Build and they’ll

19 Apr 2012

Sea Fibre Networks CEO Diane Hodnett masterminded the construction of a 72 fibre-pair network linking Ireland with the UK

Digital infrastructure is vital to Ireland. With visionary insight, Diane Hodnett spearheaded the $15m CeltixConnect fibre gateway linking Ireland with the UK.

When we should have been building sophisticated broadband networks and enabling entrepreneurs we put all our energy into building houses we don’t need. When we should have been training computer scientists and engineers we fielded an army of quantity surveyors and lawyers we don’t need. And when Irish businesses should be trading online via social networks and e-commerce sites, of the 80pc or so of firms that have websites, less than 21pc can trade online.

Despite these foibles there are people here, in Ireland, who see the future and thanks to the efforts of business leaders, a few good policy makers, entrepreneurs and agencies like the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, Ireland is claiming the title ‘Internet Capital of Europe’.

There are plenty of good reasons start-ups are relocating from Silicon Valley to Ireland and why internet giants like Google, Facebook and more recently Twitter are expanding exponentially in the country. If Ireland is smart it can be at the heart of the digital economy. But it must invest in digital infrastructure.

Speed makes a difference

For Diane Hodnett, a seasoned telecoms and internet executive and CEO of Sea Fibre Networks, the time is now to eradicate existing or future infrastructure bottlenecks. The key word here is ‘latency’ and for internet giants and financial firms, a speed difference of just milliseconds could be the difference between millions of dollars in trade. Ireland’s location on the edge of Europe, the English language and the last landfall towards America will make it strategically viable for decades to come.

Working tirelessly for the past number of years, Hodnett pulled together $15m worth of investment to deploy the first fibre infrastructure linking Ireland with the UK for over a decade.

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The new CeltixConnect fibre network, which takes 100km off existing sub-sea cables to reduce latency, will more than double the existing capacity connecting Ireland and the UK. It went live at the start of February.

It lands at East Point Business Park and the IFSC in Dublin, and connects with other fibre networks in Dublin. It also intersects with the T50 metropolitan area network that links key business districts, data centres and business parks in Dublin. On the UK side, it lands at Anglesey in Wales and connects with Manchester, London and on to mainland Europe.

Hodnett is also working on a second fibre project that will connect Ireland with France and drive right into the heart of the Paris telecoms cluster and other transatlantic fibre networks owned by Alcatel-Lucent and Cable & Wireless – creating a link between the finance houses of Europe and Wall St.

“We are building a modern-day transport system for digital information,” Hodnett explains. “It’s like building the railroads in the 1850s or the airports in the 1960s and 1970s or the motorways in the 1980s and 1990s. We are building the new roads for the new industries such as Google, Twitter and Facebook.”

Sea Fibre Networks is laying 72 pairs of fibre cabling to get digital content flowing in and out of Ireland as quickly and efficiently as possible with no delays, no degradation of signal or hiccups of any description.

‘Your Country, Your Call’

Hodnett has also joined forces with Neil Leyden, winner of the president’s ‘Your Country, Your Call’ competition in 2010 to build the International Digital Services Centre (IDSC), which could smooth the way for future digital industries coming to Ireland. As a non-executive director along with entrepreneur, philanthropist and venture capitalist Bill Liao, one of the key pillars of the IDSC will be to remove the bureaucratic and administrative frictions internet firms and entrepreneurs may encounter when arriving in Ireland.

Returning to infrastructure, Hodnett notes that with the proliferation of smartphones, where users are downloading content and engaging in social networks over mobile networks, even mobile operators will be hardpressed to offset broadband bottlenecks.

“Think about Vodafone or O2 and services like Microsoft or Google. For them, the infrastructure is critical. Without someone making the investment to build this sub-sea telecoms network, it would be hard to encourage investment here in relation to jobs and new businesses.”

Hodnett believes Ireland’s psychology in relation to technology, jobs and the digital economy needs to change. “I was involved in the telecoms industry since the 1990s and I saw the peaks and troughs in technology. What was funny was lots of people did computer science in 1999 because they believed there was money to be made. Then there was the bust and people dropped out of computer science and pursued traditionally worthy degrees, like law. From 2005, they studied property development and quantity surveying.


$15m: Amount raised by Sea Fibre Networks to build the CeltixConnect gateway linking Ireland with the UK

90pc: Proportion of consumer internet traffic that will be video-based by 2013

72 fibres: Can transmit more than a lifetime of music in a single second

28 days: Worth of video that can go the gateway in a single second, or the entirety of Wikipedia in the same second

“There’s this thing in Ireland that I haven’t experienced elsewhere where people tend to make their education choices based on where they see money coming from.

“And then look around you today, at Facebook’s decision to buy Instagram for $1bn, young Irish companies like DataHug making significant investments in Silicon Valley and the incredible CoderDojo movement and now people are interested in computer science, etc.

“Our entire psychology has to change – you should only do it because you want to do it and you have a genuine interest in it, whether it is art, technology or design, and not because you think it is going to give you a good job. Until we shake that mentality I don’t think we are going to make that transition to being a truly digital economy.

“I’ve spent time in Silicon Valley and Singapore. Singapore has a large finance industry but not a truly creative industry, and then you look at Silicon Valley where guys are coding, creating games because they think it is cool and they want to do it. Ireland has the opportunity to marry those two together.

“We have the fundamentals in terms of the tech industry here and because we are attracting the next wave so there’s an opportunity to change the psyche. This involves more positive press and creating an innovation culture that allows the next generation of kids to do what they want to do and be good at it.”

While Hodnett sees the potential of the digital economy for a country like Ireland, she is a pragmatist who has worked hard to secure investment at a time when there is little money available in the country.

What Ireland needs for digital economy

I ask her what she thinks are the components Ireland needs to put in place to ensure that the rising digital tide lifts all boats.

“High-quality broadband everywhere is an obvious one. But it’s a tough one because I remember seeing Lord Stephen Carter (architect of the Digital Britain strategy) speaking at an event and he said you need to realise you can’t deliver broadband to everybody and maybe you just need to give everybody a basic service. I worked on projects at Liverpool City Council where it was e-enabling a lot of its services. One of those projects involved getting PCs to kids in poverty-stricken areas and that had positive spin-offs.

“A lot of the push has to come from the Government. This involves the Government itself using cloud computing and allowing people to engage with it online and facilitating and supporting digital infrastructure rollout.”

Hodnett says the project by the Department of Communications and the Department of Education and Skills to deploy industrial-strength 100Mbps broadband to up to 600 secondary schools around Ireland is of paramount importance.

“Not being able to deploy high-speed broadband to everyone is not a get-out clause. But we still have massive issues with connectivity and backhaul from places such as Dublin and Cork.

“The amount of investors and companies I speak to are UK-based and want to come to Ireland but don’t necessarily want to be in Dublin, they want to be in Galway or Kerry but can’t move there unless they have the access to basic, quality broadband services.

“Delivering 100Mbps to Baltimore or Clonakilty doesn’t let us off the hook – we need to offer better services in places we can’t connect to,” Hodnett says.

Watch a video here of Sea Fibre Networks CEO Diane Hodnett speak about the building blocks of Ireland’s digital economy:

Diane Hodnett of Sea Fibre Networks on the building blocks of Ireland’s digital economy 

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