Siro’s John Keaney: How we can use EU recovery funding to futureproof the economy

Weaknesses in the ecommerce ability of SMEs, inequality in broadband access and gaps in the online delivery of public services must be addressed

Trends in a range of diverse areas such as remote learning and ecommerce have suddenly been supercharged and shortcomings have been revealed. Pic:Getty

The Ireland that emerges from the pandemic will be fundamentally different to the one that entered it.

Trends in a range of diverse areas such as remote learning and ecommerce have suddenly been supercharged and shortcomings have been revealed. Weaknesses in the digital ability of SMEs, inequality in broadband access and gaps in the online delivery of public services need to be addressed to futureproof the economy.

The government is focussed on scaling the vaccination programme, but it must also submit its proposals for the EU’s Covid-19 recovery fund by April 22.

It is expected that the country will receive over €800 million in funding as part of the support mechanism to assist the recovery of member states with it forming a core part of the financing of Ireland’s National Recovery and Resilience Plan (NRRP).

At Siro, we believe that it is vital that monies are ringfenced for a dedicated digital funding programme akin to the annual National Roads Programme.

Governments and businesses right across the world are planning how to build the next normal. Fast-tracking the absorption of digital technologies into all aspects of how we live and work is a priority.

Covid-19 has shown how digitally dependent we are, so the government needs to be thinking of how it will use these funds to lay the foundation to rapidly accelerate digitisation across the public and private sectors, ultimately driving a digital recovery that pays dividends across a range of areas such as boosting productivity, relieving pressure on the housing and rental markets, and environmental and mental health benefits in the form of reduced carbon emissions and commuting times.

We are seeing a surge in demand for our broadband services as the public and the business community looks for a higher standard of connectivity not just to live and work during the current pandemic, but also to plan for an increasingly digital future.

In this regard we believe the following areas should be given consideration for funding if we want to establish a true Gigabit society in Ireland:

– Prioritise making at least 90 per cent of public services available online by the end of 2023. Many existing online public services are not fully digitised. Those merely providing downloadable forms and not accepting electronic signatures are common basic examples where improvements are needed. How is it that in 2021 the CRO still requires a wet signature on company accounts before scanning and uploading the documents? We should aspire to much more and replicate the success of countries such as Estonia and Denmark. In Denmark, for example, every citizen can receive all correspondence digitally from public authorities. Estonia’s e-prescription service means that 99 per cent of all prescriptions in the country are issued electronically, freeing up time for patients and doctors, and reducing administrative strain on the health service.

– New planning and building regulations which mandate connectivity for all new homes is required. Ireland needs both a uniform framework for broadband planning across all local authorities to fast track fibre roll-out and regulations which mandate that all new housing is broadband ready, enabling fibre to be delivered into each new home and social housing must be included.

– We need a digital fitness app for organisations that can allow them to assess how digitally ready their company is and then direct them to toolkits and supports so that they can fortify their digital capacity.

– The government should strengthen partnerships with industry tech leaders to accelerate the roll-out of smart cities. Public-private partnerships between government and industry can increase the speed at which smart city principles are adopted. They can ensure Ireland has the funding and expertise to roll-out smart cities, but within strict governance and data protection principles. This would involve leveraging the Internet of Things to improve a variety of public services such as transport, waste and energy.

– We have to Invest in digital literacy. While many recognise the need for accelerated digitisation of Irish society, there are many groups with lower levels of digital literacy that cannot fully participate in the global digital revolution such as those in disadvantaged communities or those outside of the workplace such as the elderly. Look at how many people recently said “they don’t do online” when the news of Bank of Ireland’s branch closures was announced. It is vital that new services are accessible for everyone by investing in targeted intervention to reach and support people with unmet digital literacy needs.

These are just some examples of how monies from the EU recovery fund could help to rapidly accelerate digitisation across Irish society. The pandemic has quickly revealed how far behind we were lagging, so now it is time to get a head start by using these funds to rebuild and establish Ireland as a global digital leader.

John Keaney is chief executive of Siro. The fibre broadband company is a joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB.