Aurora Telecom’s Sean O’Donnell: ‘We’re building the network of the future’

5 Dec 2018

Sean O’Donnell, general manager, Aurora Telecom. Image: Luke Maxwell

Aurora Telecom is closing the circle on a dark-fibre network that will be a jewel in the crown of Ireland’s digital infrastructure.

As I pore over maps of Ireland with Aurora Telecom general manager Sean O’Donnell and consider the vision for what the company has in store for Ireland, you cannot help but realise the country’s place in the digital world.

On the periphery of Europe geographically, Ireland is taking centre place in the digital world, bridging time zones but also massive amounts of data that traverse between New York, Dublin and London and on to elsewhere in the world in literal picoseconds (one-trillionth of a second).

‘Nationally, the deeper we go into the regions, we create a level playing field. We introduce competition, which means greater choice for customers, which ultimately boils down to more affordable prices’

The infrastructure we are talking about – connecting everything from engineers in Silicon Valley and traders on Wall Street, to real-time multiplayer games in data centres, all of which we assume happens by magic – is on a vastly different scale to the present-day political squabbles about broadband. But it is all related.

Economic impact

Aurora Telecom, a division of Gas Networks Ireland and a subsidiary of Ervia, operates what it claims is the most modern dark-fibre infrastructure in Ireland, with a network of 900km and growing. It is the partner of choice for providers establishing subsea transatlantic fibre connectivity to Ireland. Along with a national network, Aurora operates an extensive metropolitan area network (MAN) in the Dublin area.

The network’s proximity to the gas network also facilitates a secure energy supply, another key driver for data centre location. The economic contribution of the data centre industry in Ireland since 2010 is estimated to be worth more than €7bn, according to a report by Grant Thornton and IDA Ireland. Currently, more than 50pc of Ireland’s electricity is generated using natural gas.

In recent weeks, we reported how Aurora has begun work on the final portion of a second Dublin-to-Cork fibre optic link as part of a €35m investment plan. Scheduled for completion by Q3 2019, the new section of network will serve Cork, Waterford, Kilkenny, Carlow and Kildare.

When completed, Aurora will operate a fully resilient national ring network that will link Dublin with the midlands, south and east, providing future-proof capacity for not only the quants and sellers on Wall Street or the social media giants in Dublin, but also the long-term broadband requirements of towns and cities along its route.

“We operate the most secure network in Ireland and the most modern network in Ireland,” O’Donnell explained, giving the example of how helicopters routinely criss-cross the network to guarantee its security.

To understand the difference between the kind of fibre network that Aurora provides to telcos, tech giants and data centre providers, and the broadband-to-the-home connectivity that has become a political hot potato in Ireland, the different aspect is the ultra-high, multifibre count in the Aurora pipes. Each strand of fibre is future-proofed to deliver connectivity at an industrial scale.

“Nationally, the deeper we go into the regions, we create a level playing field. We introduce competition, which means greater choice for customers, which ultimately boils down to more affordable prices. Everywhere we go, we become the carrier’s carrier. Our customers include companies like Vodafone and Virgin Media, who we deal with on a business-to-business basis. They are not buying just capacity, they are buying infrastructure.”

What this means is that when these companies engage with Aurora, they install their own network equipment to connect with the fibre. “They are only limited by the quality of equipment they put in. It is truly unlimited in terms of capacity.”

O’Donnell explained that the nationwide network connects with the majority of data centre and submarine fibre landing points as well as proposed landing points. “In fact, our network facilitates all of the subsea carriers that consider Ireland to connect into. Once they land, they must join a network with an ultra-high fibre count and a certain type of fibre quality.”

Speed and capacity

Returning to my point about Ireland being at the heart of the digital world, O’Donnell explained: “When carriers and banks were originally looking at links from the US to the UK and from Europe, a straight line from US to London actually went through Ireland. So, initially, carriers would have seen that as an obstacle. Now, they see it as a benefit. It’s a symbiotic relationship in that the data centres have fuelled the requirement for submarine cables to land, and one feeds the other.”

One of the reasons why many data centres proliferated around the west side of Dublin was the availability of quality fibre backhaul. “We are definitely seeing an interest and a pick-up of interest on data centres in the regions and cities other than Dublin. Ireland is a very small place and, with the motorways, you can be in one side of the country in two hours. So, you can have staff eventually dealing with networks, and field engineers dealing with data centres, in Dublin, and being able to also commute between the two sites.”

This kind of infrastructure, O’Donnell believes, is “key to the economic future”. He continued: “Our network is almost essentially like the main motorway network of the system, with clear routes and high-capacity routes without being in grids. Our network goes from one city to the other, or one town to the other, without having to go in and out of exchanges. Ours is a clear network with significant uptime.

“Keeping with the motorway analogy, traditional broadband is like getting a seat on a bus that travels that network. But using dark fibre is akin to giving you your own personal lane on the motorway and you can go at any speed you want. You are only limited by the investment in your own infrastructure. You can put on relatively cheap equipment or you can put on Rolls-Royce equipment and send terabytes of data through the network.”

While most consumers haven’t heard of Aurora Telecom, most major foreign direct investment companies and over-the-top (OTT) internet platforms most certainly have.

“Our own reports are that Corning, manufacturers of the fibre optic cabling, still haven’t reached the capacity of fibre optics. It’s not just the speed that is important, but the capacity that is possible down just one strand. We have hundreds of strands running through the pipes on our network, and we can scale easily and put more fibre in as well as additional ducts. We don’t envisage any circumstances where we will run out of capacity.”

Looking to the future of the Aurora network in Ireland, O’Donnell reiterates that the imperative is economic impact. “The benefit for us is, we unlock the possibility for technology in the regions. New start-ups, e-health, e-learning, working from home – all of that is facilitated. Our network is the artery for the country.

“For our future plans, it is a case of bringing our fibre deeper into the regions. The more towns we can connect, the more we contribute for our people and the industries that are here and the ones yet to arrive. We’ve built the network of the future.”

Updated, 4.50pm, 5 December 2018: This article was updated to clarify that a picosecond is one-trillionth of a second, not one-thousandth.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years