As we approach the end of 2020, CEO of Digital Isle of Man, Lyle Wraxall, reflects on a year like no other for the Agency; challenges, successes, and everything in between.
It is impossible to write about 2020 without mentioning the global pandemic that dominated the headlines for the majority of the year, and although COVID-19 may have changed the way we work forever, it has also had a lasting impact on the digital and tech industry as a whole. When looking across the various sectors we support and engage with, 2020 has been a defining year for all of them. Whether that has been reflected in the shift in working practices, financial changes or travel and event restrictions, we have all had to find an effective and efficient way through the disruption.
As a public-private partnership, and part of the Isle of Man Government our immediate response was for the redeployment for the majority of the team in order to support the COVID response on Island.
The team have continued to work closely with our on-island businesses to further develop strong relationships and support individual businesses through everything from financial assistance, work at home directives through to immigration and growth amidst border closures and a global pandemic.
Who would have thought at the beginning of the year that we would have had to pull together a ‘virtual’ TT competition with world famous riders and esports enthusiasts from across the Globe, to replace the (cancelled) races of 2020? However, with the strengths and expertise of the team, the Department and some talented local associates we managed to create an amazing experience to bring a taste of the famous road races to people in lockdown across the world, with a combined viewership of 293,000 people it was a great achievement for the Digital Agency and the Island.
Due to the dynamic and fast decision making of the Isle of Man Government we were in a fortunate position as a jurisdiction to be one of the first countries free from the virus. The hard work of the healthcare workers and decision-makers island-wide allowed us the freedom to quickly return to life as normal, without social distancing measures in place.
The IoT initiative became a key focus for the Agency in April this year, it was identified as having potential benefits to supporting the Island during the pandemic. Unfortunately, due to the timing and not having the needed mechanism in place we were unable to support with temperature testing in medical user cases. However, this allowed us the opportunity to explore further options for the technology.
In September this year, our dedicated Internet of Things (IoT) Manager, Sarah Ennett, joined our team, bringing with her nine years’ experience in IoT business and product development.
Sarah is responsible for driving forward our IoT accelerator programme, a not-for-profit, open-access initiative which was launched in July with an initial goal of promoting the use of IoT and subsequent tech trials for the social and economic development of the Island. The Department for Enterprise through Digital Isle of Man is leading industry engagement with support from Private, Public, Education and Third sector representatives.
Through the IoT accelerator programme we are providing free access to a government funded Low Power, Wide Area Network (LoRaWAN) which is designed to wirelessly connect battery operated ‘things’ to the internet. This will provide an opportunity for testing, developing and commercialising IoT solutions, examples of which include smart parking, flood prevention, and agricultural solutions such a soil quality monitoring. Our network is currently available across 70% of the Island, with over 90% coverage expected in early 2021. The majority of projects and proposed plans have been in partnership with the Island’s experts; this has included working closely with Manx Technology Group (MTG) on a number of projects.
Looking to the New Year, January will see us hold our first awareness session, taking place at University College Isle of Man, showcasing our first case study focussed on air quality monitoring and how this is supporting education. We also continue to explore opportunities in complementary technologies like Autonomous Vehicles, CleanTech, and platforms that combine distributed ledger technology (blockchain), privacy preservation, and machine learning. We hope to attract new businesses to the Island who see the benefit of using the Isle of Man as their Tech Trial Isle.
We encourage anyone to get in touch if they would like to learn more or get involved in our accelerator programme, whether you have a problem to solve or if you’re an organisation that can provide solutions as part of this ecosystem. Our goal is to have a minimum of 15 different trials running in 2021 to showcase the variety of problems this technology can solve.
The year launched with one of the industry’s largest events, ICE 2020, bringing together the Agency and leading eGaming experts from the Island. As always, this is a pillar stone event in our calendar, and, as it turns out the only off-island event we would be able to attend this year. We partnered with eight on-Island businesses, who joined us on our stand to form a ‘Manx hub’ at the event. Our presence at ICE has always proven to be a very successful and fruitful few days, and this year was no exception.
As a result of the pandemic, swathes of the global eGaming industry have had to innovate and adapt to ensure they can continue to offer a diverse and relevant choice of services. This includes sports betting companies moving quickly to bring new products to market, including increased involvement with esports and virtual racing due the cancellation of live sporting events.
This being said, a lot of business activity has not be slowed by the coronavirus pandemic, and this is certainly reflected in the Isle of Man, in what has been one of the busiest years to date. With the cancellation of all major eGaming events since ICE, we have continued to collaborate with industry, taking a content led approach to marketing the Island as the gold-standard in gambling regulation. We have now seen 18 new licences approved this year alone, which is a 40% increase on 2019. This spike in applications can be partially attributed to significant interest in our recently introduced Software Supplier Licence which continues to be popular to those suppliers seeking a ‘badge of integrity’ – showcasing that they’re adhering to the same high standards as the Isle of Man-licensed operators they supply their games to.
The relevance of an Isle of Man licence continues to grow, and when talking to fellow colleagues in the industry whilst being free of Covid-19, we have seen their interest peak at living and working in the Isle of Man. This sentiment is echoed in a marked increase in companies seeking to increase their staff numbers, or indeed, set-up new operations on the Island so that they can operate within a safe and secure environment supported by a Government that is pro gaming, with 150 new jobs expected in the next six months.
As we approach 2021, we expect the Isle of Man licence to become more valuable and prestigious as regulatory challenges in competitor jurisdictions such as Curacao and the Philippines continue to grow. We expect to see more and more companies taking additional licences in jurisdictions like the Isle of Man to give themselves operational protection in the current climate. We will continue to collaborate with industry on our global marketing campaign, and hope to see the return of major events later in the year, which have proven year after year to be a pivotal platform for generating new business for the Island.
In last year’s end of year article, we introduced our then new Strategic Partnership model, created with the objective of facilitating and tackling barriers to on-Island business growth, improving relationships with industry, continuously improving our value proposition for digital businesses, and attracting new digital businesses to the Island. The team quickly set about creating new tools and processes in order for us to better serve our stakeholders and generate new business. These included an opportunity pipeline tracker, strategic account plans, and the introduction of our Digital Accelerator Programme, created to fast-track the business journey and ensure speed to value. These measures have allowed the Agency to adopt a much more targeted and focussed approach to assisting our Island’s businesses.
Now, one year on, we have identified and engaged with over 100 stakeholders, providing each with the dedicated account manager. A system that was quickly put into practice throughout the lockdown period, with our Strategic Partner team assisting a number of digital businesses seeking support and timely information with regular contact and updates and identifying opportunities for financial assistance. The team were also instrumental in the development of return to work guidance notes for our sectors.
Due to travel restrictions this year and the cancellation of many events, we’ve had to completely change our approach to attracting new business to the Island. Our strategic partners have worked with the industry heads to develop a content strategy approach in collaboration with industry, to attract businesses to our website as well as developing a prospecting approach to actively engage our target audiences.
Collaboration has between industry and Government has been driven by our Strategic Partners and the agency as a whole, and 2021 will be no different as we concentrate on a collaborative business development approach with our Island’s ecosystem, showcasing the skills and services available to new businesses. The team will also continue to support local businesses, tackling any barriers to business that may arise and ensuring that there is a continuous trusted partnership between the public and private sector.
In 2019 we launched our blockchain proposition with the purpose of guiding blockchain businesses through regulatory landscapes, focussing on expert-led assistance. This year we have evolved our proposition with the Digital Accelerator; first introduced as a concept at a workshop in July were it was developed alongside key individuals and business involved in the blockchain space on the Island.
This programme was created along with a new Code of Conduct, developed to encourage collaboration and a supportive, beneficial working environment to engage with potential businesses interested in relocating to the Isle of Man. The Accelerator Programme has created a more active ecosystem of interested businesses, including recognition for those Island businesses with presence in the blockchain and crypto space, and clearer access to our Island’s service providers with direct experience in supporting blockchain businesses.
In September, we finalised and issued Token and CIS guidance notes in conjunction with the Financial Services Authority. The guidance gives greater clarity to those considering the Island as a potential home for their blockchain-related businesses, about the likely regulatory status of crypto assets and tokens they may issue. This guidance was well received by industry and garnered off-Island press coverage, calling on other jurisdictions to follow in the footsteps of the Isle of Man.
Alongside this, the team have continued with on-going international comparative research to establish legislative and regulatory areas to develop. Two areas have been identified and work is underway with the Cabinet Office and Manx lawyers to pursue these further.
Despite COVID-19, interest from applicants continued under our new business opportunity pipeline process, with strong interest being established well into 2021.
This year saw the launch of the Department for Enterprise’s National Broadband Plan (NBP), with an ambitious target of delivering ultrafast fibre broadband to over 99% of our Island’s premises within five years. Given the diversity of the Isle of Man's landscape and the remote nature of some of the properties, the Isle of Man Government recognised that delivery of fibre broadband to these areas would be commercially unviable and that funding should be made available to ensure that properties in nine intervention zones would have access to the service. Work is now well underway, with Manx Telecom chosen as the preferred supplier for the roll-out.
A key takeaway from this year has been the essential need for reliable and high-speed internet, highlighted when the majority of our resident’s took to remote working – a trend that looks set to continue for many. It was this that was the catalyst for additional investment into the NBP which ensures the acceleration of the roll-out from five years to four, with 75% of premises due to be passed by the end of year three. At the time of writing approximately 35% of premises have now been passed, equating to 1241 premises within the intervention zones and 14,700 in total.
Another major development from the Department’s National Telecommunications Strategy is the installation of two additional subsea cable landing points in the Isle of Man, completed in December. This new infrastructure will serve to enhance the Island’s connectivity to global data networks. Named ‘CeltixConnect-2’ and developed by Ireland-based, Aqua Comms, the cabling forms part of its wider strategy to develop the ‘North Atlantic Loop’ which includes two local branch connections which will enable the Island to benefit from additional landing points connecting the Isle of Man to Ireland and the UK with onward connections to Europe and the USA as well as enhanced resilience for residents and businesses alike.
2021 will see the infrastructure team continuing to work closely with Manx Telecom to progress the roll-out of Island-wide fibre broadband and support the development and trial of innovative technologies via the IoT Accelerator Programme.
Esports has been on the radar of the Agency since 2019, when we worked with industry advisors and experts to identify the benefits to an industry this huge for the Island. The strategy was developed and in mid-2020 we launched our proposition. As has been seen with the huge growth in the industry in this year alone, we have been excited to see the possible future opportunities in this fast-paced and dynamic sector.
Our new Head of Esports, Chris Kissack, appointed in July this year. Since beginning his role, Chris has continued to connect and built his strong network of esports contacts, through hosting panels on some of the leading industry events to one-to-one interviews with influential professionals. Every conversation has helped define and discuss the Isle of Man’s value proposition within the esports industry and explore the potential for the Island to be a strategic location for esports growth.
The excitement has really come from the level of interest and engagement that’s come from discussions with some of the big players within the space, and the interest in regulation and legislation to support a safe, workable and profitable industry. We have teamed up with these key entities to help write the rules, determining how those rules are actively enforced and who should be licensed as a result.
In an industry like esports it can be especially important to build on the grassroots scene of a jurisdiction, so over the past few months we have been looking at how we can best educate the Island on what esports is and how it could benefit the Island as a whole, rather than just economically.
The proposition continues to be supported by a number of local businesses looking to enter into the esports space and support and grow the industry on-island; from lawyers, CSP’s, hotel owners and startups. Each of our stakeholders will be engaged over the next year, including a number of on-island events to help educate those on the esports proposition as well as how they can engage and benefit from the sector.
2021 will be a very exciting year for esports worldwide as the trend of huge growth continues from the past year. It is great to be part of something so prevalent with so much potential at an early stage, and have the opportunity to see it grow into a new legacy for Isle of Man.
As the year draws to a close and a mix of emotions is felt for the year behind us, we can now look forward to 2021 and the substantial opportunities that await our sectors. As we look forward to the year ahead we will be drawing together an in depth look into what our sectors hold, so do keep an eye out for this in January.
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