Build it and they will come: Arranmore’s model for sustaining a community

Three Business Blog Team
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On: 12 Mar 2020
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Last December, Adrian Begley of Arranmore Island Community Council and Three’s Head of Regulatory Affairs Niamh Hodnett travelled to Brussels to present at the European Commission’s B-Day: Boosting Connectivity Investments conference. Discover how Arranmore Island earned a prestigious keynote slot as part of an event dedicated to shaping Europe’s digital future. In this blog, they look back on their presentation and the reception it received.

It was called the ‘inspirational talk’, and with good reason. Word had reached the headquarters of the European Commission about how a community 5km off the northwest coast of Ireland had been reinvigorated thanks to the opportunities created by having high-speed internet connectivity.

Adrian and Niamh had been invited to the Albert Borschette Congress Center in Brussels to tell Arranmore Island’s story. The audience of more than 200 people in the room came from a mix of community groups, government representatives, civil servants, senior European Commission officials, corporates and broadband providers from around the EU Member States.

Arranmore’s keynote began the afternoon sessions, featuring videos which captured the island’s experience. Presenting jointly, Adrian and Niamh explained how Arranmore Island had been facing a declining population due to a lack of employment opportunities.

In 2017, the Community Council started a campaign to encourage its diaspora to return home, to live and work there, and to promote it to others as a place to relocate and make their lives.

“We explained the main driver to make Arranmore sustainable for the future using technology and allowing people to work remotely. We have a large diaspora and we wanted to help them spend more time there if they wanted to work, or to promote it to new visitors as a place to relocate and make their homes there,” said Adrian.

The presentation began with a question: “can technology make babies?’ By the time the 20-minute speaking slot was over, some of the audience were standing up and taking photos. It was clear the story had struck a chord.

If you build it, they will come.

The Council knew that no new visitors or returning emigrants would make the decision to live on Arranmore just because good things were promised at some point in the future. The plan to attract people would stand or fall on having fast, reliable broadband connectivity, available now, with a shared workspace available on the island for remote workers or residents. The infrastructure had to be in place first, to have something tangible to show people, and then they would follow.

Getting to that point was a joint effort, involving the community on Arranmore, funding grants from the Department of Rural and Community Development and Donegal County Council and a partnership with Three that brought a fresh perspective to solving the connectivity challenge of delivering reliable broadband to an area that’s separated from the mainland.

From our early discussions ahead of the conference, the Community Council felt it was important that Three was part of the conversation, because its partnership and technical advice has allowed the project to become much more than we envisaged, Three’s approach helped the island to think out of the box in coming up with a workable solution using wireless technology.

Arranmore’s experience proved relatable. As Niamh explained, similar experiences are to be found in Greece, Norway, Lithuania and Sweden among many other places. “It was a great opportunity to talk about an island I have spent time on and am passionate about, but I underestimated the reception that the story would have in the conference hall and how much the story translates to other island or rural communities across the continent. It’s a story of Europe, not just about Ireland,” she said.

Delegates asked Adrian and Niamh versions of the same question: “How do you make something like this work? We’ve got all this problem.” Adrian said: “Our presentation from the stage showed that together we’ve done it – and if you can connect an island 5 kilometres off into the Atlantic Ocean, you can connect anywhere.”

The community dividend.

“People started to be able to relate to the story not just from a technology point of view, but from a community and social perspective,” said Niamh. They saw how it was helping to develop employment opportunities and help to grow rural areas and island life. Many of the challenges Arranmore faced are similar to other rural and remote areas: they want to sustain a population and a way of life by giving people a reason to stay there and by giving those societies an opportunity to thrive and grow.

As it emerged from many conversations during breaks between conference sessions, other places had tried a different approach to solving these challenges. They thought that they could attract people first, which would create a critical mass that would justify the investment needed to deliver high-speed broadband connectivity. But Arranmore’s experience showed that when you do it the other way around, you get better results.

In just 12 months, Arranmore already reached the targets the Community Council set itself for families to relocate to the island. “Last Easter, we opened Modam, which is Ireland’s first offshore digital hub. Already, it has a number of full-time occupants and by Easter of this year will be operating at 50 per cent capacity. It’s gone better than we could have dared to hope,” said Adrian.

Connectivity as the catalyst.

Connectivity is not the end goal of the project; it’s the catalyst that sparks other ideas into life. For example, fishing is Arranmore’s primary industry and it’s begun using IoT technology to make it more efficient and sustainable in order to create employment opportunities for the future. Just as importantly, this will help to maintain what is a big part of island way of life.

Technology is also transforming healthcare on the island, by enabling elderly people to live in their own homes. Telemedicine is really important in rural communities with an elderly demographic, as it gives people access to healthcare professionals who are located elsewhere through video calls, which saves on stressful travel while ensuring a high level of care.

Forging ahead into the future.

Arranmore isn’t stopping there. The island’s school now has interactive teaching equipment which wouldn’t have been worthwhile without the connectivity. It’s now working with Sligo IT, GMIT and Letterkenny IT to design online courses to give people skills in remote working. “Arranmore is a showcase for anything: we’ve proved that if you can work remotely on an island, you can work remotely anywhere,” said Adrian.

As well as the presentation in the heart of the EU, Arranmore’s story has gained lots of international attention. In late February, Maria Walsh MEP visited Arranmore to see the Modam hub and some of the technology solutions like home monitors that help to provide elder care. The South Korean state broadcaster also came to discover the story. Later this year, a delegation from Arranmore will travel to St John’s University in Newfoundland, Canada.

“We’re a voluntary organisation, so working in partnership with a company like Three, anything is possible. The knowledge we’ve gained on Arranmore has given us a model that can apply to other parts of Ireland, right across Europe and beyond,” said Adrian. Inspiring really is the right word for it.

If you are interested in learning more about how Three Business have transformed the island of Arranmore, visit our dedicated website: