As communities across Ireland have adapted to a world increasingly shaped by COVID-19, we have all seen first-hand how important broadband connectivity and access to technology have become. From enabling remote working and learning, to rolling out virtual social services and accelerating the shift to ecommerce, a fast and reliable internet connection is underpinning our future economy and society.
Those without access to this online world risk falling behind. This has been recognised by Government who have prioritised the delivery of the National Broadband Plan. However, with one in ten households in Ireland lacking a basic connection to the internet and three in ten houses in the Midlands and Border regions having no access to fixed broadband, innovative solutions will be required for those in hard-to-reach places.
That’s why two years ago Microsoft Ireland launched its first Airband pilot project in Cavan. Developed in partnership with the Government’s farming advisory body, Teagasc, the Airband initiative uses TV White Space (TVWS) technology to bring broadband connectivity to rural or underserved areas.
TVWS is unassigned broadcast spectrum that travels over long distances, can easily overcome natural and manmade obstacles, and, most importantly, is in abundance in rural areas. Net1 worked alongside Microsoft to manage the installation and deployment of the pilot.
As one of the first Airband projects deploying TVWS technology in Europe, Ireland is at the fore in developing innovative new solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing public policy makers.
As Ireland increasingly becomes a digital society, Microsoft is passionate about ensuring no citizen or community is left behind. Our pilot project in Cavan is evidence of this commitment. With advancements in technology comes a responsibility on the part of Government and industry to ensure equal access to high-speed, reliable Internet access.
The Airband pilot project has proven to be a success for the local college in Ballyhaise together with a small number of local premises, both domestic and business, that were successfully connected.
Students at Ballyhaise Agricultural College have been able to bring technology that had previously been restricted to the classroom directly to the field. By having access to cloud-based apps coupled with the roll-out of the Internet of Things across the campus and Microsoft’s FarmBeats platform, these students can make data-informed decisions that help Ireland’s food sector to become more sustainable into the future.
Local SME, ATC Supplies, has also gained a fast internet connection that they can rely on. With the help of Airband, Tony and John Tully have been able to develop their ecommerce offering and meet the needs of customers in Ireland and beyond.
As we mark the completion of the pilot project, I’ve been particularly struck by how Airband has helped to transform the lives of local residents, such as Tina and Róisín Boyle.
Prior to Airband, Tina’s daughter Róisín had to travel a quarter of a mile to get access to the internet to carry out her studies. Through the deployment of Airband technology, Tina’s family now have equal access to remote learning and an essential connection to the world from the comfort of home.
In an era defined by widespread connectivity and digital transformation, it is vital that we close the rural connectivity gap so that young people such as Róisín can engage in remote learning. Roisin’s story, and the broader success of the Cavan pilot project, provided the impetus behind our more recent partnership with the Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD).
Since June of last year, we’ve been working with DRCD and the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA) on a new initiative that will harness our Airband technology to deliver a fast internet connection to second-level students from disadvantaged backgrounds and others with significant connectivity challenges.
Working with Libraries Ireland in exploring the capacity to use the local library network as a conduit for connectivity for the first time, we can help create a solution for households with students in particularly hard to reach areas. Although the National Broadband Plan will deliver high-speed fibre broadband to 544,000 premises nationwide, about 5% of premises will still require alternative wireless solutions.
We’re now on the verge of completing the first phase of the initiative with our rural Airband technology linking existing broadband access in public libraries to families who do not have adequate internet access. This has the potential to be transformative for school children, older people and marginalised people right across this country.
One of the clearest lessons from the pandemic is that fast and reliable broadband is essential in allowing everyone to participate fully in a digital society. Broadband has become the electricity of the 21st century.
That’s why it is so important that we work with national and local government to connect communities across Ireland to 21st century opportunities. In providing greater access to fast and reliable broadband we can rebuild, recover and reimagine an inclusive economy and society where every person and organisation can achieve more.