The CV of Barry Rhodes (pictured) reads like a potted history of the Irish technology industry. The Englishman has been in Ireland nearly 30 years and in that time he has worked in companies of all shapes and sizes, starting as general manager of mainframe behemoth Burroughs in 1977 and ending with his current role as CEO of the Internet Neutral Exchange Association (INEX), a not-for-profit association of both Irish and international providers of internet services.
Officially semi-retired since 2001, Rhodes was appointed to his part-time position with INEX at the end of 2003 in order to spearhead the expansion of the facility that allows telcos, ISPs and other members of the association to exchange internet traffic and find the quickest and cheapest transport routes for their ever-growing volumes of IP traffic.
“Until then it was run by members’ representatives,” he recalls. “They were not marketing themselves and they weren’t looking for new members. The business plan called for part-time general manager and I started two days a week.”
Rhodes was an obvious choice for the job, having been one of the early movers and shakers in the internet industry in Ireland. It began in 1995 when technology entrepreneur and current Horizon Technology Group chairman Samir Naji invited him to join Internet Services Ireland (ISI) in 1995. ISI, at the time the biggest business ISP in the country according to Rhodes, subsequently bought out another ISP, EU Net Ireland, before it was itself swallowed up by Esat Telecom and renamed Esat Net.
The 10 years that he has been involved in the internet business has seen the rise of dotcom mania and the great tech recession that followed. For Rhodes, however, the dramatic events of that era have done nothing to hinder the growth of the internet as a communications medium.
“IP traffic has been growing since the very beginning. People carried on using it and carried on using it more, even if it was email or search engines. In the dotcom bubble it was the investors who got hurt. Internet traffic continued to grow through those bad years.”
He adds: “INEX traffic grew by 60pc last year, which was below the average in Europe. We are expecting it to probably triple this year. Part of this is our taking on new members and part of it is the content becoming richer. IP traffic is likely to double each year for the next few years.”
This inexorable growth in IP traffic is what makes INEX needed more than ever and since he took on the job, Rhodes has been intent on expanding the group’s membership. INEX had just seven members when he joined; there are now 18 and Rhodes is confident there will be at least 30 by the end of the year. Not only does more members mean more revenue, it also means a better service for everyone, he points out.
“I always use the analogy that if you have four ISPs they [can exchange traffic] with four point-to-point connections but if you have 20 ISPs it requires 400 point-to-point connections. That’s where the hub comes in; it means your 20 members only need 20 connections.”
Traditionally the membership of the exchange has been made up of fixed-line telcos and ISPs but Rhodes says that many of the new members will come from a range of different sectors. Potential new members include the mobile operators that are moving ever greater amounts of data traffic around their networks and starting to build out IP-based 3G networks, voice over IP (VoIP) operators and wireless ISPs that are springing up around the country in order to bring broadband to remote rural areas.
“Our motto is: Everything is IP now. Voice will go IP within five years,” maintains Rhodes.
He also expects that digital content providers will fuel the growth of the exchange. These include Microsoft, which recently joined the exchange and which he expects will generate growing amounts of internet traffic through its product development and technical support programmes. He has also high hopes for the newly arrived dotcoms in Ireland — Google, Amazon, Yahoo! et al. Rhodes applauds IDA Ireland for successfully attracting these firms here and he expects them to crank up the amount of digital content they are pushing out from Ireland. When this happens, he is hoping that several European tier two telcos such as Belgacom and Tiscali will join the exchange in order to collect this internet traffic.
“By connecting to one of the INEX hubs they will be in a position to negotiate competitive deals with many of the carriers and ISPs operating in Ireland, they can save the membership charges by reducing their upstream internet transit costs, and they will be able to participate and network within the close IP community,” he says.
To cater for all this anticipated growth, Rhodes negotiated a six-figure loan from IDA Ireland earlier this year, money which is being used to fund the expansion of INEX from being a national to an international facility. Additionally, IDA Ireland will sell the INEX facility to prospective companies around the world through its overseas office network. In March, INEX went live with the second hub in TeleCity’s data centre in Citywest, and lit the dark fibre between there and Data Electronics in Kilcarbery Park. The organisation has also budgeted to open a third switching centre by the end of this year. In addition, INEX has taken office space at TeleCity and taken on a marketing and membership development manager and an administrator.
At a time when consumers are still getting their heads around terms such as broadband, DSL and Wi-Fi, INEX may be a somewhat obscure piece of telecoms infrastructure but it a necessary one that will only grow in importance as internet usage continues to expand, Rhodes believes.
“Most of us have always been satisfied with our internet usage for such applications as email, travel bookings, researching information, online games, music downloads and so on. What we are constantly changing our expectations about is faster access for the richer content that is now becoming available.”
By Brian Skelly