Digital route forward

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TelecityGroup Ireland managing director Maurice Mortell warns that Ireland needs to ensure a national rollout of fibre broadband, redesign the education syllabus and take other important steps to guarantee the country is a leader of the digital economy

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The head of TelecityGroup Ireland Maurice Mortell believes Ireland needs to move faster if it is to capture the industries and jobs of tomorrow.

If you are as concerned about Ireland’s digital economy aspirations as longstanding data centre professional Maurice Mortell, then you’ll realise Ireland got off to a pretty good start this week with the news that 650 secondary schools across the country are to get 100Mbps broadband by 2014.

Following a pilot of 78 schools, 200 more will get this infrastructure this year, followed by 200 in 2013 and 250 in 2014.

What’s missing however, Mortell warns, is a syllabus that integrates with this investment and empowers teachers and students together.

"This investment will only be as good as the syllabus we put in place to integrate with this. My hope is the new Junior Cert that is coming will result in changes to the syllabus. I know for a fact that Education Minister Ruairi Quinn is a genuine believer in education and really understands what needs to be done to get it to the next level."

Mortell is an avid believer in the power of education and skills to propel the Irish economy forward, and by making the right infrastructure and education decisions in tandem he is certain Ireland will lead rather than follow the next industrial wave.

He is adamant that we must provide students with the skills to attain the jobs digital industries will bring, and to do that we must eradicate the digital divide that exists between schools with the infrastructure and knowledge and those schools that lack sufficient connectivity.

Dublin data centres

Last year, Mortell’s previous company Data Electronics was acquired by European data centre player TelecityGroup for close to €100m and the company operates a number of large data centres in Dublin.

The data centre where we are having our conversation looks out on what is probably one of the most vibrant digital clusters in Europe. In front of us, construction is advancing on Google’s €75m data centre. Down the road is Microsoft’s €1bn data centre that serves its cloud businesses across Europe and the Middle East, while US data centre empire Digital Reach Group is preparing to build a state-of-art operation across the road.

These data centres – the engine rooms of the digital economy – will serve everything from social networks to cloud computing, online banking, e-commerce and a host of global financial services that will represent the beating heart of commerce in the 21st century.

At TelecityGroup in Ireland, plans are in progress to add an additional 7.5MW of incremental customer power, which will take its total customer capability across its sites to 12.5MW.

TelecityGroup Ireland operates three carrier-neutral data centres in Dublin, with a combined capacity of more than 5,000 sq metres and 5MW of customer available power. These data centres are key international internet hubs and offer access to more than 40 carrier networks and access to INEX, the Dublin internet exchange.

Ireland and digital infrastructure

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Mortell says that in terms of digital infrastructure, Ireland is currently in fourth place in Europe because of a myriad of factors, chiefly fibre connectivity and electricity.

"What Ireland needs to attract is some of the large Asian fibre carriers into the country. We are seeing major investments by Hibernia-Atlantic bear fruit and Emerald Networks intends to bring fibre ashore at Belmullet in 2013. We are well served in terms of transatlantic projects but an Asian carrier would bring extra opportunities."

The kind of opportunities that Mortell is talking about are operations like video game firms EA Games and BioWare, which have generated hundreds of new jobs in the west of Ireland, or pharmaceutical firms like Allergan, which before Christmas announced 200 new jobs as part of a major R&D-led investment.

"But unless we take a more national view on rolling out infrastructure to the SMEs and homes we’re going to be behind the curve."

Mortell is in the driving seat to capture a lot of the industries that could create future jobs in Ireland and is aware of the areas in which the country is missing a trick.

One of the major opportunities he warns could be missed is the creation of legislation to support the arrival of online gaming and gambling businesses in Ireland.

A study by DKM Consultants estimates that as many as 8,000 new jobs for e-commerce professionals, accountants and business analysts could be created with average salaries of €40k per annum if the Irish Government moves on amending the 1956 Gaming and Lotteries Act.

DKM says that if Ireland were to capture just 5pc of the global online casino business it would represent a local sector worth €2.2bn.

"Failure to amend this legislation has meant we’ve already lost opportunities to Gibraltar and Malta, where legislation has been specifically set up and designed for companies of this nature.

"You’ve also got to bear in mind that the US are going to soon start softening their view on hosting online gaming and gambling platforms in the US and this could create further competition for Europe," Mortell stresses.

"So we’re probably missing a trick at the moment. The longer we wait the more likely we’ll miss out."

In terms of power infrastructure to support major data centres and manufacturing operations such as Intel or EMC, Mortell says Ireland is just about competitive at the moment.

"Paris is using nuclear energy and it is costing 4 cent per kilowatt per hour – Ireland is double that.

"In general terms, the grid is viewed here positively. The grid is considered to be robust and resilient and rarely goes down.

"Our pricing is just about competitive at the minute and we need to be careful not to make ourselves too uncompetitive, especially in a European environment where we’re trying to attract business in."

Irish weather as an asset

PREPARING IRELAND FOR THE NEXT ECONOMIC WAVE

€100m: Amount TelecityGroup paid to acquire Irish data centre group Data Electronics

7.5MW: Amount of power TelecityGroup intends to add to its various data centres in Dublin

8,000: Number of jobs that could be created if new legislation is passed to support online gaming industries

5,000 sq metres: Combined capacity of TelecityGroup’s three operational data centres in Dublin

Believe it or not one of Ireland’s assets in this regard is its weather.

"For 50pc of the year, the temperature in Ireland is less than six degrees, which means free cooling for data centres that can take the ambient temperature from outside and cool the facilities.

"This is crucial when you consider the megawatts of power that need to be cooled in your typical data centre. For Ireland with its aspirations to be the ‘Internet Capital of Europe’ our climate is an invaluable asset."

Returning to skills and employment, Mortell notes that the skills shortage in technology is bittersweet at a time of high unemployment. There are currently 5,000 tech roles that need to be filled and despite high unemployment in the domestic economy the jobs are being filled by tech professionals from all over the world, attracted by Ireland’s cities and lifestyle.

"We’ve never had difficulty getting people, it’s just the process can take a long time. Finding professionals in areas like networking, operating system management, database administration and security is key.

"My concern would be that the next wave of people coming out of universities – if we ever have enough of them – tend to emigrate and don’t have the right skills.

"We’ve talked a lot about retraining and taking people from other sectors such as construction and reskilling them to work in the technology industry, and institutions like IT Tallaght are doing great work in this regard, but it just takes time.

"It is my hope that the next wave of school leavers and graduates are equipped with the skills and know-how to work in the exciting industries of the 21st century.

"I believe Ruairi Quinn is genuine about this – the key will be integrating a digital syllabus with the new Junior Cert and boosting maths and science performance to ensure the skills needs of the future are there."

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com