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Getting connected: Have we made progress with the digital divide?

As 5G gains traction with customers high-quality connectivity is supporting demand

How is Ireland measuring up in its rollout of connectivity networks and national digital transformation strategies?

The digital divide has been a cause celebre and a hot political potato in this country for some time. More than two decades ago, the government established the Information Society Commission to solve the issue, but recognition failed to translate into meaningful action.

More recently we have seen the long delayed rollout of the National Broadband Plan but progress has been sluggish, to say the least.

In the meantime, we’ve had a global pandemic which forced hundreds of thousands of people to switch to home and remote working and brought into sharp relief the digital deficit experienced by many people outside of our main cities.

“High-quality connectivity was becoming increasingly important prior to the Covid pandemic,” says KPMG partner and EMA head of KPMG Global Infrastructure Michele Connolly. “What the pandemic did, though, is make people realise just how essential it has now become. Most businesses adapted to become much more digitally focused or digitally enabled to survive the pandemic. Those changes are now here to stay. Likewise, hybrid working for most businesses is also here to stay.

“So, the pandemic has brought forward, with a sense of immediacy, changes in work practices that probably might have taken years to evolve absent the pandemic. High-quality and reliable connectivity is quite simply now an essential enabler to all of this, to how we work and live. It’s no longer a matter of choice.”

It’s also important for the economy and society. “Business drives the GDP and hence economic growth of this country,” says Connolly. “So, to a large degree what is good for business will be good for the economy too. But it also goes wider. Strong connectivity drives our ability to have universal access to education and healthcare, to name but two sectors. Those sectors are increasingly moving to be more digitally enabled. So, we need good connectivity to access the services we need to live our lives.”

Rural-urban divide 

Ireland is not alone in experiencing a rural-urban divide when it comes to broadband service. As recently as December 2020, the UK government earmarked £5 billion to roll out broadband services to the “hardest to reach 20 per cent” of the UK. And much of continental Europe and North America is in the same digital boat.

Indeed, according to Connolly, Ireland may be doing quite well in this regard.

“Many other countries are focused on prioritising the high density population centres,” she says. “Ireland is ahead of the curve in many respects in terms of driving forward a consistent level of high-speed connectivity nationwide. Our population density outside of the major urban centres sets us apart from our competitors in many respects meaning our solution had to be different.

“That was innovative thinking in advance of the pandemic. In light of the move to hybrid working, it now increasingly looks like very smart forward thinking. The development of the National Broadband Plan itself was ahead of similar initiatives in many other European countries. Again, it looks increasingly smart and other countries will now be playing catch up.”

And there is a viable alternative to fixed-line broadband in the form of 5G mobile service.

“Fibre is great when you can get it but 5G is most definitely a viable alternative,” says Declan Gaffney, director of Radio Access Networks with Three Ireland. “I am getting speeds of between 500mbps and 800mbps with it. That’s many times the speeds people can get with 4G and as good or better than many fixed line services. Ireland lends itself to wireless connectivity due to our population spread. You can see the challenges National Broadband Ireland is facing trying to get to the last 15 per cent of the population. It’s very hard to do that with a wired network.”

4G service is improving as well. “4G is still the workhorse for data and is what most people are using,” Gaffney notes. “We are seeing very high demand and growth there and we are putting in a huge effort to densify that network. We are pretty much splitting that investment equally between rural and urban areas.”

The greater speeds and other features offered by 5G mean that it will eventually become the service of choice, however.

“People’s data usage is changing,” Gaffney explains. “People are increasingly using streaming services, online chat, video calling, gaming, working from home, running cloud applications and so on. All those things are driving demand. In a home, every family member is doing something different at the same time. We have to support that peak demand. 5G is the future and is beginning to gain traction with customers. We expect growth to continue at the same pace as it is at the moment. We have up to 1,000 5G sites around the country now and 82 per cent population coverage.

“There are probably areas of the country that are underserved, and we are working to identify blackspots. We are constantly seeking to expand and improve the network. 5G broadband is beginning to gain traction with customers.”

Slow burner

He describes 5G as a bit of a slow burner in terms of consumer take-up. “Word of mouth is starting to drive growth,” he notes. “People don’t necessarily understand it and tend to ask friends and family when they are dealing with things like broadband connectivity.

“We are seeing linear growth in areas where somebody tries 5G broadband and tells their friends and neighbours about the experience. 5G is as good if not better than fixed lines. If you think you are on the wrong side of the digital divide, you should look at 5G broadband as an option. Ten years ago, with 3G networks mobile broadband wasn’t at the same level as fixed line connectivity. Now it’s pretty much the same as you can get with fixed.

“5G is definitely a viable option and very often the best one.”

Barry McCall

Barry McCall is a contributor to The Irish Times

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