O’Donnells feature in the Irish Times: How one West Cork town is going it alone on rural broadband

Adrienne Harrington, CEO of The Ludgate Hub and Aodh O'Donnell Managing Director of O'Donnell Design pictured at the O'Donnell Design factory in Skibbereen, West Cork.Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Adrienne Harrington, CEO of The Ludgate Hub and Aodh O’Donnell Managing Director of O’Donnell Design pictured at the O’Donnell Design factory in Skibbereen, West Cork.Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Two years ago, it took up a day to download a file at O’Donnell Design, a west Cork furniture firm whose biggest market is the United Kingdom hotel sector.

“We had absolutely lousy connectivity. It could take up to 24 hours to download one file, and while we downloaded it, nothing else could come in,” recalls CEO Jim O’Donnell, whose Skibbereen-based company specialises in hotel bedroom fit-outs for clients such as Dromoland Castle and the Hilton, Sheraton, Marriott and Gibson hotel chains.

Then the Ludgate Hub opened its doors. Ireland’s first rural digital hub, it brought 1GB of connectivity – the fastest in the country – to the west Cork town, transforming the way O’Donnell Design and other local firms do business.

Skibbereen is an example of a rural town doing things for itself – especially in the context of the recent announcement by Eir that it is withdrawing its bid for the Rural Broadband Plan. This has led to fears it could result in a delay in the rollout of high-speed internet connections across Ireland.

For O’Donnell Design, the decision by Skibbereen to “go it alone” led to a huge change in the way of doing business. “It’s the difference between being at the races and not being at the races,” explain O’Donnell. “Our biggest market is the UK, particularly the greater London area.

“We’re as far away from London as you can get on these islands without falling into the water and we have to be able to respond to our clients as if we were in an office down the road from them.”

Since the advent of the Hub, the volume of work carried out by the company has increased by 25 per cent and its workforce has expanded.

Since it opened in 2016, the Hub has had a significant impact on the town, according to John Field, managing director of Field’s of Skibbereen, a bakery, grocery and delicatessen which has operated in west Cork for more than 80 years. Field, who has run the store for 50 of those years, is chairman of the board of the Ludgate Hub, and a driving force behind the initiative.

“There’s a confidence and a belief in the town that I haven’t seen in a long time,” he says. “ Local businesses in and around Skibbereen are growing as a result of the connectivity.”

The Cork Foundation, which matches donors in Ireland and overseas with social enterprise projects in the county, has included the Ludgate Hub in its fund-raising programmes.

Skibbereen’s new and unique situation as a state-of-the-art business location with superfast connectivity, supportive global business network and state-of-the-art facilities is further complemented, declares Field, by the fact that it’s surrounded by a dozen or so small, thriving communities such as the villages of Leap, Ballydehob, Glandore, Union Hall and the town of Schull, all offering accommodation well within commuting distance of Skibbereen.

“If you tell people living in Dublin that a job is available within 15 minutes of their home they’d take your hand off!

“That’s what we can offer in Skibbereen,” he says, adding that since the establishment of the Hub, a substantial number of businesspeople from abroad have relocated to the town and its surrounds:

“All these people are spending money. They’re all contributing to the local economy and to the sense of confidence in the town.

“The retail sector is benefiting, the real estate sector is benefiting, the restaurants bars and hotels are benefiting – a rising tide lifts all boats and the hub is our rising tide.”

Skibbereen and its hinterland is extremely well-placed to offer companies a solution to the accommodation shortages and high prices in Dublin and Cork, says Ludgate Hub chief executive Adrienne Harrington.

“Accommodation is available in Skibbereen at a significantly more reasonable cost,” says Harrington, formerly a civil servant working in data and digital policy in the Department of the Taoiseach.

The idea of the Hub was born in November 2014 during a conversation between John Field and fellow West Cork native and Glen Dimplex president, Sean O’Driscoll.

“John’s idea was to stem the flow of young people from Skibbereen. Although the worst of the recession was officially over, Skibbereen was still suffering the after-effects and emigration was high,” recalls Harrington

Field travelled to Dublin with a group of local business people working in the tech area to meet with O’Driscoll and Anne O’Leary, Vodafone Ireland CEO, who is also a native of West Cork. The plan – to discuss the idea to establish Ireland’s first rural digital hub in Skibbereen. It was agreed that the town would become the first project for Siro, the open access broadband provider, the result of a partnership between the ESB and Vodafone.

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To kick-start the process, Field agreed to give over a building he owned in the heart of Skibbereen. Formerly a cinema and bakery, it was now to be the location for the country’s first rural digital hub.

Construction work began in 2015. The Ludgate Hub opened its doors the following spring with four young companies in the ed-tech, travel tech and creative digital services sector. Since then its population has grown to 41 people operating out of the hub for a mix of companies, ranging from start-ups in the tech sector to established firms.

Last June, Dublin tech firm xSellco established its first satellite office, with four employees, at the Hub. Already, it has doubled its workforce and is establishing a 24/7 service from the town.

She also points to Spearline, a global leader in testing toll and toll-free numbers, whose workforce has more than trebled in the past two years.

Spearline’s success, believes Harrington, can in part be attributed to the high connectivity available in the town.

Local residents too, are benefiting from the Hub, with research carried out in 2016 putting its economic impact on the town at €11.3 million. A follow-up study is underway.

Given the increasing number of companies and individuals locating in Ludgate, she says, the board – which includes high profile figures such as film producer David Puttnam, O’Leary and Dee Forbes, director general of RTE – expects the economic impact of the hub to be significantly up on the 2016 figure.

A number of other projects are also in progress:

“We’re currently working with UCC to examine how we can assess the sociological impact of the Hub, in terms of young people returning to the town, as well as those arriving to live here for reasons directly connected to it.”

Thanks to the spin-off benefits, she says, Skibbereen is reversing the trend of rural decline.

“Other towns talk about the closure of garda stations, post offices, shops but here the local Christian Brothers’ school, which was vacant for three years, has just been purchased by Spearline to accommodate its growing workforce.”

A second hotel opened in the town last year, Harrington observes, while the landmark West Cork Hotel has expanded significantly in the past two years. An upscale restaurant and cookery school, a new coffee shop and a funky vintage ladies clothes boutique have all opened in recent times.

“These can be attributed to a new confidence in the town and a surge in consumer spend as employment grows associated with one gig connectivity and the hub in general.”

Ludgate Hub has also established a partnership between the local community school and UCC to bring a more digitally focused emphasis to the second -level school curriculum:

“We want children to be aware of the skill requirements of the digital economy,” she says, adding that the Hub is also looking at alternative methods to train software developers to meet the increasing demand for people skilled in this area.