Why Broadband is so Important – Insights on the Digital Economy

Insights from the Digital Economy Conference, May 2016

The Digital Economy Now

The WDC has consistently argued for improved broadband infrastructure and services for the Western Region and indeed all rural areas. The WDC believe that broadband is the single most important infrastructure priority and has advocated investment in next generation broadband over the last few years in various reports, submissions and blog posts.

A conference in Dublin earlier this month provided a useful reminder – beyond Netflix and Youtube – of why broadband services are so important and will become even more so. Organised by Eolas, the conference highlighted the potential of the Digital Economy both in terms of the applications that are and will be available, as well as other countries’ experiences.

Digital Engagement

Some notable highlights included a presentation by the chief digital adviser to the Irish Government, Dr. Stephen Brennan who outlined the Government’s National Digital Strategy. This is aimed at facilitating citizens to get online and he cited some interesting facts, for example;

  • While 75% of the population uses the internet daily, 65% are concerned about data privacy. This is one of the key challenges of the Digital Economy (and Society), where digital communications is so pervasive but there is also widespread concern about the uses to which data is put.
  • 45% of those over 50+ years of age are online daily, again demonstrating how pervasive digital communication is, but also how important it is as a method of communication and that the various barriers to access; lack of broadband, access to devices and lack of technical know-how/ skills, are overcome.
  • Another interesting finding is that 9% of adults run a business from home and close to 2 in 5, 39% of the population, do some work at home. This highlights the importance of adequate telecommunications infrastructure at home, so as to enable self-employment and home-working on a frequent basis. The WDC is examining eworking/ teleworking, the extent to which it is occurring and the policy implications (forthcoming).

Dr. Brennan also highlighted the benefits of the Government’s Trading on-Line scheme which has supported over 4,000 participants and issued over 2,000 Trading Online vouchers, supporting small businesses to develop their online presence. This has led to a 20%+ increase in sales.

Lessons from Norway

There was a particularly interesting presentation on Digital Government in Norway. Heather Broomfield, a Senior Adviser to the Norwegian Agency for Public Management and eGovernment (Difi) outlined the progress of the Digital Economy in the Norwegian public sector.

Norway is not dissimilar to Ireland in that it has a population of 5 million people, yet digital engagement by the average citizen is much more widespread than in Ireland. This is despite its geography which is not conducive to high speed fixed line broadband deployment. Norway has a very long coastline, extending into the Arctic circle and is very mountainous.  Norway has a very low population density, with 13 persons per km2, compared to Ireland’s 65 km2. It is also interesting that much economic activity is dispersed and located around the coastline, with oil and gas exploration important sectors as well as the fishing industry.

Another important difference between Norway and Ireland is the greater degree of decentralisation in Norway which devolves power to 19 counties composed of 422 Municipalities.

In Norway in 2014 there were 38.8 fixed broadband subscriptions (per 100 people), compared to Ireland’s 26.9%. Close to 90% of Norwegians access the internet daily and there is very extensive online engagement with public services. For example, over 80% of individuals interacted online with the public authorities in the last year, compared to a European average of just over 40%.

Digital Inclusion

The importance of good design in promoting online engagement was highlighted by Dónal Rice of the National Disability Authority. In a survey it was found that 42% do not use or have difficulties engaging with public sector websites. Key factors are age and disability with the survey showing that persons with disabilities are three times more likely to encounter difficulties using public sector websites. However if basic good design is used in creating websites it can help ensure more efficient service delivery with more citizens self-serving online compared to queries by phone.

Another example of online service delivery promoting inclusion are some of the services delivered by Local Government.  Ruth Buckley, Head of ICT and Business Services at Cork City Council highlighted some new developments including a new online service for those on the housing list, where they can search online themselves for appropriate properties. Another innovation is the operation of litter management services which are now done electronically. This has been more effective in identifying offenders as well as significantly reducing the administrative burden.

Of particular interest is the extent of innovation occuring at individual local authority level in online service delivery, but more importantly the extent of collaboration and sharing of ideas across Local Authorities.

Michael Bunyan, from the Department of Social Protection outlined some significant developments in the delivery of public services. The Department of Social Protection is one of the largest Government Departments, engaging with most citizens at one point or another. It is also widely located with 400 locations across the country. The rollout of a new smartcard, the Public Services Card was described as well as the development of MyGovID which is designed to provide safer, simpler and faster access to multiple government services. Both of these initiatives are in the early stages of rollout.

In Autumn 2015, the Department of Social Protection was tasked with administering delivery of the Water Conservation Grant to individual households on behalf of the Department of the Environment. There was a very short timeline and online communication was a key delivery channel. Of nearly 900,000 applications, 77% were made online, with the remaining 23% by phone. There were no ‘paper’ based applications. The grant payment was mostly paid electronically, with 85% of payment by electronic fund transfer, and the remaining 15% by cheque. The extent of online engagement illustrates that this is now the communication method of choice.

The potential for delivery of health care using online access was described by Prof. Neil O’Hare, of St James’s Hospital. The ability to access online health records can provide for more effective delivery of health care as well as giving individuals greater ownership of their records. This can reduce the administrative burden as well as reduced costs for filing space in cramped hospitals! There are various developments across the health sector developing more efficient delivery across Ireland but the need for improved rural broadband now was emphasised by Prof. O’ Hare.

Conclusions

The conference highlighted that there are huge potential savings and benefits to be realised via online engagement and service delivery. This will benefit all who have access. The widespread deployment of  next generation broadband as well as supports for those who find online engagement challenging are needed so as to ensure these savings and benefits can be realised by all. The Norwegian case study clearly demonstrates that very low population density and difficult geographic terrain are not significant barriers to effective high speed broadband deployment and large scale online citizen engagement.

Deirdre Frost