The increase in competition, not just in terms of broadband connectivity but across the whole range of business communication services, has been a hard-earned process for the many carriers who have carved out a niche in the Irish market.
Back in the Nineties, Paul Connell, director of Pure Telecom, worked as chief financial officer of the Irish subsidiary of GTS, a leading American telecommunications carrier. It was a time when launching any challenge to the incumbent operator was even more laborious than it is today.
He paints a vivid picture by drawing a comparison with the airline industry. “Fifty years ago if you didn’t want to fly Aer Lingus you either had to get a boat or learn to swim. When Aer Rianta took over the airport, other carriers were allowed in. Telecoms are obviously more complicated but it’s a similar thing. In this country there is only one network that we’ve paid for as taxpayers. Deregulation of the network has allowed other carriers to come in and use it in the same way the airport was opened up to other airlines.”
GTS was one of those carriers and one of the first to win a licence to compete with Telecom Éireann in 1994. “In those days we went through a number of different processes that the incumbent devised to let carriers use its network,” recalls Connell. “We eventually got to the situation where we were allowed to put routers in people’s premises. These took away the need for number prefixes but it was horrendous. We had teams of people putting them into people’s IT rooms and teams of people going out to fix them.”
To make matters worse, the routers didn’t always catch all the traffic so some of it would still go out over Eircom lines causing hassle when it came to billing. Around 2000, the regulator’s intervention with carrier pre-select lines solved many of these problems, enabling customers to switch providers without having to invest in additional equipment.
The gate was finally open for a new generation of telcos to offer real competition, automatically routing their customers calls through the most appropriate and cost-effective carrier for the time and type of call. Pure Telcom was one of them.
“We have around 3,800 business customers that range in size from the corner shop to large multinationals,” he says. “The name of our game is dedicated account management. Ireland’s too small to bypass any customers and the personal touch is always required.
“We do business on our customer’s terms. This is crucial to surviving in today’s highly competitive telecoms market. We invest more in customer service personnel than sales and because of this we have a low churn rate.”
Having established a presence in the voice market it was inevitable Pure would look to broadband services to expand its customer base, but the same model applied. “When a customer comes and says it wants broadband we look for the best product that suits its requirements,” says Connell. Last February Pure launched its Broadband Anywhere service, an umbrella offering that puts the onus on providing the customer with the most cost-effective solution. “If DSL doesn’t work we’ll try wireless, if wireless doesn’t work we’ll put in satellite,” says Connell.
It’s Connell’s view that ADSL and other technologies are coming of age but there is still a lot of work to be done to increase uptake. And it’s not just about cheaper broadband: “Price isn’t the main obstacle at the moment, it’s the availability of DSL that’s still the problem. Even in city areas there are still a fair proportion of consumers and businesses that can’t get broadband. And then there are big towns such as Dungarvan, which has some large multinational businesses but is not on the roll out for DSL until 2007.”
Connell has little problem convincing customers there are alternatives to DSL because he had to be convinced himself. “We kept away from satellite until last year when we bought a company that had existing satellite customers. After six months we found that there were no issues for our customers and were very happy to offer the service elsewhere,” he says. “I wasn’t really sold on satellite until then. It was a real-life product test and we decided it was something we could sell.”
He admits satellite installation costs have been on the steep side but says Pure has been working on it, spreading out the cost over a 12-month period. But once again, he is adamant the real value for customers is not just about money: “While cutting costs is very important to our customers, having a reliable service provider that provides a single point of contact is even more valuable. We have found most businesses want a service provider that can deal with their hassles on their behalf to allow them to get on with their own business.”
By Ian Campbell