Connectivity’s vital role in future working life of rural communities

Connectivity’s vital role in future working life of rural communities
Irish Examiner editor, Allan Prosser; Alison O’Connor, Irish Examiner columnist, author; Pat McCormack, ICMSA president; Tim Lucey, CEO of Cork County Council; Barry Mulcahy, MSD, Brinny; Kevin Aherne, Sage Restaurant; and Michael Clifford, event MC and Irish Examiner journalist; panellists at Irish Examiner’s ‘Cork County on the Rise’ event at the Fota Island Resort, Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

Delivery on the national broadband plan has a critical role to play in ensuring Ireland retains its reputation as a great place to establish a business.

The speakers at this week’s Irish Examiner ‘County on the Rise’ forum in Fota Island Resort, Little Island, Cork, looked at a range of factors which pointed to the likelihood of Ireland’s economic growth continuing.

Key positives included access to talent, quality third level education and the pro-business policies of successive governments.

One key theme was the role which the evolving nature of employment will play in future rural living. With Dublin at near capacity, multinationals and SMEs alike will continue to look to rural locations, with quality broadband being one of the first boxes to tick.

News that Cork County Council has ambitions to host digital hubs as pilot projects in a number of rural towns was well received by the audience at the Fota event.

Cork County Council CEO, Tim Lucey, referred to funding which has been secured under the Government’s Action Plan for Jobs, for the council’s Rural Digital Innovation Hubs Cork-Empowering Rural Innovation project.

The plan is for rural digital innovation hubs (DIHs) across the council’s eight municipal districts, in areas with a population of less than 10,000. The EU-backed plan is to support regional attributes, such as the potential of west Cork for seafood and fisheries and north and east Cork for food and agri-tech, amongst others.

“Every citizen in Ireland should be able to access broadband,” said Tim Lucey. “There are around 60,000 homes out there that are entirely reliant on the national broadband plan being delivered. We are looking at a project wherein we might invest in a number of digital hubs which would serve 1-Gigabit or more broadband, but it does require investment.

We are trying to secure European funding to support those hubs. If you want to attract companies from abroad, broadband access is very important. We are keen and we are out in the market trying to start that process.

This ambition was welcomed by Adrienne Harrington, CEO of the Ludgate digital hub in Skibbereen, launched in 2016 and now home to 58 full-time members, with 12 hot-desking spaces available for less regular users.

Skibbereen is Ireland’s first 1GB town, selected as a pilot town by SIRO, a joint venture company between ESB and Vodafone to deliver a 100% fibre-to-the-building broadband network.

Before this development, Skibbereen was like many rural towns, with very low level broadband, and some areas having no fibre connection. The initiative has transformed life in the town. The digital rejuvenation of rural towns does, however, need to be accompanied by investment in roads and other key infrastructure if people are to move to live and work in rural locations.

“The concern is that creating a lot of rural jobs will result in increased commuting,” said Adrienne Harrington. “My car journey this morning took me one hour and 45 minutes to come up from Ballydehob to Fota.

Vodafone’s research has shown that there are currently around 43,000 people commuting to Cork city every morning. There are investment challenges facing central government if it wants to make rural work more attractive.

Ms Harrington welcomed Cork County Council’s suggestion for more digital hubs in rural locations. She also said that more and more employers are also looking at what they can do to make remote working options more viable.

Barry Mulcahy, plant manager, MSD, said the Brinny plant is highly interconnected, with quality broadband that does facilitate colleagues who work remotely. The #CorkCountyOnTheRise discussion also tipped on future work topics such as work-life balance, including possible options around a four-day working week.

“If someone could tell me how a four-day week would work in farming, I’d be delighted to hear more about it,” said Pat McCormack, president of the dairy farmer group ICMSA. “If you are in farming, you live where you work, so access to good quality broadband is very important.

“Just like any other business, digital hubs would be a welcome improvement for farmers in terms of online calf registrations or filing single farm payment applications.

“The national broadband plan was promised in my predecessor’s time. There will likely be a general election within the next six to nine months, so there will probably be a greater focus on Brexit outcomes and other pressing concerns.”

In terms of providing infrastructure to support rural economies, Mr McCormack highlighted farming as still being the single biggest generator of shared wealth for rural communities.

He cited the example of Cork’s dairy sector, home to 370,000 dairy cows. At an average herd size of 85 cows, that translates to 4,500 dairy farmers in the county.

The two billion litres of milk they produced in 2019 were worth between €675m to €700m to the local economy, a conservative figure based on a 30c per litre farm gate price, which would be higher with solids included, and definitely higher given that the four West Cork co-ops feeding into the Carbery plant consistently pay their farmers the highest price in the country.

“Any companies setting up in rural locations want to be part of a community,” said Mr McCormack.

They’ll want to see active GAA clubs, schools and community halls. A strong agriculture sector is vital if you want to maintain vibrant rural communities.

“No one wants to come out and live in the sticks only to find that they have no neighbours. Kevin Aherne [fellow panel speaker, owner and head chef of Sage Restaurant, Midleton] was right to highlight the importance of locally sourced food; that’s also very important to people.”

- More on Cork County On The Rise can be found here

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