Digital Ireland Forum: consumers set tech agenda, says BT’s Colm O’Neill (video)

8 Sep 2014

Colm O'Neill, chief executive of BT Ireland

The recent ice bucket challenge sent video data rates across Ireland soaring 12pc, said BT Ireland chief executive Colm O’Neill. He believes that consumers, rather than industry, now set the tech agenda.

While BT doesn’t have a consumer business in the Republic of Ireland, the very fact BT in Ireland enables fixed and mobile broadband providers to serve consumers gives the company a bird’s eye view of emerging trends.

“Most people will use what we do every day, whether it is the network we deliver to wholesale customers or what we do for banks, retailers and data centres.”

O’Neill says BT is well positioned for growth, having continued to invest throughout the recession.

Video demand in Ireland, he says, is insatiable. “Because of the recent ice bucket challenge, our traffic was up 12pc. Video has been a relentless trend, mainly due to increased usage of Netflix and various video-on demand services from broadcasters.”

In Northern Ireland the next phase of a broadband plan with the government to make the region the most fibre-dense region in Europe has kicked off, and a further 45,000 homes and businesses are to receive digital infrastructure.

“It’s a complex and challenging engineering project but it is really exciting when you see the impact it has on villages and towns. We expect the same to happen in the Republic of Ireland in the years ahead as the National Broadband Plan gets delivered.”

Post-recessionary thinking

Digital Ireland Forum: BT’s Colm O’Neill on Ireland’s digital infrastructure needs

As the Irish economic recovery gets under way, O’Neill says that across the island the company maintained investment levels with a view to being in good shape when the recovery arrived.

“What sustains you in the last five years is not going to make you successful in the next five years. We’re very focused on the major convergent areas of fixed, mobile and entertainment for consumers and on the business side the IT and networks coming together.”

With all the recent investments in 4G and fibre broadband and backbone networks, O’Neill believes Ireland is in good shape.

“But there are still some gaps and certainly broadband in rural areas still needs some work.

“The industry is aware of this, the Department of Communications is working to fund a €512m rural broadband investment.”

O’Neill believes the tech agenda is increasingly being set by consumers rather than businesses.

“It’s a fascinating time to be in the tech industry.”

However, he is concerned Ireland must not lose momentum in the areas of skills and digital infrastructure.

“We need to look at the digital infrastructure of the country as just as important as physical infrastructure, like roads. We need to see this as a long-term significant investment to make Ireland a really, competitive global economy.”

He says the shortage of workers with STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is as much a global issue as a local one. “We’ve created a niche and we need to continue to invest in high quality, well-educated people with a strong focus on engineering and maths.”

A testament to the capability of Irish students is the annual BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, now entering its 51st year.

“This has not just been successful in an Irish context – the winners go on to compete in Europe and for the past 25 years there have been Irish entries and the Irish entry from the BT Young Scientist has taken first place in 14 of those years.

“By global standards it is a top-class exhibition and the young Irish people participating really do demonstrate that.”

Last week, O’Neill was appointed chairman of IBEC’s Telecommunications and Internet Federation (TIF).

“One of the things that has attracted me to the industry was how passionate the people in the industry are.

“The services provide a huge amount of entertainment for people, such as video on demand. At the other end of the scale it is technology that saves people’s lives. When you dial 999 it better work and the same is true for telecoms in hospitals.

“The people in the industry feel that sense of obligation and they convey that with a sense of excitement and passion.

“It is also an industry that invests hundreds of millions of euros every year. It directly employs 17,000 people and a further 8,000 indirectly. It accounts for 2pc of the Irish economy and I’m proud to represent it.”

The 6th Digital Ireland Forum takes place in the Convention Centre Dublin, on Friday, 12 September, at 8am. Visit the event site for further information.

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