Ireland’s high-speed challenge

25 Mar 2004

Broadband is going to be the electricity of the 21st century according to information and communications technology industry leaders and commentators, although when we think of fundamental commodity technologies we should remember the oldest of the lot — water schemes — and the fact that telephony is still the single most pervasive communications technology in the world despite its more glamorous juniors.

One of the key lessons of history is that the economic effect of new technologies gave an initial boost to the cities where they were first located but the real transformations occurred when they were distributed to town, village and country. So the power of broadband will really only begin to be realised when it is universally available.

There is another issue that can be overlooked as today’s discussions focus on DSL and wireless, usually meaning Wi-Fi — bandwidth. The providers of broadband need high capacity to respond to demand, but as users begin to base business functions and applications on a broadband foundation their need for more bandwidth will rise also. Broadband is a term that was coined for a communication technology that can carry several services simultaneously, from multiple webpages to real-time transactions and prioritised traffic such as voice and video. Simply put, the more bandwidth and speed an organisation uses the more it will require over time.

In this aspect of our infrastructure, Ireland is very much better served than observation of our tardiness in rolling out DSL and other entry-level broadband services might suggest. Thanks to the Government deal with Global Crossing and other transatlantic links, plus multiple undersea connections to Britain, the island has fibre optic connectivity in the multi-Petabit range. The total of 17 separate fibre cable links also offers more than adequate capacity for expansion through lighting up currently dark fibre.

A further element of reassurance comes from developing technology to push even more data traffic over the same fibres. International services are competitive, with the presence here of the major carriers in the Western world, from BT through subsidiary Esat BT to AT&T, Cable & Wireless, Colt, MCI, Worldcom and so on. Eircom, Smart Telecom and other indigenous telcos also have strategic alliances with these and other multinationals so that quite literally any international telecommunications service conceivable can be bought in Ireland today — if you are in a major city. Ireland Inc and the Dublin region has inherited telecoms riches from the heady days of the late Nineties when Dublin began to be surrounded by world-class data centres, many now unfortunately decommissioned.

The regions, however, were relatively neglected because likely scale of demand did not justify private sector investment outside of the major urban centres. A combination of national and EU investment and subsidy, however, has helped drive the infrastructure to its current stage. Fibre networks developed by Eircom, Esat BT, ESB Telecom, Chorus, NTL and some others have brought service capacity to all major urban centres. With the addition of the 19 metropolitan area networks (MANs) the majority of Irish businesses will be on or within economic reach of fibre. That may be for direct connection but is more likely to be service through resellers across links such as traditional copper, wireless, TV cable networks, point-to-point microwave and so on.

A high-level example is the Smart Telecom service in Cork City, based on the newly launched 60km optical fibre MAN and with the National Software Centre as its first major client. “We can deliver next-generation internet value-added services, voice and data, multiple products on one service port connection — and all at seriously competitive rates,” says David Ralph, head of Smart Metro Networks. So confident is Smart Telecom of its service offering that it is providing enterprises with a free optical switch on their premises capable of carrying a 2.5GB service. “In essence, they pay for what they use, on a contracted basis and with provision for ‘bursting’ or upgrading if and when required. It’s already there, ready to be invoked.”

From a market perspective, the key point is that Smart Telecom is planning to repeat the formula in other MANs as come on stream with Limerick, Shannon, Ennis, Athlone and Tullamore already planned. Other service operators are already making similar plans but Smart Telecom is living up to its name in a strategic partnership with Hong Kong Telecom and its global IT backbone. It opens new lines of competition, bearing in mind that the MANs are in a sense not connected to anything else until someone starts providing a service on them and paying for the onward connections to the internet backbone or other international links. The new Managed Services Entity, membership of which is to be announced in the next few weeks, will manage the MANs on behalf of the state and ensure fair competition and pricing as new, smaller operators aim to base localised services on them.

Broadband availability and usage are now being taken as European and in fact global indicators of a country’s technical sophistication. We were well up there when being judged on international capacity but have slipped in recent years as our information society is measured on actual participation. Mobile international investment is swayed by such things while actual economic success and competitiveness is clearly going to be increasingly governed by the effective and competitive use of ICT.

Ray Tobin, key accounts manager at Esat BT, points to a real and present danger: “The new EU entrant countries are already skipping a technology generation — or two — and getting ahead of us. They also have the geographical advantages of mainland location and more urban populations.” He might also have added that they tend to have low-cost economies with highly educated, hard working and adaptable young people whose chosen second language is mostly English. That begins to sound very much like the well-sung IDA mantras that incubated the Celtic tiger. We have been warned.

By Leslie Faughnan

Pictured at the launch of the Cork broadband network in the National Software centre were David Ralph, head of Smart Metro Networks; Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources Dermot Ahern TD and Michael O’Connor, Cork Business Innovation Centre