David Gilbert takes a look at Skibbereen's new digital centre, which boasts a whopping 1 Gigabit fibre broadband connection
Forget Silicon Valley, Singapore, London, New York and even Dublin, the place which is now pitching itself as the digital capital of the world is a town in west Cork with a population of 3,000 people.
Central to Skibbereen’s ambitious plans is the Ludgate Hub, a digital centre for the town that boasts a 1 Gigabit fibre broadband connection which is three times faster than anything available in Dublin and on par with anything available to companies across the globe.
Opened officially by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the Ludgate Hub offers a state-of-the art facility for startups and individuals who want top class connectivity without needing to move to the nearest city.
Calling itself "Ireland’s first Gigatown", Skibbereen is the first town to be wired with Siro’s light-based fibre optic cabling, which uses the existing electrical infrastructure to provide world-class connectivity. Siro is a company borne out of a collaboration between Vodafone and the ESB and plans to bring its high speed connection to 50 towns by 2018 — focusing on regional towns rather than major urban centres.
Launched on the site of an old cinema in the centre of the town, the Ludgate Hub has been gone from conception to reality in the space of just 18 months and without a single euro of state funding — something founding board members John Field and Sean O’Driscoll both made reference to during presentations at the official launch last Friday.
With its doors open only a matter of weeks, the centre already has 20 permanent residents and over 100 active users, with employees of major corporations like Facebook, Google and Pfizer all using the Hub’s hot-desking facilities to work remotely — something CEO Gráinne Dwyer said was becoming increasingly frequent trend.
Dwyer is herself a good example of the power of how a facility like this can bring people back to rural communities. A native of Skibbereen she has returned to help put the town on the map — and it’s working.
Orlagh O’Brien, a designer and visual artist, has relocated from Cork City, initially attracted by the connectivity but with the added benefits of a slower pace of life and a situation where she has other people to bounce ideas off.
Ludgate also boasts a high profile roster of board members including Vodafone CEO Anne O’Leary; David Putnam, Digital Champion of Ireland; RTE’s new director general Dee Forbes; and Google vice president Ronan Harris. These board members are also offering mentorship to the company’s setting up in Ludgate, something which Mike and Carina Collins — who have also relocated from Cork city — find invaluable. “Mentoring is a huge benefit of the digital hub,” Mike told Newstalk.
Running YourIrishHeritage.com, the couple have found the environment in Skibbereen to be perfect for communicating with their customers who are scattered all around the globe — and who expect to be able to contact the couple at all times.
But it’s not just companies and individuals from elsewhere in Ireland that the Ludgate Hub is capable of attracting. David Carroll has recently moved from Marbella to Skibbereen and set up his business in the centre. In the coming weeks and months people will move from the UK, South Africa and the United States to relocate in Skibbereen and become part of the Hub.
This success of the Ludgate Hub has been noticed and already 15 towns across Ireland have been in touch, looking for advice about setting up their own hubs. Siro CEO Sean Atkinson says that he has already had discussions with Tralee, Cavan, Dundalk and Westport about building similar digital centres claiming “this [technology] will bring Ireland to where it should be.”
The government has issued its National Broadband Plan, announced it has plans to make Ireland a startup hub by 2020 and published its action plan for jobs earlier this year — aiming to create 135,000 rural jobs by 2020.
But it was the community and business people of Skibbereen who have created the Ludgate Hub for themselves. At the official launch last Friday, board member and Glen Dimplex Group President Sean O’Driscoll may have called on Minister O’Connor to support what they have done, but this initiative shows just what is possible without any of that support in this digital age.
“This is the model for rural Ireland’s future,” O'Driscoll said.