Minister of State Seán Canney T.D., Minister for Digital Development attended a video conference chaired by the Croatian Presidency of the Council of the European Union on Tuesday 5 May. The teleconference was held to consider the implications of the COVID-19 crisis for the telecommunications and digital sector and to share views on the role digital can play in the recovery phase.
Minister Canney and his EU Member State counterparts considered what measures are most urgently needed to further incentivise investment in EU-wide deployment of new digital infrastructures (especially very high-capacity broadband networks), to help us achieve a Gigabit Society. The video conference also discussed how best to develop tracing and warning apps while using anonymised data to combat and contain the spread of Covid-19.
Minister Canney outlined that in Ireland there has been active engagement with the EU eHealth network in the preparation of contact-tracing apps and other tech-enabled solutions while ensuring the protection of citizen privacy. The Minister stressed that trust by the citizens in the privacy and robustness of the app is essential if it is to be used by the majority and he also emphasised the need for all the apps currently under development by Member States to be interoperable if freedom of movement around the EU is to be conducted in a safe manner.
The Minister outlined how the application of digital solutions continues to be critical to the smooth running of both the economy and society during these unprecedented times, and noted the extent to which every sector and every household has become increasingly reliant on digital connectivity over the last few months. He confirmed his support for continued targeted investment and support for the digital sector in the post-Covid-19 recovery phase.
Minister Canney informed the conference that the Irish Government, in response to increased connectivity demands, recently approved powers for ComReg the Irish Telecoms Regulator, to temporarily assign use of certain spectrum bands, to help alleviate congestion on telecommunications networks during the pandemic crisis. In addition, telecoms retail service providers have entered a commitment, to ensure customers stay connected, with several measures, for example:
- relaxing mobile data caps for households with no broadband connection;
- zero-rating educational and health website resources; and
- ensuring that customers who have lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 crisis, are not disconnected.
Minister Canney also informed conference attendees of how the Government, industry and the Regulator have continued to work closely together in a spirit of goodwill and collaboration to agree on this common approach to address the challenges faced by households and businesses during the COVID-19 crisis.
The Minister spoke of the urgent need for completion to implement all national broadband plans, and he called for State Aid rules on state investment in broadband to be revised to help us reach full connectivity. The Minister noted that the COVID-19 crisis highlighted the importance of delivering Ireland's National Broadband Plan and welcomed that the contract for delivering the plan was signed last year with work now underway.
The Minister also emphasised the fostering of basic and advanced digital skills, saying:
'We must empower all EU citizens to draw maximum benefits from a digitally-enabled environment'.
Minister Canney underlined the importance of EU Multiannual Financial Framework programmes such as Connecting Europe Facility and the Digital Europe Programme being supported with a sufficient level of ambition and he stated:
'We need to foster a regulatory environment that rewards innovation so that our European SMEs and start-ups can scale up in Europe and have access to finance and capital in European markets. We must translate our EU policies on Artificial Intelligence and cutting-edge technologies into action'.