A nation of digital towns

Fostering digital adoption in communities across Ireland is a key focus for us, writes Oonagh McCutcheon, National Director of the .IE Digital Town Programme at .IE, the company that manages .ie domains, the online identity of choice in Ireland.

The EU and government focus on the Digital Decade promises to deliver transformational change for Irish people, businesses, and communities. A range of digital strategies, policies and plans have been put in place to drive the digital agenda, including Harnessing Digital – the Digital Ireland Framework, the Digital Transition Fund, the Connected Hubs network and the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund to name a few.

These policies are to be welcomed and .IE is pleased to play its part in driving digitalisation through our strategic priority of supporting and serving the needs of the local internet community. In 2021, we launched a new initiative, the .IE Digital Town Programme with a €1 million investment over four years to enable a nation of digital towns. The .IE Digital Town programme was developed to foster digital enhancement and adoption in Ireland, helping businesses, citizens, and communities to harness the benefits of the internet and to thrive online.

The programme comprises three elements: big data for small towns, the .IE Digital Town Awards, and the .IE Digital Town Blueprint. Two specific pillars of activity are currently underway: the .IE Digital Town Awards, and the Blueprint.

.IE Digital Town Awards – shining a light on local digital champions

The Awards shine a light on the benefits and possibilities of digital, and celebrate the digital achievements of local towns, big and small. We seek to honour and reward volunteers and community leaders who work tirelessly to improve their towns and communities. Launched in 2021, the Awards are entering their third year and applications will open in February 2023. The categories will include digital education, digital tourism, community digital, digital business, agri-tech, and sustainability as well as the special categories of rising star, changemaker, newcomer, and local hero. Digital projects at various stages of advancement will be considered by the independent judging panel. Towns can enter digital projects demonstrating how digital approaches and/or technologies have contributed to the betterment of the town and the wider town community.

Digitalisation offers the opportunity to use creative solutions to problems facing a town community. Examples of previous winners include using the Internet of Things (IoT) to help with assisted living for the elderly on Arranmore Island; building online town marketplaces in Fermoy and Castleisland; building a digital cultural infrastructure for the community in Gleann Cholm Cille; creating interactive tourism experiences in Ballyvaugh and Ballincollig.

These digital initiatives breathe new life into local communities and towns, making them more attractive places to live and work, as well as contributing to a more sustainable future.

Spotlight on .IE Digital Town Awards overall winner 2022

Piltown – Taking charge of our digital future
In February 2022, Broadband 4 Our Community (B4OC) switched on what they believe is Ireland’s first community owned and managed FTTP ‘fibre to the premises’ network. The introduction of ‘fibre to the premises’ network has allowed Piltown to take charge of its digital future by ensuring the network is run in the interest of the community.

Their vision and aim is to deliver true, future-proofed high-speed broadband for the community of Piltown and Fiddown. Given that laying fibre-optic cable is expensive using the traditional model employed by the telecommunications industry, the aim was to reduce costs under a different ownership model – a leaner development model – and by operating on a not-for-profit community-owned basis.

The community has embraced this initiative with landowners granting access to land, volunteers working to lay cables, sharing equipment and providing expertise pro bono. Four members of the community have been trained as fibre optic technicians and a digital hub and community centre now serves 60 homes and groups in the area.

Chair of the judging panel, Joan Mulvihill, said: “The community of Piltown showed extraordinary resolve and determination in putting their town on the digital map. The support from businesses and landowners in granting access to land, those who prepared the ground and laid the cables, every aspect of this entry is commendable. In recognising Piltown with this award we are confident that this is just the start for them with great things to come. This is truly a lighthouse digital town.” The Piltown team believes this project could be.

.IE Digital Town Blueprint – digital readiness framework

To help town leaders and policymakers embed their own digital town programmes and action plans in empirical data, .IE partnered with The Irish Institute of Digital Business at DCU to fully explore the concept and value of the “digital town” through a comprehensive research project. The resultant digital readiness framework is the first of its kind in Europe.

In 2021, we commenced discussions with the Department of Rural and Community Affairs (DRCD), and in early 2022, DRCD made provision for funding a .IE Digital Town Blueprint assessment for the 26 towns selected to prepare master plans as part of the Town Centre First initiative. This work is now underway. The Blueprint reports will provide data and actionable insights for decision-makers in these towns, and others like them, as they consider digitalisation initiatives that positively impact the local economy, public services, communications, social cohesion, and overall quality of life.


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