The Friday Interview: Oliver Coughlan, O2 Ireland

28 May 2004

Oliver Coughlan (pictured) thinks there’s a misconception about mobile phone networks and it is this: once they are built, they look after themselves. As O2’s chief technology officer, it is Coughlan’s job to maintain the network and optimise it for the benefit of the firm’s 1.4 million Irish customers.

O2 spends €3m a week — indeed has invested a total of over €1bn since 1996 — building, maintaining and improving its network. The job is never done. O2 has 1,450 base stations around the country. The evidence of this investment is dotted all over the map of Ireland that adorns Coughlan’s offices in O2’s Baggot Street headquarters.

Coughlan lovingly explains how the network is structured: the underlying high-powered SDH (international standard for data transmission) wireless network that consists of two rings: one running in a large circuit from Dublin around the south of the country, the other covering the west and north west; the massive underground trunk running between Dublin and Limerick; and in between the hundreds of base stations reaching out into every corner of the State. In fact, there is hardly an area of the country that the network does not reach; the population coverage is over 99pc, both for GSM and GPRS.

However, even before the operator completed its GPRS network it started work in earnest on its 3G infrastructure. This work is progressing well, says Coughlan, with population coverage already standing at 34pc and climbing. He estimates the operator will spend €200m over the next two to three years on its 3G network. And then there are the wireless local area networks or Wi-Fi networks — 22 built so far with a further 20 to come by the end of this year, according to Coughlan, who says the company has been hugely encouraged by the month-on-month 50pc traffic increases on its Wi-Fi networks.

Although he wears it lightly, Coughlan’s job must be one of the more pressured in the company. If anything goes wrong, he has to answer not only to his colleagues but also to over a million aggrieved customers. It genuinely puzzles him how Irish people won’t demand particularly high standards in shops or restaurants but boy, if the line goes dead or the network is busy, they hit the roof!

“The expectation of mobile customers in Ireland in general is that they will only tolerate a top-class network,” he says diplomatically. “Customers in other countries will tolerate networks that we wouldn’t here. We have a very demanding customer.”

As a result, O2 must do everything it can to ensure first-rate network performance. The ‘busy’ network message that appears on mobile displays is becoming a rarity, argues Coughlan. He also claims that the percentage of dropped calls on the O2 network in Ireland — just over 1pc — is a lot lower than the European average of about 4pc. The target this year is to reduce this figure even further, to 0.9pc.

“When you think there’s over 9.5 million calls made every day on our network and that only 1pc of these are dropped — we’re proud of that. But it doesn’t happen by accident; it’s where our investment goes.”

Coughlan and his colleagues go to some extraordinary lengths to keep the network firing on all cylinders. For example, before major sporting events, such as outdoor pop concerts, one or more of the company’s 30 mobile base stations are driven to the venue — be it Marlay Park or the Galway Oyster Festival — and put into position to provide extra network capacity.

Although Coughlan has been with O2 (formerly Esat Digifone) more or less since the beginning, his career before that had plenty of twists and turns. It began with an apprenticeship in electrical engineering in a shipyard in his native Cork; following that he lectured in the same discipline and then became a FÁS instructor. He then spent six years in London with London Underground where he project managed the introduction of new safety systems following the King’s Cross fire of 1988. Returning to Ireland he went into consultancy before joining Digifone.

Two things about the mobile industry set it apart, in his view. One is the degree of competitiveness (he laughs off the “cosy cartel” with Vodafone notion). The other thing is the high rate of technological innovation. He clearly relishes testing, analysing and measuring the performance of new wireless systems. But one senses that his enthusiasm is based partly on the love of the technology itself and partly on what it can achieve.

For example, he reveals that O2 is currently conducting four trials of a new wireless technology called TDD, which holds the prospect of bringing broadband to rural areas without putting fibre optic cable or copper wire in the ground.

“There’s always an incentive to bring broadband to a large city. It’s like the bus routes: who wants to run the last bus out to Kinnegad? We think we have the capability and the infrastructure to bring broadband to west Mayo when we see the need for it,” he comments.

Does wireless have any limits? Not that he can see. Indeed, he feels that with wireless around the future of fixed-line telephony is very bleak. He notes how new apartment buildings are going up in Dublin where none of the residents orders a fixed line; they just use their mobiles. “Who wants to have a land line anymore? There’s a good chance that wireless will totally replace fixed line because fixed line is lacking in investment and people just want to be wireless, on the move.”

By Brian Skelly

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