8 minute read 4 Mar 2021
Technicians using laptop in server room

How we can achieve connectivity for all - bouncing back to move forward

By EY Ireland

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

EY Ireland, a leading global professional services organisation providing assurance, tax, audit, strategy and transactions and consulting services.

8 minute read 4 Mar 2021
Related topics Digital COVID-19

Bridging Ireland’s digital divide will improve living standards, boost the economy, support business start-ups and assist with meeting national climate change targets.

In brief:
  • Why we need high-speed digital connectivity
  • Why delivering the National Broadband Plan is critical
  • Rising to the challenge: a holistic approach is essential
  • What good looks like

In this article, Government & Infrastructure Director, Luke Hardcastle, dives into the vital role of digital connectivity in enabling the achievement of Ireland’s societal, climate and economic goals.

Digital connectivity team
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Chapter 1

Why we need high-speed digital connectivity

Digital connectivity has never been more important — it is the lifeline by which we communicate with friends, family and colleagues.

Its critical role has become even more apparent since the COVID-19 pandemic, enabling societal well-being and the continued functioning of our economy during a period characterised by physical isolation. 

The digital divide — where citizens in rural and deprived regions do not have access to the same quality of services available to those living in more affluent towns and cities - is a long-standing challenge in Ireland. Low population density and geography make deployment of network infrastructure difficult and costly and creates barrier for commercial deployment.  The nature of the challenge in Ireland (while particularly acute) is similar to that faced by the vast majority of other countries.

The benefits of digital infrastructure have been illustrated below.

Benefits of Digital infrastructure
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Chapter 2

Why delivering the National Broadband Plan is critical

The National Broadband Plan (NBP) is the Government’s initiative to deliver high-speed broadband services to all premises in Ireland.

The National Broadband Plan (NBP) is the Government’s initiative to deliver high-speed broadband services to all premises in Ireland and ensures that every citizen and business, no matter where they are based, can progress together. The NBP will be delivered through investment by commercial enterprises coupled with intervention by the State in those parts of the country where private companies have no plans to invest. The NBP is critical to allow the digital divide narrative to evolve beyond network access limitations, onto device availability and training for those who need it. 

 

Fergal Mulligan (NBP Programme Director at the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications) speaking at a recent ‘Total Telecom’ conference stated “We’ve been talking for the last 10 years about the digital divide, that was really about network availability but now the digital divide term has moved on to the availability of devices, education, and training. There is a significant cohort of people out there who simply do not have the technology we have, but it is not only putting devices into the hands of children who will rely on them for education, or elderly people using them for telemedicine, but in training them to use the equipment effectively.

Households

COVID-19 has demonstrated the necessity of a widespread high-speed broadband network. Huge numbers of workers migrated to remote working almost overnight in March 2020, with many remaining in this situation throughout 2020 and into 2021.

Statistics gathered by the CSO reveal the unprecedented shift in work patterns, including:

  • 57% of enterprises initiated remote working in their business.
  • 34% of the working-age population began remote working in April 2020, and
  • 40% of office-based firms plan to make remote working permanent in some capacity.

This enforced shift towards remote working is likely to leave a lasting impact on the structure of the labour force and the wider economy. Easy access to workplaces in larger urban centres may no longer be a key determinant for households in choosing where to live, with greater preference placed on space and community amenities, including broadband access and remote working hubs. In response to this trend, the Irish Government’s new National Remote Work Strategy formalises guidelines and long-terms goals, including:

  • Legislation to provide employees the right to request remote working
  • Introducing a code of practice on the right to disconnect from work – covering phone calls, emails and switch-off time
  • Investment in remote work hubs, ensuring they are in locations that suit commuters and are close to key services
  • Exploring the acceleration of the National Broadband Plan
  • Reviewing the treatment of remote working for the purposes of tax and expenditure in the next Budget
  • Mandating home and remote working for 20% of the public sector workforce

Businesses

The migration to online marketplaces has also allowed traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses to continue trading through the pandemic. New .ie domain registrations rose by 26% year-on-year in H1 2020, largely due to the impact of COVID-19. More than 40% of new registrations in H1 2020 were in May and June alone, including 19,572 new business webpages.

The NBP will contribute significantly to removing the existing digital divide and COVID-19 has further highlighted the importance of broadband in keeping people connected to each other, their work, education resources, business needs, and entertainment services. 

Furthermore, several services which can be delivered over a high-speed network will only materialise where there are high take-up levels across the population e.g. e-health or e-government services. As more citizens become connected a virtuous circle is created whereby citizens become equipped to use such services and more services are developed.

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Chapter 3

Rising to the challenge: a holistic approach is essential

The better way Ireland can realistically meet the Government’s target of 100% coverage is to take a holistic, end-to-end approach to drive both supply and demand in tandem.

Issues to be addressed to deliver 100% high speed digital connectivity

Issues to be addressed to deliver 100% high speed digital connectivity

This diagram highlights the interlinked issues, covering both demand and supply, that should be addressed to deliver on the objective. Crucially, all industry actors should recognise that this is a shared opportunity where proactive and sustained collaboration are fundamental to success.

Driving demand

Galvanising demand for gigabit services will require several urgent actions to overcome critical barriers to user adoption.

  • Build better awareness: Providing greater clarity around service availability and quality is critical. Measures introduced around fibre advertising must remove confusion for customers. 
  • Create better value propositions:  Differentiated value propositions are vital to stimulating gigabit broadband upgrade intentions. Articulating what high-speed broadband can provide, such as greater reliability not just higher speeds, is essential. Comreg platform data shows that Irish consumers are increasingly migrating to higher-quality fixed line services and by Q3 2020, 41% of fixed broadband subscriptions were above 100Mbps, compared to 35% in Q3 2019.
  • Ensure switching is simpler: Seamless interactions between customers and service providers are critical to simplify the process of switching and upgrading packages. In the UK 45% of consumers stated that they have never switched broadband provider. In Ireland, research by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission in 2017 showed just 14% of consumers switched broadband providers in the previous 12 months. The perceived biggest barrier to switching was not believing that there is a difference between suppliers and the inconvenience process of switching.

Supercharging Supply

Supercharging supply to avoid a widening of the 'digital divide' will require immediate and sustained action from the Government, regulators and service providers alike.

  • Make planning processes high-speed ready:  Legal access agreements add to the time and cost of infrastructure installations. Simpler arrangements and better information flows across the value chain can help shorten approval times and reduce variability.
  • Ensure access to the right labour in the right locations at the right time:  Coordinating a national labour and training response to enable agile access to skilled labour is essential. Government and service providers should collaborate to identify the labour requirements for gigabit rollout and use this knowledge to develop joint training facilities. The lead time for identifying and training the skilled labour required to deliver FTTP civil works is far greater than the horizon for obtaining funding.
  • Create more agile wholesale relationships in the high-speed value chain: Regulators and service providers should explore a single enterprise wholesale platform to simplify multi-operator agreements. This can help expand retailer coverage nationwide to ensure effective competition in locations where customer choice is historically limited. Ofcom's recent approach has been focused on promoting competition and enabling new alternative networks. Incentivising collaboration between providers is now a must.
  • Improve network deployment systems, tools, data and processes:  More efficient network deployments are critical to maximising return on investment while meeting coverage targets on time. Service providers should use analytics tools to simplify deployment frameworks and ensure greater harmonisation of each other's data sets.  In the UK, 76% of service providers believe that network teams are among the business functions most likely to benefit from improved analytics capabilities over the next five years.
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Chapter 4

What good looks like

When it comes to galvanising demand, the Government, regulators and operators should act in unison to empower customers.

This means combating customer apathy and inertia by demystifying what gigabit broadband can do and by making the switching process as painless as possible. 

Supercharging supply will require the Government, regulators and service providers to take collaborative action across all areas of the telco value chain to ensure a sustainable and efficient gigabit-capable deployment and meet the State’s ambitions.

There are practical challenges to address in terms of the speed of decision-making and shared quality of information. Yet ultimately a shift in mindset is essential. The importance of bridging the digital divide should be top of mind for all industry actors. By appreciating the transformational promise of new infrastructure, all entities can work together better to create positive outcomes.

Over the coming months and years, supporting Ireland's ambition to close the digital divide and ‘build back better’ from the COVID-19 pandemic will be one of the most critical tasks facing the Government and businesses. Gigabit connectivity will play a leading role in this recovery.

Summary

Over the coming months and years, closing the digital divide and delivering the National Broadband Plan will be one of the most critical tasks facing Government and businesses. Highspeed digital connectivity will play a leading role in ‘bouncing back’ from COVID-19, modernising for the future and delivering equality of economic opportunity to regional Ireland. Now is the time for everyone to come together to ensure that the State’s ambitious goals can be delivered for all.

About this article

By EY Ireland

Multidisciplinary professional services organization

EY Ireland, a leading global professional services organisation providing assurance, tax, audit, strategy and transactions and consulting services.

Related topics Digital COVID-19