Fibre is the silver bullet for Ireland’s broadband saga, says Enet CEO

17 Feb 2017

Enet CEO Conal Henry. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

The end may be in sight for Ireland’s two-decade broadband saga, Enet CEO Conal Henry tells John Kennedy.

The only answer to Ireland’s broadband saga is fibre, says Conal Henry of Enet, one of the firms shortlisted for the National Broadband Plan.

“It’s not that complicated, it’s not rocket science. It is just costly,” said Henry.

‘The EU needs to come out and say every building in the EU will need to have fibre going into it’

Enet is competing for the Irish Government’s €1bn National Broadband Plan. The other competitors are Eir and Siro, a joint venture between Vodafone and ESB. We have interviewed each of the rivals for the National Broadband Plan project, including Carolan Lennon from Eir and Sean Atkinson from Siro.

It is an ambitious project. It is a complex project. But it is the right thing for Ireland to do, said Henry.

It is no small task to provide fibre to 96pc of the country’s land mass, along 100,000km of road to serve 1.8m people in over 900,000 premises.

This catchment area takes in close to 214,000 white-collar workers, 139,000 farmers and 62,000 SMEs currently served with inadequate or no broadband at all.

Fibre is the material of the data age

Fibre is the silver bullet for Ireland’s broadband saga, says Enet CEO

Enet CEO Conal Henry. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

“It should be just putting in the piping and the fibre,” said Henry, “but there are lots of interests involved and we are talking about infrastructure. It is not easy to say what the returns will be like for Ireland but in terms of what it can do for rural economies and job creation, my guess is the return is incalculable.”

Henry knows all about fibre. Enet is a wholesale-only carrier that has responsibility for operating the 94 Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs) around Ireland on behalf of the Government.

This is in addition to a unique dark fibre backhaul infrastructure transiting the rail and gas network, and three proprietary metro networks, including a 100km fibre ring in Dublin. Enet also operates one of the largest licensed wireless networks in the country.

“There are a couple of truisms in telecoms that drive the way people behave and think. One of those is that there is really no inflation in telecoms. In 10 years, the amount of money that Irish consumers will spend on telecoms won’t radically change. So that means if you are going to make money in telecoms, you are going to have to take it off somebody else. And that’s why you see so much defensive activity in telecoms.”

Henry believes that the National Broadband Plan is the right thing for a country like Ireland to do. He also believes that the Government’s stipulation about the eventual winners operating a wholesale model is the correct decision.

“It has to operate as a wholesale business. The key to making it work is getting as many people onto the new network as possible and that means having real competition in the market.”

As the deadline for the awarding of the tender (or tenders) nears, Henry has to watch his words carefully.

But he admits that having operated as a wholesale provider of MANs and fibre backhaul to the telecoms industry, Enet is comfortable with the challenge.

“It costs a lot of money to build networks. The one thing going against us is the ‘who are you?’ factor because we are not a retail player. We have no profile at all because we don’t have a retail business and I’ve never had a marketing budget.

“Regardless of who wins, whether it is Eir, Siro or ourselves, it is the right thing for Ireland to do.

“The country needs it and if it is done the right way, everyone will benefit.”

Europe needs to be more ambitious about fibre

One of the things that Henry believes has held back fibre roll-out in Europe, and in turn has hurt Europe’s data economy, is the emphasis on “technology neutral” funding of projects by the EU.

“It would be great if the EU would just get away from this and make a visionary decision. They need to come out and say every building in the EU will need to have fibre going into it.”

Enet was acquired in 2013 by Granahan McCourt, the investment firm owned by Irish-American infrastructure tycoon David McCourt.

The key to McCourt’s business model is public-private partnerships and Henry said that the company has the civil engineering nous to do fibre broadband roll-out.

He is also convinced that the National Broadband Plan will be a job creator in regional Ireland.

“This is not high-end engineering, but it will bring useful skills into the country. This is going to be a network that is in place for the next 40 years.

“Someone is going to have to look after it. And that’s why we need to invest in skills too.

“We have managed 94 MANs for the Irish Government and we have a 5,000km backhaul network as well as a massive network in Dublin. We have also built our own MANs in Shannon and Castlebar.

“The National Broadband Plan is the right thing for Ireland to do. It is the right thing to do for the people and future generations.

“Just like Eir and Siro, we are in it to win it. But even if we don’t win it, it is an upside for all of the operators because it will have to aggregate across so many networks and extends everyone’s reach,” Henry concluded.

“The key at the end of the day will be ensuring that everybody gets equal access to it.”

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