Siro CEO: ‘Fibre is about enabling a greater future for Ireland’

4 Nov 2016

Siro CEO Sean Atkinson. Image: Connor McKenna

“We want to fix the digital divide… we passionately believe that this is the right thing to do for Ireland,” said Siro CEO Sean Atkinson.

Today (4 November), Siro revealed that it has passed 36,500 homes or businesses with fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) services.

Siro is a €450m joint venture between Vodafone and ESB and it aims to pass 500,000 premises in 50 towns around Ireland by 2018.

‘Our ambition is to be the next telecoms infrastructure; we want to be the new telecoms infrastructure’

It is in close competition with incumbent operator Eir, which has passed 34,000 premises with FTTH, according to the company’s Q1 results this week. Eir plans to connect 322,000 premises directly with FTTH by the end of 2017, bringing to 1.9m the number of premises receiving fibre-based high-speed broadband.

So both companies are locked in battle. They are also, along with E-net, shortlisted for the National Broadband Plan, a €500m-plus intervention strategy led by the Irish Government, with contracts due to be awarded between mid and late 2017.

The real litmus test for both Siro and Eir will be customers who sign up for the FTTH services and receive potential speeds of up to 1Gbps.

Toward a 1Gbps society

An engineer, consummate business negotiator and project planner, with years of experience in the aerospace and energy-engineering industries in Ireland, the US and the UK; Atkinson is matter-of-fact about the mission ahead. And he’s more than a little patriotic about it, too.

“Our ambition is to connect every home that doesn’t have high-speed broadband to the next generation of 1Gbps services.

“Both Vodafone and ESB share the same vision: we want to fix the digital divide. We passionately believe it is the right thing to do for rural Ireland. Vodafone’s CEO Anne O’Leary is focused on developing the ‘Gigabit Society’, while ESB’s Pat O’Doherty wants to build on the organisation’s heritage by building on the electrification of rural Ireland.”

After graduating from university, Atkinson found himself working in Manchester on various exciting projects, from aerospace to gas turbines. He soon wound up in Houston, Texas on a joint venture between the UK’s National Power and ESB International. But just as he was about to sign the contract on a new home in the UK, he heard Ireland’s call and returned home to work with ESB International.

His role transitioned from pure play-engineering to the business aspect of things, where he worked on due diligence of contracts and found he was a shrewd, skilled negotiator with an eye for detail.

This prompted him to pursue an MBA and he began working on the investments arm of ESB International.

When ESB and Vodafone began working on the Siro joint venture, it was decided that Atkinson would be the man to lead the project.

“If you are talking about the digital divide, I actually live on the wrong side of the digital divide because I live in the Wicklow mountains and can’t access fibre myself, so I sympathise with people who are waiting for this to arrive. Tell me about it.”

Atkinson said that when 1Gbps services start to become mainstream in Ireland, a new era will begin.

“Our ambition is to be the next telecoms infrastructure; we want to be the new telecoms infrastructure.”

He said that Siro is currently working in 17 of the first 50 towns, and it is getting faster as it deploys fibre. Already, it is looking at 300 smaller towns beyond the first 50.

As well as Vodafone selling the first services, it has signed up Digiweb, Westnet and Carnsore Broadband to resell fibre services as connectivity comes on stream.

“We are at over 36,500 homes today, and we are achieving a roll-out speed of 10,000 homes passed per month. Our plan is to pass 200,000 homes by the end of next year.”

Will fibre electrify the nation?

Using the ESB’s backbone network, the company can follow pathways and overhead lines. “We can go across fields and follow the topology of the electricity network and actually, there is very little digging involved. Pretty much every building has an electrical connection and that is the topology we can follow.

“The biggest focus is obviously safety because electricity is involved. But we are building a broadband network adjacent to an electricity network, which on an international basis, is fairly unique.”

While in theory, Siro can go where there is electricity, in reality, it is not that simple.

“It is still a challenge because Ireland is a sparsely populated country. It has been a learning process for us because it involves a lot of engineering solutions, new procedures and of course, safely working on an electrical network.

“The heart of it for us is that we want to make it future-proofed.”

In relation to the National Broadband Plan, Atkinson is respectful of his competitors, Eir and E-net, and said that whatever the outcome and whomever is the winner, the end solution for Ireland will be fibre to the home.

“We think that a solution that genuinely future-proofs the country is the way forward, and anything that falls short of that will require additional investment in the next decade.

“The government team working on the National Broadband Plan are right to ensure that this is built right, because we will only get one chance. Hence, the process is rigorous in the extreme.

“What’s in it for Ireland at the end of the day is that this will be transformational, and it will give people the opportunity to build businesses in their own communities without having to leave for big cities.”

He mentions the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen, where hundreds of jobs are being targeted in rural Cork, as an example of the economic shift that will come with fibre.

“When we were researching and evaluating Siro, our travels took us to Kansas, where we saw first-hand the transformative effect that Google Fiber was having. Start-ups who needed connectivity but couldn’t afford big rent were flocking to rural Kansas.”

Managing expectations

Ultimately, Atkinson’s preference is that Siro’s network will be a 100pc fibre network. “Unless you live in the lighthouse at the end of the Sheep’s Head Peninsula … there will be exceptions but ideally, very few.”

In looking at the months ahead as the crucial National Broadband Plan deliberations continue, Atkinson is more concerned about civil-engineering bottlenecks than the competition.

“The biggest challenge is a delay of any description and we work very closely with county councils to get a memorandum of understanding in place, [so] when a contractor arrives to do a job, they can get started right away with out any hold-ups.

“It is a complex task with a lot of moving parts. When you cross roads with this infrastructure, you need approval from the NRA, for example. Fortunately, the National Broadband Plan has helped to spark imaginations and create a desire to get infrastructure as quickly as possible.

“Most places we visit, we are welcomed with open arms and the hardest thing is managing expectations. We work closely with county councils, like that of Cavan, and the attitude we get from most county councillors around the country is that it is really about doing the right thing for Ireland.

“No one wants delays.”

Looking to 2017, Atkinson said he is keen to accelerate the roll-out of Siro’s fibre network to 30,000 a quarter.

“It is really hard to envision what people will do with 1Gbps once they have it. I personally believe it is the key to the fourth industrial revolution. Just like electricity in the 20th century, it will be hard to imagine what it is going to be like without 1Gbps speeds in a few years.

“I do believe that the National Broadband Plan will redefine the telecoms landscape in Ireland.

“Whoever wins, it will put us in the vanguard of the digital disruption that is taking place. The CEO of GE said, for example, that the company went to bed one night as a manufacturing company and woke up the next morning as a software and analytics company. Caterpillar [is] selling equipment that you can fix or make better through a software update.

“Infrastructure is hard, but at the end of the day, it is about engineering and enabling a greater future for Ireland.”

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