Ireland, Northern Ireland Economy and regeneration, Technology, Transport and infrastructure

Expanding digital access in rural areas – Digital Donegal

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Photo by Oscar Guinane on Unsplash

Donegal County Council is a local authority located in the North-West of Ireland. Responsible for a population of 166,321 and with a 2023 operating budget of €175m, Donegal County Council is Ireland’s most northerly local authority.

Rural areas often face barriers to accessing today’s digital society. This article looks at how Donegal County Council is spreading the digital agenda across the County through a public-private partnership to ensure Donegal is poised to take advantage of the increasing digital skills in the County.

To understand how local governments can provide the UN-recognised right to internet access, LGIU Ireland hears from Brian Boyle, Head of Information Systems in Donegal County Council and a Director of the ERNACT EEIG Board of Management.

It would be great if you start us off with an introduction to Donegal Digital

Digital Donegal is a Donegal County Council-led partnership composed of 14 organisations, institutions and entities with a vision to develop digitally literate communities, build sustainable enterprises and improve societal services using ICT.

Donegal County Council has a long involvement in telecommunications and everything digital. Back in the 1990s, the county experienced an unemployment crisis when a major textile industry relocated offshore. The county manager of the day chaired an unemployment task force which identified, amongst other things, the poor telecommunications capacity in Donegal County as being a significant impediment to economic development. At that point, there was no competition in the market, limited backhaul capacity and a reluctance on the part of telecommunications companies to invest in the County.

BASE Centre Stranorlar Digital Hub Launch. Credit @Donegal County Council
BASE Centre Stranorlar Digital Hub Launch. Credit @ Donegal County Council

What is the background of Donegal Digital?

While the council had no statutory responsibilities for telecommunications we agitated and worked with public representatives, government departments and telecom companies to progressively improve the connectivity in, and to, the county.

At first, we worked on getting cross-border fibre backhaul links developed with Northern Ireland, as well as with individual telecommunications companies persuading them to make investments. We worked with government on a number of schemes such as the metropolitan networks programme, which was a state-sponsored scheme to provide state-owned open-access fibre networks in towns of a certain size. We also worked with government departments and EU institutions to ensure Donegal was included in Project Kelvin – an important backhaul connection between Ireland and the United States. Wireless broadband schemes to bring connectivity into rural areas were implemented with financial assistance from external partners such as Inter-Reg and the International Fund for Ireland.

Over time, the telecom landscape in Donegal has progressed to the point where Donegal, as a county. is very well connected. In rural areas, there is further work to be done in terms of getting high-speed broadband to all premises. Working with the National Broadband Plan all rural premises will get high-speed fibre connections as part of the government’s programme. Overall, we feel the Donegal communications network is now extremely resilient with a range of high-speed open access networks with multiple operators working in a competitive environment.

Donegal Digital Steering Group. Credit @ Donegal Council Council
Donegal Digital Steering Group. Credit @ Donegal Council Council

How did Donegal Digital evolve as an initiative?

It started as an initiative led by the council under the Local Economic and Community Plan. Every Irish local authority is obliged to complete one of these plans, and Donegal added a digital strand. In doing so, I reached out to all the agencies that had a role to play. We have a range of organisations participating now, including, Údarás na Gaeltachta, Fáilte Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, ERNACT, IDA Ireland, Atlantic Technological University, Donegal Local Development, Inishowen Development Partnership, Donegal Local Employment Office, Donegal Education & Training Board, ICT / Fintech Donegal, Tata Consulting Services, Regional Skills Northwest, as well as several council business departments such as Planning and Economic Development.

The first town to see real progress in connectivity and increased digital access was Letterkenny, which has attracted considerable foreign direct investment (FDI) as a result. These FDI businesses rely heavily on resilient telecoms and provide a lot of employment and investment. Alongside these larger businesses, we are seeing the development of a wide range of indigenous start-ups in the technology field – particularly in software development, Fintech and cyber security. Many of these entities started life as CoLab clients. CoLab is a very successful business incubator attached to the Atlantic Technological University (ATU) campus in Letterkenny.

A major objective of Digital Donegal is to replicate the Letterkenny model in a smaller way to other parts of the county. The Donegal Digital Steering Committee meet every two months to oversee the work programme and ensure that focus is maintained on the common objectives.

ERNACT EEIG is a linchpin partner in the Donegal Digital project. ERNACT is a cross-border entity established by Donegal County Council, and Derry and Strabane District Council in 1991. Its core work is to promote digital and ICT initiatives in the North West region on a cross-border basis. ERNACT also has a wider European network of regions and has a very impressive record in accessing EU funding for digital transformation initiatives. ERNACT provides the day-to-day management for Donegal Digital through Dr Margaret Quinn.

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Brexit continues to have an acute impact in the North-West of Ireland. How has Brexit affected Donegal Digital and the cross-border work of ERNACT?

From the perspective of Digital Donegal, Brexit has had no major negative effects, but it has caused a major issue for ERNACT. As things stand, our colleagues in Derry / Strabane cannot participate in the new round of EU Territorial Co-Operation programmes. This is a particular problem as ERNACT has been very successful in targeting programmes such as Interreg in the past, so whilst Derry previously participated, they are currently unable to do so as a consequence of Brexit.

How has Donegal Digital advanced?

The work programme for Donegal Digital covers three main areas,

  1. Increasing digital research and innovation
  2. Building strong Donegal digital communities
  3. Extending the Letterkenny digital cluster throughout Donegal.

To date we have concentrated a lot on digital foundations, and digital innovation hubs are a particular focus. Donegal currently has 12 digital hubs across the county provided by a variety of agencies, and this number will soon rise to 14. The council are close to completing a major project in Buncrana which involves renovating and extending the former town council offices to provide a state-of-the-art innovation centre with a capacity for 72 clients, designed to create a digital ecosystem for the wider Inishowen Peninsula which has a population of over 40,000 people.

At the other end of the scale, the digital hub in Malinbeg is also near completion. Malinbeg is a very rural area west of Glencolumbcille in southwest Donegal which has been a focus for Donegal Digital for some time. Our involvement with Malinbeg commenced with a successful project to provide mobile phone services in the area which then developed into the provision of community wifi services and eventually the renovation of the “Sean Scoil” to provide a digital hub. The Malinbeg Hub will have four single offices and co-working spaces for 9-10 people, and it will be a really important facility for one of the most rural but scenic areas in County Donegal.

County Donegal has 12 broadband connection points provided under the National Broadband Plan. These are strategic buildings and sites which have received advanced high-speed connectivity, pending the full rollout of the high-speed fibre connections under the NBP. Three of these sites also have co-working spaces.

In addition to all that, the council installed 75 public wifi connections under the WiFi4EU project. All town and village centres are covered by freely available high-speed wifi. This is an important public service for a county which relies extensively on its tourism industry in particular.

Work on the innovation hubs, broadband connection points and wifi access have been supported financially by Enterprise Ireland, Udaras Na Gaeltachta, the Department of Rural and Community Development, the European Union and Donegal County Council.

The elevation of Letterkenny Institute of Technology to University status as part of the ATU is a core supporting pillar of Donegal Digital. If we want to successfully promote Donegal as a smart region, the level of research and development conducted at ATU Letterkenny is crucial. ATU Letterkenny has a range of initiatives at PhD level and has ambitions to grow these opportunities further.

Digital Skills development is another important objective. This action is led by the Donegal Education and Training Board working with ERNACT. We have formed some linkages on this topic in Europe to learn what is being done with evolving digital skill sets so our communities can take advantage of ongoing changes in the labour market. Ensuring that Donegal Digital promotes and communicates our growing digital skill set is important as we look to exploit the Digital age.

How have the local community engaged with the Digital Hubs and where do you see this going in 2023?

It will be interesting to see how the hub network develops. Donegal County Council’s Economic Development unit has developed a remote working strategy for the county, aiming to promote County Donegal for remote working. We found during Covid that a lot of people relocated or moved back home to live and work in Donegal. Quality of life advantages were cited regularly. Donegal Digital was able to assist the remote working strategy with good connectivity and the digital hubs network.

The remote working strategy also offers free desk space during holiday periods to encourage the use of the hubs network by visitors, and this initiative has been particularly successful.

In terms of 2023, we are promoting the network of digital hubs as a key part of a competitive County Donegal work location offering. This, in part, is to challenge the perception that Donegal is somewhere far away when in reality Donegal is only a three-hour drive from Dublin and less than two hours from Belfast.

Each digital hub has a manager or contact person who participates in a hub manager sub-group where people meet and talk about matters of mutual interest. This can range from sharing experiences to funding opportunities at a national or EU Level as well as interaction with research and development opportunities at the ATU.

The cooperative nature of the hubs network is vital in terms of a countywide Donegal hub offering for prospective users, as is the learning experience gained by the hub managers themselves.

Recording statistics for usage is something we are working on and, at the moment, we are navigating the change from the remote working environment during Covid to one where there is a growing hybrid mix of home and office work. Hybrid working of course also supports the climate agenda, with the Climate Action Plan (Dec 2022) setting the clear objective of reducing car journeys by 20%.

Whilst the National Broadband Plan promises a high-speed connection to every home and business, I still think there will still be space for digital innovation hubs. Properly run they are an ecosystem, places where people meet up, businesses connect, and people exchange ideas and knowledge with each other. Part of the argument about returning to the office environment is the exchange and shared learnings you gain from in-person working, and I think this gives a strong future role for Donegal’s Digital Hubs – a central feature of the council’s economic development strategy.

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