Despite the technology being readily available, many people across the world are still saddled with subpar or even no access to the Internet. This has been a persistent problem not only in developing countries but across the developed world as well – even here in Ireland.
The National Broadband Plan has already begun to correct this. The plan aims to radically change the broadband landscape in Ireland. It will ensure that all citizens and businesses have access to high-speed broadband no matter where they live or work. This ambitious but vital goal will be achieved through a combination of commercial and state-led investments, which once completed, will provide all parts of Ireland with access to a modern and reliable broadband network, capable of supporting current and future generations.
The main focus of Ireland’s National Digital Strategy is on “doing more with digital.” It is a fundamental step to help Ireland reap the full rewards of a digitally enabled society by setting out a vision and a number of practical actions and steps to encourage and assist more citizens and small businesses to get online.
I am pleased to say that Granahan McCourt has been able to play a role in this strategy, through a company we purchased, enet, which has established high-speed fibre optic networks in rural Ireland including both North Kerry and Mayo. The ultimate goal is the optimal economic and social use of the Internet by businesses, individuals and governments. Networks such as these, whether they are launched in rural Ireland or in sub-Saharan Africa, play a vital role in changing not only the business landscape but the social landscape. Coupled with emerging and often disruptive business practices, this new level of connectivity is bringing forth a tremendous shift in power.
Having spent much of my life in technology, media and telecommunications (TMT), this shift in power has become a familiar rhythm, with many industries having already undergone several “transformations” since the rise of the Internet. While the new disruptive forces will upset the balance of power in business, the impact might actually offer better opportunities for underserved areas where restless populations are offered few choices.
But how will the young citizens in these rural areas use their newfound connectivity, and in what ways will it transform the landscape of Ireland? We will likely see the rise of companies, born from this well-connected world, make huge impacts on entrenched businesses and regulation as their unforeseen business methods gain traction. They may not currently realise, but they have the potential to hold incredible levels of influence.
For example, look at the sort of disruptive changes that have taken place in the US, where a number of digital native crowdsourcing companies have utilised their userbase in order to circumnavigate traditional structures. When the City of New York, for example, proposed legislation that would severely limit the operations of transport company Uber, the company responded by enlisting their userbase and drivers to protest the proposed changes. Even in Frankfurt, where Uber lost ground to the taxi industry late last year, it was more the power of the taxi operators banding together than it was the traditional regulators pushing back against Uber.
Similarly, when travel company Airbnb was faced with similar regulations that would see their services limited in the state of California, their userbase intervened on their behalf. Despite operating roughly three per cent of hotel rooms in the US, the small but passionate userbase was able to impact the regulations supported by the hotel industry at large. By doing so, these companies have created a precedent of skipping traditional structures like lobbyists to enact regulatory change.
The effect that a small group of like-minded and passionate people can make is being greatly underestimated. While these examples have roots in Silicon Valley, the telecom and media industries are seeing shifts of power take place across the globe.
Ireland is in the midst of an online revolution. All Irish businesses are affected by the changes occurring in consumption patterns. Data on Irish consumer spending suggests that in excess of €6bn is being spent online annually. This number is growing each year, and it is growing fast. However, less than one-third of this money finds its way to Irish retailers, as only 23 per cent of small Irish companies have engaged in online sales.
It seems that many businesses do not fully appreciate the relevance of the Internet, its potential to help them become more efficient or to access new markets. For others, the problem lies in not knowing how to go about it, what they need to do or where they can get help.
The Internet and other emerging technologies breed continuous innovation. This innovation involves not just a change in tools, but a shift in influence towards those who previously were unaffiliated and unconnected. We should be doing everything we can to spread the technology that is critical for development.