Digital infrastructure: Ireland’s next Ardnacrusha opportunity

23 Jul 2009

Some may ask why do we need to invest in digital infrastructure and why are we in a hurry? Simply put, it’s about job creation.

It has already been proven that in the 27 towns around Ireland where the Government-backed Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) have been built there has been an influx of investment and jobs.

Over a four-year period, the 27 towns saw their share of foreign direct investment (FDI) grow from 24pc to 90pc.

Currently, 32,000 private sectors jobs rely directly on the MANs for communications; 88,000 third-level students are relying on MAN services; 15,000 public servants rely on the MANs for their communications; 40,000 homes and businesses use the MANs indirectly; and there are 400,000 mobile users relying on the MANs every day.

The second phase of the MANs – consisting of 67 towns – is being rolled out over the next year by E-net.

Apart from FDI, having these networks available in towns around Ireland should act as an enabler for telecoms firms to serve communities where local entrepreneurs can set up businesses and be able to sell to the world whether they are in Glenties or Tubbercurry.

While in the 19th century, trade followed seaports and railway lines, in the 21st century fibre lines or ‘digital roads’ as we’ll call them will bring a world of trade to any town that is open for business, while also revolutionising emerging fields such as digital healthcare.

But there is one major problem – the lack of a digital spine or, in telecoms parlance, backhaul to link up these towns which would simply exist as islands of fibre not connected to anything. Across the country, Ireland has a wealth of fibre lines running along canals, gas lines, railway lines and motorways belonging to semi-states such as CIÉ, Bord Gáis, ESB, plus ducting belonging to the National Roads Authority. With the exception of ESB, which is providing backhaul to parts of the country, this fibre infrastructure is not connected to anything.

This week, the Government unveiled its ‘Technology Actions to Support the Smart Economy’, which includes a plan to create an Exemplar Network that will dovetail with its plans to create a one-stop-shop to tie all these stranded assets together and connect them to the MANs.

The decision to build an Exemplar Network will result in 350 new jobs being created at Dublin and Belfast-based tech firm Intune Networks.

Intune Networks has developed the world’s first programmable fibre optic platform, which is critical to building an Exemplar Smart Network. This new technology will help to bring the internet to the next level, allowing high-quality, on-demand and interactive services.

Developing this technology has the potential to position Ireland for a wave of opportunities based on the future of the internet. Intune Network’s technology, which effectively uses different colours of light to prioritise web traffic to ensure it arrives at its destination faster, has already elicited the interest of City of London traders. Meanwhile, the Government will present the technology before the EU Parliament and the World Economic Forum.

For once, Ireland has a chance to be out in front of the world in terms of digital technology, says Tim Fritzley, CEO, Intune Networks. “This is a very bold plan. We are hard at work preparing ourselves to begin with the first stage of the network in the autumn and we expect to have most of the network operational by the end of 2010.”

Fritzley says that Intune’s technology puts web services into the switching network, enabling what he calls semantic web for switching, or liquid bandwidth.

“Intune Networks has come up with a sophisticated colour coding fibre optic system,” explains Communications Minister, Eamon Ryan TD.

“This is a dramatic technological advance that was developed here in Ireland, in Irish universities and with the support of the Tyndall National Institute. It is a world-changing technology that could be disruptive. We decided to support this company and use its technology where we have a State-owned fibre network and make Ireland the best-connected country in the world.”

As a measure of the quality of the work being done at the Cork-based Tyndall National Institute,  Minister of State for the Information Society, Conor Lenihan TD, explains that an entire class of students from the institute have been recruited by Nokia.

Fine Gael spokesperson for communications, Simon Coveney TD, says that tying together State assets is a no-brainer and needs to be pursued vigorously.

“We need this infrastructure if we’re going to have a business future. We need to set a target for where we want Ireland to be.

“If Ireland wants to be taken seriously as a hub for research, development,

innovation and software and have a highly skilled workforce, we must provide significant bandwidth that makes Ireland more attractive for investment,” Coveney concludes.

By John Kennedy

Pictured: Tim Fritzley, CEO, Intune Networks, with the Minister for Communications, Eamon Ryan TD