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New WDC Publication: WDC Policy Briefing No.7 e-Working in the Western Region: A Review of the Evidence

The Western Development Commission (WDC) has published its latest Policy Briefing WDC Policy Briefing No.7 e-Working in the Western Region: A Review of the Evidence, which is now available for download at the following link here.

e-Work is a method of working using information and communication technology in which the work is not bound to any particular location. Traditionally this has been understood as working remotely from the office, usually from home, whether full-time or for a period during the working week. e-Working can provide particular opportunities in regions like the Western Region where many are living some distance from key employment centres.

The WDC Policy Briefing, which includes case studies from companies and individuals, examines:

  • The extent of e-Working.
  • The way in which weaker broadband access in more rural locations impacts on the rate of e-Working.
  • Factors driving e-Work.
  • Recommendations on how e-Working can be further promoted.

This Policy Briefing shows that e-Working is a widespread practice but somewhat hidden from official statistics. It also shows that while there is demand for greater e-working, broadband speeds need to be improved.

The WDC Policy Briefing contains recommendations to support more e-Working, including priority rollout of the National Broadband Plan to those counties with the lowest broadband speeds. Additional case studies are also available for download from here.

Deirdre Frost

2017 – A very important year for Broadband and the National Broadband Plan

2017 – Contract Signing and Build Commencement

2017 is the year when contracts are to be awarded to one or two telecommunications companies to rollout a high speed broadband network as part of the much awaited National Broadband Plan.

For those companies and citizens across regional and rural Ireland trying to operate with very basic broadband services, this is a really important milestone. Not only will it signal the start of an actual physical build out of the network, it will also provide some reassurance that Government policy is actually starting to deliver.

It had been expected that contracts would be signed in June 2017, though late last year the bidders (there are three), indicated they may need more time to prepare their bids. See Dáil Q&A.

Notwithstanding the scale of the project and process, the bidders have had years to prepare for this bid and it is imperative that contracts are awarded and the build commences. Rural businesses have had to endure poor services for too long and in a global marketplace where online connectivity is a basic pre-requisite, rural businesses have to work harder than their urban counterparts to stay in business. Recent research highlights the significance of broadband infrastructure compared to other infrastructure in supporting local enterprises and their development.

Report of the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce

In the meantime, just before Christmas 2016, the Report of the Mobile Phone and Broadband Taskforce was published. This report seeks to address the gaps in the current delivery of telecoms infrastructure and is focused more on addressing improvements in the short term, in addition and separate to the National Broadband Plan which is over a longer time frame.

This is a very welcome initiative, not least because there is a lot of dissatisfaction with mobile phone coverage, especially in rural areas. Also, anything that can ‘fill gaps’ in existing broadband provision should be progressed, as even when contracts for the NBP are signed, some will be waiting years for the planned new broadband infrastructure.

There are 40 actions aimed at assisting the rollout of mobile services and high speed broadband, to homes and businesses. These include measures to streamline planning procedures for telecoms infrastructure, actions to build out new ducting along the M7/M8, and measures to help consumers directly.

Key actions include:

  • The Department of Communications, Climate Action & Environment will work with telecoms operators and ComReg (Commission for Communication Regulation) to identify mobile blackspots and come up with measures to address these blackspots.
  • All local authorities are to assign a Broadband officer who will act as a single point of contact for engagement with telecommunications operators building out infrastructure.
  • ComReg will develop and publish a new network coverage map, and develop a testing regime to measure the performance of mobile phone handsets which will help people to make informed choices on products and services they purchase.
  • There will be a new licensing regime to allow people to install high quality signal repeaters on their buildings – homes and businesses, which will boost their connectivity.
  • Work on building 95km of duct along the M7 / M8 Motorway, which will complete the ducting on the Cork-Dublin route is being undertaken by Transport infrastructure Ireland.
  • From Q1, 2017, all Local Authorities will apply waivers in respect of development contributions for telecoms infrastructure developments.
  • Other key actions include the review and updating of the relevant statutory planning guidelines to ensure consistency by local authorities, and the introduction of an online system to streamline the planning application process.

Spectrum Developments

  • ComReg expects to allocate spectrum in the 3.6GHz band in 2017. This will release an additional 86% of spectrum capacity, allowing fixed wireless and mobile operators to deliver services.
  • It is expected that by 2020 the 700MHz spectrum band is to be made available for use by the telecoms sector which will be particularly important in rural areas.

Finally, there is to be an Implementation Group established which is to drive and monitor the implementation of these actions.

 

For rural users, in the Western Region and across the country, lets hope 2017 will see delivery of these actions, that NBP contracts are awarded and the building of the National Broadband Plan Network commences.

Deirdre Frost

E-Work and New ‘Work’

In a previous blog post, E-Working – what are the trends? I examined the data available on e-work, also termed tele-working. Much of the data, especially the trend data available from the Census, only measures those workers who work ‘mainly at or from home’ and as discussed this only captures a small element of the workforce which we know, frequently work from home.

Capturing the extent to which people e-work is related to how the question is phrased; so for example if the Census question was changed, to ask whether a person worked on one or even a ½ day per week basis, it is likely to significantly increase the number reporting that they are e-workers.

Rural E-working

A recent report commissioned by Vodafone and conducted by Amárach Research, Connected Futures (3.8MB) examined the extent to which broadband has influenced those working in rural Ireland. The research found that nearly one in four broadband users in rural Ireland uses the internet at home in relation to their work (about 430,000 people). Among those remotely accessing work from home, most use the internet to check email and organise their work diary. Nearly half use the internet at home to work on reports and presentations. These e-workers report that with internet access, they can avoid commuting to work, which the research indicates typically occurs about two days a week.

Entirely Home-based E-work

The use of communications technology and more importantly its widespread availability at home has allowed new forms of work to emerge.

An early use of home-based working which is conditional on the availability of a minimum level of broadband speed has been the outsourcing of work where the employee is entirely home-based. For example Amazon and Apple were reported as requiring applicants to have a minimum 5Mbps download speed for home based customer support jobs. This and the need for universal high speed broadband is discussed in the WDC Report, Connecting the West, Next Generation Broadband in the Western Region (Low Res 1.5Mb).

Enforced Flexibility

A new report, published last week by TASC, Enforced Flexibility? Working in Ireland Today, (609kb) discusses an emerging practice where employees work entirely from home, though not by employee choice. For at least one of the high tech multinationals an emerging practice is to place some of their customer service workers in their own homes.  While traditionally the choice to work from home was perceived as a positive option, in this case the decision was made by the organisation rather than the individual: it was not an option as there was no possibility of working in an office. (p.62).

E-working has generally been considered in a positive light from the employee perspective, enabling more flexibility in working hours which can be more family friendly, reduced commuting time as well as fuel and carbon savings. However the TASC report notes that e-working which is wholly and entirely conducted from home, without the option of working in an office may not offer the same degree of flexibility. Constantly online during their shifts they were subject to the same tight supervision as those based in a traditional call centre environment. While it is difficult to establish what proportion of customer service workers now work in this way, there is evidence that the numbers are growing (p.62). In some instances these employees are self-employed contractors even though they are entirely contracted to the one employer.

The ‘Gig economy’

Measuring the extent of e-work is further complicated by the changing nature of work. The evolution of communications technology which has enabled the increased possibility of e-work, has evolved even further to allow new forms of ‘work’ to emerge.

Broadband and online platforms have allowed the development of new types of work and service delivery variously termed the ‘gig economy’, ‘sharing economy’, ‘crowd working’ and ‘uberisation’. Previously ‘gigs’ were how musicians earned a living, now the ‘gig economy’ includes all those who rent out their property, possessions or services for a fee, all of which is managed online!

The ‘gig economy’ is another form of e-work as it relies on electronic communication, though with the increasing use and availability of smartphones and mobile broadband this type of e-work is often less tied to a fixed location, whether this is at home or elsewhere. The ‘gig economy’ can also be seen as entrepreneurial, allowing individuals to initiate a process of selling goods or services and increasing the potential for self-employment.

Much of this type of work and service delivery is likely to be more developed in large urban centres, with significant critical mass. So far, within Ireland, Uber is just in Dublin and Cork – though the IDA announced a significant jobs announcement by Uber  in Limerick earlier this year.

However while parts of the ‘gig economy’ are urban driven, it is by no means exclusive to it. Airbnb can operate anywhere and maybe very popular in more rural areas with more limited supply, especially in high season.

As a type of employment, the ‘gig economy’ has raised questions about workers’ rights and protections such as guaranteed income, health care and pensions. Hillary Clinton, US Presidential candidate, when outlining her economic plan noted, This on-demand, or so called gig economy is creating exciting economies and unleashing innovation. But it is also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.

Evidence of the ‘Gig Economy’

To what extent the ‘gig economy’ is changing the nature of work is not clear. Some argue that while more are choosing to earn income from this ‘gig economy’, it is not clear whether this is in the absence of another job or to supplement existing paid employment?

Research undertaken by the University of Hertfordshire has tried to quantify the extent of the ‘gig economy’ in both the UK and Sweden.

The research found that in the UK around 5 million people are engaged in the ‘gig economy’. In the UK online survey 21% say they have tried to find work managed via so called ‘sharing economy’ platforms such as Upwork, Uber or Handy during the past year, equivalent to around 9 million people or almost one fifth of the adult population. Around 1 in 10 (11%) of respondents said they had succeeded in doing so, equivalent to around 4.9 million people.

Almost a quarter (24%) of UK women responding to the survey claim to have sought work via online platforms, and one third (33%) of 25-34 year olds.

3% of respondents claim to find paid work via online platforms at least once a week, equivalent to around 1.3 million adults, with 4%, or around 1.8 million finding work at least once a month.

Main source of income or a supplement?

A quarter of all those workers in the ‘gig economy’ say they rely on this income as their sole or main source of income.

Only 10% of those workers in the ‘gig economy’ were students, a proportion that dropped to 6% among those working in the ‘gig economy’ weekly. This is in line with the general proportion of students in the adult population of the UK (at around 8%).

The range of work is extremely broad, from high-skill professional work at one extreme to running errands at the other. The most common type of work, undertaken by more than two thirds is office work, short tasks and ‘click work’ done online. However a significant proportion are doing professional work, creative work, providing taxi services or a range of other services in people’s homes.

Where is the ‘Gig economy’?

From a geographic perspective, the largest numbers are in England with one in five based in London, just under a quarter each in the South, the Midlands and the North with 7% in Scotland and 3% in Wales. This reflects the general distribution of the UK population.

The Swedish online survey found a similar pattern to the UK survey. In Sweden 12% are working in the so-called ‘sharing economy’ for platforms such as Upwork, Uber or Skjutsgruppen, equivalent to around 737,000 people. Twice as many people (24%) used such sites in the hope of finding work – equivalent to almost a quarter of the working age population.

Conclusions

E-work can describe a variety of employment types ranging from ‘traditional work’ conducted at home or on the move, through to occasional engagement in online activity to generate additional income.

This can include a traditional employment relationship between an employee and an employer with the employee working from home possibly one or two days per week. It can also include the ‘new’ types of work and service delivery associated with the gig economy’, where people are often self-employed.

E-working of all types and the more recent growth in online platforms which has enabled new forms of income generation are all dependent on the widespread availability of broadband. The research to-date indicates that this type of employment and income generation is a very significant and growing element of the economy and labour market. The evidence cited from rural areas suggest that online participation for work is as prevalent, if not more so than in urban areas. This reinforces the need for the universal availability of quality broadband, another reason for the speedy rollout of the Government’s National Broadband Plan.

Deirdre Frost

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

E-Working – what are the trends?

E-work or electronic working, also referred to as teleworking, are terms used to describe work which uses communications technology to work remotely from the office location.

With the widespread rollout of broadband services it might be expected that e-working is becoming more common. Is e-work more prevalent in urban or rural areas? To what extent does weaker broadband access in more rural locations impact on the rate of e-working? What are the other factors driving e-work?

What does the data say?

The evidence on e-working in Ireland is limited and complicated by different definitions.

Time series data is available from the Census and the most recent data available is from 2011. The 2011 Census asks whether one ‘works mainly at or from home’. Trend data shows that the level and share of those working mainly at or from home is in decline, as the chart below shows.

Chart 1. Population at work, population working mainly at or from home and share of working population working mainly at or from home

E-working trends

Source: CSO Census of Population: Statbank Interactive tables

In 1986 17.2% of workers were reported as working at or mainly from home and this had declined to 4.7% in 2011. However this includes those engaged in agricultural employment and the decline in numbers engaged in this sector would largely explain the overall decline.

In 2002, the CSO carried out a special survey on Teleworking, which examined the profile of teleworkers in Ireland across a range of characteristics. It distinguished between (1) those who work from home and (2) those who work from home and use a computer and (3) those who work from home and need a computer with a telecommunications link, this latter group are defined as teleworkers. This survey found that nationally 2.3% of those in employment were classed as teleworkers. It should be noted that these data exclude workers in the Agriculture, forestry and fishing sector.

More recently a survey conducted by UPC (3.41 MB) in 2014 found that 47% of Irish employees use the internet at home in relation to work, up from 45% in 2012.

Regional differences

There are regional differences recorded, for example in the CSO 2002 survey the Mid-East region recording the highest rate at 2.9%. This is followed by Dublin with 2.7% of those in employment classed as teleworkers. Commuting to Dublin is likely to be an important driver explaining the higher rate in the Mid-East. The lowest rate of teleworking was recorded in the Mid-West with a rate of 1.5% of all in employment classified as teleworking. The West region, comprising largely rural counties of Mayo, Roscommon and Galway, recorded a rate of 2.2% teleworkers as a percentage of those in employment, higher than might be expected if access to quality broadband was a key driver.

More questions than answers

The difference in e-working levels reported – from 2.3% in the CSO 2002 survey through to 47% employees from the UPC 2014 survey raise further questions. Definitional differences no doubt explain some of the difference, though it is also likely that excluding Agriculture, the trend is may be upward, as evidenced by the UPC findings.

The 2016 Census figures should be available next year and it will be interesting to identify trends, especially since the return to employment growth. In the meantime further analysis of Census 2011 data is planned, examining occupational, sectoral and regional differences.

Other aspects to be examined in forthcoming work by the WDC include positive benefits that can accrue from more e-working such as carbon savings through lower transport emissions, more family friendly working and greater opportunities for employment creation and retention in more rural locations.

 

Deirdre Frost

 

Image source:www.alliedworldwide.com

 


High Speed Broadband Deployment: Capital Investment, Rural Areas and the Minimum Standard

One of the most significant commitments for regional and rural areas in the Capital Investment Plan (Building on Recovery, Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021) was the allocation of €275 million for the National Broadband Plan. This is the Government Plan which aims to rollout high speed broadband to every resident in the country. The €275 million is ‘an initial stimulus’ and the Government plan is also to benefit from the private sector funding as well as some EU funding.

 

The WDC welcomes this investment allocation and the steady (if belated) progress towards the rollout of the National Broadband Plan.

 

Recently, the Department of Communications issued a Consultation seeking views on the planned rollout. One of the most positive aspects is the second principle of the proposed Strategy (p12) ‘to conclusively address connectivity deficits across Ireland’.

 

For those of us in rural and regional Ireland, the prospect of ‘conclusively’ addressing our broadband needs, rather than constantly playing ‘catch-up’ with inadequate services is to be welcomed.

 

Conclusively addressing our broadband needs is to be achieved ‘by setting down minimum speeds and delivering an infrastructure that is capable of meeting current and future demands for bandwidth’. Setting down a minimum speed is a marked improvement on the previous practice of using ‘up to’ headline speeds, which in many cases were not achievable, as the speeds are compromised by the number of users (contention) at any one time.

 

So far, so good. The minimum download speed is set at 30Mbps download which currently or maybe even in five years’ time seems more than adequate. But the contract for delivery of high speed services will be for twenty years and the infrastructure being deployed is set to deliver broadband services for potentially 30 to 50 years! The broadband rollout is often compared to rural electrification and this infrastructure is still serving its original purpose over 60 years later!

 

If we are to have learned anything from the development of Information and Communications Technology and the expansion of the Internet, it should be that the minimum acceptable speed is changing all the time and the demand for bandwidth is growing all the time. Therefore to choose a minimum speed which would apply now and also in 20 years’ time seems like a big mistake.

 

What was deemed a minimum standard ten years ago would not be considered acceptable now. There is a general trend of raising the threshold of the broadband definition as higher data rate services become available, so for example in 2002 the communications regulator defined the minimum threshold for broadband as 512kbit/s (ODTR Report 02/79). In 2010 the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defined ‘Basic Broadband’ as data transmission speeds of at least 4Mbps downstream. The issue of multiple users in the same premises and unforeseen applications compounds this issue even more.

 

With this in mind the WDC considers that 6Mbps upload and 30 Mbps download seems low as a minimum standard to apply for the next 20 years. Of course it is not reasonable to define a minimum acceptable speed which would apply now and in 20 years’ time (though this is planned as part of the Strategy).

 

We should build in a mechanism in the contract that the minimum standard be reviewed and revised as necessary. In order to ensure that minimum speeds are acceptable, there needs to be a recognition that the minimum acceptable speed will change over the contract period.

 

The WDC in its Submission to the Consultation suggests that one option would be to review the basic minimum standard, for both up and download speeds, every 5 years (or more frequently depending on technological change and demand requirements) and raise the minimum standard accordingly. How this would be done and by whom is another question. However if we can benchmark prices to ensure that broadband services in rural areas are affordable, it should be possible to benchmark minimum acceptable speeds.

 

‘Delivering an infrastructure that is capable of meeting current and future demands for bandwidth’ is one element which can help ensure ‘that we conclusively address our broadband needs’. The other key element required is having ongoing acceptable minimum speeds. While minimum speeds will rarely be a concern for the urban user or in areas served by several operators, previous experience of broadband service delivery in rural areas, especially where there is limited competition, suggests that operators need to be obliged to deliver services to a certain standard. Therefore an acceptable minimum standard is hugely critical and will remain so for rural citizens living in areas with limited competition.

 

Deirdre Frost

 

Next Generation Broadband Deployment – Lessons from Australia

As the Department for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in Ireland prepares the National Broadband Plan Intervention Strategy, it is useful to consider some lessons which can be learned from elsewhere. The experience of Australia is instructive, in part illustrating some of the pitfalls.

  1. Ambitious targets with ambitious deadlines

In 2009 the Australian Government announced an ambitious programme to deliver fibre to the premises (FTTP) to 93% of Australian premises (residential and commercial). This was a very ambitious target given the country’s very low population density (3% compared to Ireland’s 67%). The remaining 7% of the population, in the very remote parts of Australia, were to be served by satellite and wireless technologies.

The original deadline for completion was within six years (2015). By the end of 2013 just 3% of premises were connected.

Following an extensive review in late 2013, a change in direction and new targets were announced[1].

  • Instead of 93% FTTP, it is more likely to be 22% FTTP, the exact technology (and therefore the actual %) will be determined on area basis.
  • Fibre to the node (FTTN) to 71% approximately of premises, with the remaining 4% and 3% fixed wireless and satellite respectively.
  • Lower speeds (50Mbps rather than 100+ Mbps download) resulting from the higher rate of FTTN connection rather than FTTP.
  1. Increasing costs – to the exchequer

The original plan in 2009, was forecast to cost AUD $44 billion (Australian dollars). In 2013, the estimated cost increased to AUD $73 billion – 65% greater than the original forecast.

  1. Higher costs – to the consumer

There is concern that the retail costs will be much higher than the cost of services currently available, estimated at an extra AUD $43 per month[2]. This will influence the take-up of next generation services. Broadband is now accepted as a basic utility and access to it is considered necessary for participation in society and the economy. However as the recent water protests in Ireland demonstrate, basic utilities should not be expensive. The concept of ‘Willingness to Pay’ is a key element of the pricing structure.

From an Irish perspective, it will be interesting to see from the trials of next generation broadband (in Cavan and Mayo for example), to what extent consumers will revert to a basic service at a cheaper price rather than paying extra for a premium product. It is also likely that the consumers in the pilot areas will be more receptive to paying for a premium service which they currently access, compared to those yet to experience the benefits of the premium next generation service.

  1. What are consumers looking for?

There is a declining value to additional broadband speeds. Part of the Australian review included an assessment of the growth in demand for faster broadband speeds. A key finding is that while the Willingness to Pay for speed may grow rapidly at low speeds (less than  40 Mbps download), for most people the Willingness to Pay is not expected to grow at all for high speeds (greater than 50 Mbps)[3].

A related finding is that consumers would prefer an increase to their current speeds quickly, rather than to wait longer to gain a higher level of speed. The Australian Government are now looking at prioritising delivery to those areas which are poorly served and this is consistent with the findings of the Independent Review. http://www.nbnco.com.au/content/dam/nbnco2/documents/soe-shareholder-minister-letter.pdf.

In an Irish context an increase in speed for example from 5Mbps to 10 Mbps is worth more to consumers than an increase from 20Mbps to 25Mbps. The Australian experience also suggests it would be preferable to rollout delivery to those areas with poor and inadequate broadband first.

  1. Don’t play politics with important infrastructure

In Australia, the different ruling parties have taken different policy positions on the rollout of next generation broadband. A change of Government can (and has in Australia) led to a change in policy on delivery and this can create huge uncertainly for investors as well as consumers. Given the scale of investment, the deployment of next generation broadband will generally take many years and beyond the lifetime of one Government. It is therefore important that Government policy is well considered and implemented consistently and not compromised by the electoral cycle.

Deirdre Frost

[1] https://www.communications.gov.au/sites/g/files/net301/f/Cost-Benefit_Analysis_-_FINAL_-_For_Publication.pdf, http://spectrum.ieee.org/telecom/internet/the-rise-and-fall-of-australias-44-billion-broadband-project/

[2] https://www.communications.gov.au/sites/g/files/net301/f/Final_Ministerial_Statement.pdf

[3]  p. 16 https://www.communications.gov.au/sites/g/files/net301/f/Cost-Benefit_Analysis_-_FINAL_-_For_Publication.pdf

Next Generation Rural Broadband – When and How Much?

On the 11th May, WDC attended the official launch, by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny T.D. and Ministers for Communications and Rural Affairs, of eircom’s Fibre To The Home (FTTH) rural broadband trial in Belcarra, County Mayo. This trial offers broadband speeds of up to 1Gb/s (1,000Mb/s) to rural residents and businesses and demonstrates the value of a fibre to the premises solution.

This is a far cry from the very basic broadband service which was made available under the State supported National Broadband Scheme (NBS) which in theory delivered up to 10Mb/s, but for most users, much less than this.

For most rural residents still trying to survive with basic, intermittent and inadequate broadband speeds, the announcement of a service delivering 1,000Mb/s in a rural area, must seem both frustrating and promising at the same time.

The Government have committed to a basic minimum of 30 Mb/s to all citizens under the National Broadband Plan. However rollout under this state funded scheme has yet to start, with the competition to award the tender to the successful applicant(s) yet to take place. Rollout will not commence until 2016, and all citizens are to be served by 2020.

A few days later, an Taoiseach and Minister for Communications unveiled another fibre to the building project, this time through the joint venture between ESB and Vodafone, called Siro. Siro aims to be Ireland’s first 100% fibre-to-the-building broadband network. This will focus on delivering fibre to the home to fifty regional towns across Ireland.

While both eircom and ESB/Vodafone are making commercial investments in fibre based solutions to urban centres, they are both positioning themselves as the preferred bidder to deliver on the planned Government funded National Broadband Plan to rural areas which will deliver the minimum speed of 30 Mb/s.

These announcements raise interesting questions for the Government funded scheme. While 30 Mb/s is the minimum target for all users, the pilot demonstrates that technically 1,000 MB/s can be delivered to very rural communities. The fibre to the home rural pilot raises the bar as to what speeds might be possible in rural areas. However these will not be commercially funded services and will require state support. The cost of such a fibre based solution and how much will be borne by the state is not clear.

The WDC welcome the developments delivering fibre based solutions to regional and rural locations. However key questions for users have yet to be answered such as when exactly will it be delivered? What speeds are likely to be available in rural areas (it is recognised that 30Mb/s is the minimum) and how much will it cost to fund?

Until the new services are delivered, businesses and citizens will continue to work with inadequate broadband, frustrated in their capacity to communicate with clients and suppliers alike and hampered in their ability to access online services. The priority now is to start rollout under the state funded scheme as soon as possible.

Deirdre Frost

WDC presents on Creative Economy to JOC

The WDC was invited to present to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation on its work in developing the Creative Economy. On Tuesday 21 April, the WDC as well as NUI Galway, Teagasc, the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland and TG4 presented on the potential for job creation, innovation and balanced economic development in the creative sector.

The WDC has worked with this sector since 2008. At that time, after the collapse of the building sector and its knock-on impacts across the domestic economy, there was a clear need to identify and support new sources of regional economic growth and job creation. The creative industries sector was in many ways an obvious choice for the region as it is mainly made up of self-employed or micro-enterprises with people quite embedded in their local area. The sector was showing strong growth internationally and could create jobs and contribute to tourism, including in rural areas.

As there was little research in Ireland at the time, the WDC commissioned Creative Sector Baseline Report 2008 (PDF 2.5MB) to investigate the size and nature of the region’s creative sector and to identify its key issues. The Creative West 2009 (PDF 1.9MB) report found that there were 4,800 businesses in the creative sector in the Western Region, employing 11,000 people and generating €534m in annual turnover, directly contributing €270m to the Gross Value Added of the regional economy.   There was limited export activity however with two-thirds not engaged in any exporting. The majority of those in the sector were self-employed with 40% working alone and almost 90% being micro-enterprises.

Quality of life and inspiration from the region’s landscape and culture were among the strongest motivators for creative people to live and work in the Western Region. They faced a number of constraints however that can be addressed by policy and enterprise supports. Chief among these are high bandwidth broadband for creative enterprises operating in rural areas, difficulties in finding and recruiting specific skills, and quite limited networking with others in the sector and wider business community.   Creative businesses often do not fit easily into the eligibility criteria for enterprise funding and may find it difficult to access finance.

The report set out a series of recommendations for developing the sector in the region which have formed the basis of the WDC’s activities to support the sector. Under Creative Edge  (a €1.2m transnational EU-funded project, 2011-2013) the WDC developed the MyCreativeEdge.eu website to provide an online showcase for creative enterprises, with over 550 now profiled on the site. The new 3-year, €2m Creative Momentum project will further develop new routes to export markets for creative enterprises, as well as providing international networking opportunities with creative enterprises from Northern Ireland, Iceland, Sweden and Finland. The WDC Micro-Loan Fund: Creative Industries  provides loans of €5,000-€25,000 to creative enterprises and to date has funded 12 creative enterprises across the Western Region.

Nationally the Action Plan for Jobs identified the creative sector as one of the key sectoral opportunities for economic growth and job creation in Ireland. As the new Action Plan for Jobs – Regional process develops, it is important that the potential of the creative industries to contribute to sustainable job creation and enterprise growth at a regional level be recognised and the sector supported. Under the Creative Edge project the Whitaker Institute at NUI Galway developed the Creative Edge Policy Toolkit which set out a number of recommendations on policy actions that could be taken to support the sector’s growth. This could provide a useful input.

The Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA)  has also identified creative industries as a key growth sector for rural economic diversification and recommended the development of a coordinated strategy for the sector that places specific focus on its potential to contribute to the rural economy. Such a coordinated strategy however needs to be worked out through sector-specific policies and actions in the areas of enterprise support, job creation, culture, skills development and regional economic development to make a meaningful contribution.

A full transcript of the discussion at the JOC can be found here

Pauline White

Rural Broadband – RTE’s Morning Edition

Deirdre Frost, WDC was interviewed by Keelin Shanley on RTE Television’s Morning Edition programme for a story on Rural Broadband and the Government’s plans for Next Generation broadband rollout.

The programme featured Minister White, explaining the process and timeline for the rollout of quality broadband to rural areas. The segment was aired on Monday 22nd September 2014.

You can watch the segment here at 1hour 25 mins into the programme http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/show/10326333/ (available until 13 October).

The WDC has published various reports on rural broadband, with its most recent publication arguing the case for Next Generation Broadband rollout to Rural Areas.

Connecting-the-West-report-cover-dec12Connecting the West: Next Generation Broadband in the Western Region is available for download here

Deirdre Frost