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Connecting an island: driving change through better connectivity

Can Arranmore, a remote island located 5 kilometres off the coast of Donegal, really experience the same connectivity as the rest of the connected world?

For years, the inhabitants of Arranmore Island have simply made do with the limited connectivity available to them. Others, many with businesses to run, have made the tough decision to migrate to other locations where enterprise-grade connectivity and technology is more readily available. As a result of this, and other contributing factors, Arranmore has experienced a steady decline in population and an uncertain future.

Fortunately, the community of Arranmore, an island rich in history and culture, is as passionate about embracing the future as it is about preserving the traditions of the past. "The first thing I noticed when we started working with the island's community was their enthusiasm for getting things done," says John O'Sullivan, senior manager, 3Connected Solutions.

They recognised and understood the transformative effects that new technology could have on their daily lives. Most important of all was encouraging people to stay on the island, to raise their children and do business here. It was a fairly tall order for an island miles away from shore and would require some creative and strategic thinking on our part.

High expectations?

In this era, the ability to connect and communicate over a reliable high-speed connection isn’t just reassuring, it’s expected. But could Three create the same expectation on an island as remote as Arranmore and provide the community with enterprise-grade connectivity they could rely on? Most importantly, could Three transform island life with technology but at the same time preserve their culture?


Not your average customer, not your average network

The short answer is yes: there’s no reason local businesses and communities couldn’t have the same level of connectivity as less remote areas. Three were confident they could put the solutions into place that would not only transform business prospects and processes on the island but also improve Internet connectivity for everybody living there. The longer answer is still yes, but Three were going to need to use a variety of technologies that suited the unique geographical and topographical characteristics of the island without compromising on speed, reliability or scalability.

Many of Three Business's customers are SME and enterprise customers with some degree of digital infrastructure in place. Aside from mobile masts, Arranmore was a blank canvas. By using a combination of cutting-edge technologies, some of which are not yet commercially available, Three have implemented solutions which will transform the island and its community.

Data shortcomings

While voice coverage on the island was fairly good, it was the data side of things that was letting the side down. Things that should be simple, such as sending files and uploading documents often needed to be done on the mainland. Not only was this inconvenient, but it made working on the island next to impossible for some business owners.

The number of people living on Arranmore currently stands at 469. That might sound small, but there are around 25 businesses in operation on the island. From independent artists and basket weaving to the local health centre and hostel, the ratio of businesses to people here is actually quite high.

Three needed to use solutions that made the day-to-day possible and which at the same time enabled businesses to access cutting-edge applications and solutions that would put businesses in a prime position to compete and thrive in today’s connected world. Solutions like advanced mobile telephony, video conferencing, VoIP and mobile-friendly business applications were all out of reach for people and businesses on the island for now. Any solution put in place needed to address this.

High speeds at the hub and beyond

MODAM, short for Mol Oifig Digiteach Árainn Mhór, is the name of the island’s new digital hub and Ireland’s first offshore hub. In keeping with the strong sense of community on Arranmore, the name was suggested by one of the island’s schoolchildren and quite simply means ‘Arranmore Digital Hub’ in Irish.

For people to want to work on Arranmore, MODAM needed to provide access to the same facilities and connectivity speeds they could experience on the mainland. One of Three's first priorities was to provide high-speed connectivity and a managed local area network to the hub. In addition to high-speed connectivity, the hub also includes a smartboard with an interactive white board, video conferencing facilities and a Polycom teleconferencing system that allows hub users to stay in touch with customers and colleagues no matter if they are located in London, Sligo or New York.

Three also needed to consider what happens when you step outside the hub. Today’s business is mobile and needs to do so much more than making calls or access emails on the go. With the right connectivity in place and access to mobile applications, a business is able to respond to shifting demands, improve agility and gain a competitive advantage. Any mobility solutions put in place needed to provide this flexibility and freedom of movement from anywhere on the island.

Before Three could make improvements to mobility services, it needed to get a firm grasp on what mobile coverage and data throughput looked like across the island. Comprehensive testing was carried out to determine the current performance of 2G, 3G and 4G and repeated three different times across two days to measure performance during the morning, afternoon and evening. Armed with this test data, Three was able to improve capacity for 2G, 3G and 4G services by re-panning the mast to Derrybeg on the mainland.

Business Broadband+ – a big deal for remote communities

Typically, internet connectivity is delivered to homes and businesses through a fixed line, physically connected to each individual building through infrastructure on the street. Of course, this wasn’t possible on an island situated five kilometres away from the nearest fixed line. The island, rising 360 feet above the sea, also posed some topographical issues that meant connectivity via mobile masts was limited.

Three’s Business Broadband+, soon to be commercially available, offers an alternative to more conventional connectivity solutions and uses wireless network technology instead of fixed lines. It works by attaching an access unit to a building which then sends a wireless signal to a receiver placed inside the property; the receiver then sends this signal throughout a location as WI-FI, enabling users to connect numerous everyday devices to a data network.

During factfinding visits to the island, Three identified a number of businesses and community facilities that were perfect candidates for this new technology and which would experience immediate and transformative benefits.

Lifechanging use cases for better connectivity

Business Broadband+ has been installed in a number of businesses and community facilities, including Scoil Athphoirt, one of the island’s primary schools. Faster broadband speeds have enabled the school to access new teaching and learning resources such as interactive whiteboards, e-learning and online research. The school is also planning exciting new learning initiatives in collaboration with schools situated on the mainland. This would not have been possible before the upgrades were made.

In the island’s medical centre, the same connectivity will soon facilitate telemedicine applications including video consultations with medical practitioners and consultants on the mainland. This will save many patients from taking an overnight trip to Dublin or a four-hour round trip to Letterkenny for what may only be a 30-minute consultation.

The island’s hostel is also now experiencing the commercial benefits of enterprise-grade connectivity. Previously, the business was unable to offer a wireless Internet connection to its guests, many of whom said they would stay longer on the island if they had access to the internet. Just one relatively small change can have a transformational effect on not just the hostel itself but other businesses on the island that may be frequented by hostel guests.

Today’s technology, tomorrow’s workforce

The implementation of superfast connectivity to the island is bringing a wealth of benefits, some immediate, some which may not be realised fully for a number of years. But the main objective was always to attract businesses and their families back to the island and to grow and nurture the workforce of tomorrow.

Thanks to superfast, enterprise-grade connectivity solutions, Arranmore now has the potential to become a bustling hive of commercial activity and to support new technologies such as the Internet of Things. It is an initiative that is going to take time and which must maintain impetus if it is to succeed. Over the coming months, Three will be working closely with the community to further enhance connectivity and bring connectivity solutions to more businesses and facilities.

Three’s philosophy has always been about enabling a better-connected life. Bringing connectivity to the businesses and community on Arranmore has been a rewarding and fascinating project for our team from a business perspective. However, the real reward for Three is playing an integral part in the revival of Arranmore and watching the island flourish into a wonderful place to live and work.

Discover how one of Ireland's most remote islands got up to speed with a technology rollout that's opening up new possibilities for its businesses and families. Listen to An Eye on Irish Industry, the podcast: connecting Arranmore.

If you are interested in learning more about how Three Business is transforming the island of Arranmore, visit our dedicated website.