Immersed in the green Irish Midlands, County Offaly is known for its extensive conifer forest, rich cultural heritage, and pledge to improve the daily life of its citizens. Offaly County Council is committed to further developing digital infrastructure and expanding the offer of e-services available for businesses and individuals. The WiFi4EU team spoke with Ray Bell, Head of Information Systems and Digital and Catriona Hilliard, Broadband / Digital Officer in Offaly, to discover more about how the WiFi4EU initiative fits in the Council’s Digital Strategy.
Photo Caption: Roger Guiney, President, Tullamore & District Chamber of Commerce; Catriona Hilliard, Broadband Officer, Offaly County Council; Cllr Danny Owens, Cathaoirleach, Tullamore Municipal District, County Offaly; Gerry Buckley, CEO, NIS Ltd, (Network Installation Company); Ray Bell, Head of Information Systems and Digital, Offaly County Council.
Offaly County Council is responsible for the administrative area of County Offaly and is among the winners of a EUR 15,000 voucher during the four calls of the WiFi4EU programme. In the Republic of Ireland, local government functions are mostly exercised by counties, which include several historical baronies and villages. The country is comprised of 26 county councils, three city councils, and two city and county councils, for a total of 31 local authorities. As these entities cover vast territories, each county was divided into four areas for the purpose of the initiative, so that each county could win a maximum of four WiFi4EU vouchers and more effectively install free Wi-Fi in key public spaces. Between 2018 and 2020, County Offaly was able to secure the maximum amount available, while at the national level 114 out of 124 eligible entities have been granted a WiFi4EU voucher, making Ireland one of the highest-ranking participating countries in terms of coverage.
Offaly County Council first heard about WiFi4EU through the Irish broadband officer’s network, which provides a local point of contact for telecommunications operators and the public. As Mr. Bell explained, “The Irish Government, through the Department of Rural and Community Development (DRCD), plays a leading role working with local authorities and broadband officers, ensuring that they are kept informed of developments and are supported in their work”. The DRCD has been a great promoter of the WiFi4EU initiative and has matched the funding provided by the European Commission, thereby doubling the value of the voucher for each beneficiary. “The matching funding provided by the DRCD allowed us to provide extra Access Points (APs) over and above the number of APs that could be funded under the direct grant from the EU. This meant we could service a wider number of locations and broaden the project’s impact”, revealed Ray Bell.
The WiFi4EU network in County Offaly was officially launched on 8 October 2020 in the main square of Tullamore, the county town. “We deployed 17 hotspots in the Tullamore Municipal District and we will be deploying an additional 50 hotspots with our other 3 vouchers”, explained Catriona Hilliard. Ever since the launch, the community has welcomed the network with positive feedback, appreciating the range of benefits brought by free access to connectivity. County Offaly’s community is particularly thankful to be beneficiary of a multi-faceted Wi-Fi provision, where the European Union, the Irish government and local councils are coming together to facilitate the project and connect all citizens.
According to Catriona Hilliard, "connectivity is key in this era of digitalisation and the introduction of this service will strengthen Offaly’s reputation as a forward thinking and digitally inclusive urban and rural landscape, which strongly promotes access to on-line services and information across the County". WiFi4EU is, in fact, helping equalise access to e-services and bridge the digital divide between urban and rural areas within County Offaly. The Local Council is confident that the initiative will have a positive impact on the activities and business undertaken in the newly-equipped venues. In particular, the initiative is providing relief in a very difficult time for the population by facilitating everyday activities such as distance learning, remote working and enterprise development. “The opportunity to provide online connection services to communities during COVID-19 has been a strong element of sustaining morale in this Irish midland county. Overall, this in turn has supported community spirit and the collective approach of ‘we are all in this together’”, Ms. Hilliard confirmed.
Proud to be part of the initiative, Offaly County Council is appreciative of the unprecedented European scope of the WiFi4EU project. As explained by Ray Bell, “the fact that there are many locations and venues across Europe that have been able to take advantage of this project […] further assists us in Offaly in understanding that we are all elements of the wide EU family”. In particular, the common SSID shared by all WiFi4EU networks across Europe “is also a great way to brand and promote the EU identity in such a local project, right in to the heart of the local landscape. It also engages citizen curiosity in the fact that there is an EU programme of this magnitude available to them, and embeds the character of the work of the European Commission directly into citizen channels of communication”, concluded the Head of Information Systems and Digital.