and effectively. There are many examples to be found:
- Public Services – interacting with Government and State agencies to avail of services online e.g. passport online service, motor tax etc
- Business – new ways of doing business, new ways of reaching customers – assisted by the Department’s Trading Online Voucher Scheme
- Work – the creation of new shared working-spaces, of new hubs which encourage and foster innovation and creativity and also productivity and have positive benefits on the environment by reducing the need to commute and travel
- Education – the incorporation of digital skills into the curriculum alongside the promotion of new ways of learning at all stages of life e.g. Duolingoe.g. the evolution of libraries and the library service – the ebooks and audiobooks service – available from our network of public libraries via an app called ‘Borrow Box’. An innovation that is revolutionary which demonstrates how digital development can add to and enhance services rather than replace them. For me inclusivity is an integral goal and should guide our actions in harnessing the benefits of the digital revolution.
Because of the transformative nature of digital developments, on our communities, on our societies and on our economies, it is essential that no one is left behind. And that is where Local Digital Strategies come in.
With the Local Digital Strategies we are focusing on seven areas including digital skills, digital economy and employment, community and culture, digital services, transitioning to digital, infrastructure and innovation, and entrepreneurship.
The term Local is vital. Each city and county council will be able to include their area’s strengths and characteristics.
In doing so we can help ensure that every person, every household, every business and community group and organisation will benefit from the opportunities that the fast growing digital economy brings from employment and job creation to the provision and delivery of services to the creative sector, among others.