By March, Northern Ireland will have Europe’s most advanced fibre network. BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill explains to John Kennedy that the Republic needs to hurry up.
It will be remembered as the ‘Tale of Two Economies’. One economy super-charged by a fibre broadband rollout that was the most advanced in Europe, in turn invigorating local businesses and leading to real economic and social change.
The other economy, which has every reason to believe it is a digital leader with its cities that are home to the world’s biggest internet
firms, is undermined across the land by crumbling infrastructure, lacklustre policy and slow-paced regulation.
The first economy I mention is that of Northern Ireland, which by the end of March will have 89pc of lines connected to a fibre-enabled
street cabinet. Current speeds are up to 40Mbps but in the coming months will roughly double to 80Mbps.
Crucially – something telecoms leaders and policymakers in the other economy, the Republic of Ireland, need to understand – these fibre networks are available on an open, wholesale basis to all communications providers on equivalent terms.
Digital infrastructure rollout in the Republic has been stifled for years by regulatory failures when it comes to the copper network, poor investment in nationwide fibre and the ongoing wait for the Next Generation Network Taskforce to reveal its strategy.
The lack of an up-to-date modern broadband network has held back businesses from embracing e-commerce.
Hope for Ireland’s infrastructure
GETTING NETWORKED FOR GROWTH IS A TOP PRIORITY
89pc: Percentage of lines in Northern Ireland that will be connected to fibre by next month
80Mbps: Broadband speeds in 89pc of homes and 85pc of businesses in Northern Ireland by next month
100pc: Derry became the first city in Europe to have 100pc of lines connected to fibre
2015: When and France and Germany can expect to achieve similar fibre levels as Northern Ireland
For BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill, there is always hope and he believes these enduring infrastructure headaches can’t forever hold the country back.
"It’s important to start from the positives. Let’s be clear: we still have a great position in the digital world. We have smart people who are early adopters, who adapt quickly and clearly that’s evidenced by some of the biggest global digital companies basing here, but to sustain that and to grow indigenous industry, it’s important to put things in place.
"For me, the building blocks for the digital economy are around infrastructure and skills.
"When you see the impact that good infrastructure has on a society it really is quite extraordinary. We have quite an advanced broadband rollout in Northern Ireland where we will be at 90pc by March 2012 and will be delivering speeds of up to 80Mbps download and 20Mbps upload. When you see what that does for businesses it is remarkable."
O’Neill cites Derry-based firm Printforme.com, which was among the first firms to be revitalised when Derry last year became the first city in Europe to be 100pc fibre-enabled.
"Here was a business on Ireland’s northwest coast that was predominantly printing for the local community and was under severe pressure. With access to high-speed broadband it was able to get suppliers from the Far East and this enabled them to take on high-value design work from companies abroad, and manage the whole thing from Derry over the internet."
O’Neill says that in the Republic, we have a way to go on the next-generation network front.
"There is a plan being formulated and we participated in the Next Generation Network Taskforce, but there are going to be challenging decisions for us to make as a society in terms of the priorities on that."
Fibre network rollout in Northern Ireland
O’Neill’s colleague Frank McManus, head of wholesale sales and services, spearheaded the project in Northern Ireland.
He says the reason it worked was a combination of an existing strategy BT had to deploy next-generation infrastructure and an enlightened policy decision by Arlene Foster’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment.
"BT’s existing fibre broadband rollout would have taken us past 66pc of all households by 2015 in terms of fibre to the cabinet.
"We were only going to invest where it made commercial sense to do so and deploy it on an absolutely open-access basis in dense urban areas.
"However, Foster’s telecoms policy unit were visionary and wanted to be ahead of the game to position Northern Ireland as first among digital economies.
"A competitive tender was awarded in 2009 for a stg£50m project. BT put in stg£30m, and the NI government, with EU support, funded the rest.
"This allowed us to go into areas where it would never have made commercial sense to go to and as a result 89pc of the community, including 85pc of business, will now have access to speeds of up to 80Mbps."
Skills and unemployment require attention
O’Neill says the gap-funded model should be studied in the Republic, but it is by no means a one-size-fits-all solution. Another gap that needs to be addressed is the skills issue and the Republic’s soaring unemployment problem, he adds.
"All the employment lost was through a construction and retail boom and the potential that exists in Ireland is all around maths, science and technology."
He says this can be addressed by reskilling the existing unemployed, but also through new programmes or curriculum in schools to encourage young people to excel in core subjects that could guarantee them a future.
"Forget about university league tables, the important thing is to get quality students through the doors in the first place," O’Neill stresses, pointing to a significant increase in science students that he witnessed at the recent BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition.
On the subject of entrepreneurship and small businesses, he says firms are being held back by a combination of infrastructure and skills issues, plus the fall-off in consumer spending.
"The key thing that digital infrastructure delivers to those small businesses is a global marketplace. Rather than sell solely to the 4.5m people in this country who are not in the best purchasing frame of mind, they get to sell to a global marketplace."
Regarding skills, O’Neill recalls a speech from Academy Award-winning director and educationalist Lord David Puttnam at the Young Scientists’ Gala Dinner, in which he noted that if you took a teacher from 100 years ago to an Irish classroom today, they could carry on their lesson seamlessly.
"We need to think about what kind of world we’re educating children for. Coding, for example, has become a crucial discipline for people to have. A complete overhaul of the education system is a long-term plan we should consider. But there are practical things we can do today – like just encouraging young people to participate and sign up for maths and science courses."
The potential in young people
O’Neill is passionate about imbuing young people with entrepreneurial and technical skills.
"We need to move them from business and property courses to science, maths and technology courses. They are more challenging technically and how we teach them needs to improve. You need to engage people in science and technology in a way that is enjoyable and shows them the business potential."
Pointing to an offshoot of the BT Young Scientist Exhibition – the Business of Science & Technology programme – O’Neill says he has been impressed by the genuine endeavour of young Irish people setting up businesses.
"This year, there was an entry where they built a product out of seaweed extract as a health drink and built a business and were marketing it. It was amazing to see all the things they’d learned in the programme being applied.
"A former BT Young Scientist winner, Patrick Collison, is an entrepreneur today in Silicon Valley. And there’s Restored Hearing, a successful business started up by two university students.
"When you engage people, make maths, science and technology enjoyable and show them the potential, this is what’s possible and that’s what we need to do," O’Neill says.