Will smart infrastructure join the dots for Ireland 2040?

19 Feb 2018

Wind turbine at Burtonport Harbour, Co Donegal. Image: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock

In a race against time to save rural Ireland, the smart grid combining broadband and electricity will be the linchpin, writes John Kennedy.

Late last summer on a cathartic trip to an old childhood stomping ground in Donegal, my car cruised over hill after hill as I scanned the horizon for something familiar. As the sun began to set, I approached Ardara from the east and, suddenly, out of the hills loomed giant wind turbines, dozens of them flanking the mountainside. It had been at least a decade since I had been this way and I hadn’t seen these before. I checked into my hotel, the Lake House near Narin, and cautiously asked for the Wi-Fi password. It turned out the broadband was pretty decent.

On this remote, storm-blasted, far-western edge of Europe, the 21st century was making its presence felt. As it ought to.

On Friday (16 February), the Government of Ireland produced its Ireland 2040 vision, a shopping list of motorways, hospitals, schools, Garda stations – you name it. All kinds of promises to tickle voters. As usual, prior to its publication, the airwaves were dominated by politicians giving out about their area being left out, or why Athlone rather than Mullingar was to be designated the ‘Capital of the Midlands’.

A veteran of all kinds of plans and promises over the last 20 years, to me, the plan – costed at around €116bn – is really a list of electoral promises and won’t be an actual plan until timelines, budgets and dates are committed to.

But still, it is compelling: €22bn on climate change measures, €7.3bn for roads, €3bn for Dublin Metro, a €2bn DART expansion, €2bn for an urban regeneration fund (for towns with a population of more than 10,000 residents), €1bn for a rural regeneration fund (for towns with a population of fewer than 10,000 people), €1bn for flood defence, a €1bn fund for arts and heritage projects, €500m for a disruptive technologies fund, €230m for Dublin Port, €90m for Ringaskiddy in Cork, €27m for Shannon Foynes, a €2.2bn investment in seven universities, and €4.8bn for primary and post-primary school buildings.

All of this is well and good, but what about the smart infrastructure that is meant to join it all together?

It’s about the smart grid, stupid!

Scanning the 182-page document, electricity and broadband are only mentioned 16 times apiece.

Broadband is seen as one of several pillars of the rural economy, as a way of strengthening living and working communities.

Electricity – driven by a single electricity market and enabled by the development of interconnection such as the East-West Interconnector in Ireland and the Moyle Interconnector in Northern Ireland – will move towards wind, gas and carbon capture, biomass, and other renewable sources.

There was scant mention of the National Broadband Plan (NBP), albeit a plan many may have written off as doomed or which may have only a sliver of a chance of success.

But does no one realise that without the rural digital connectivity, the goals and visions of Ireland 2040 may come to naught?

The bigger vision is a single network combining broadband with electricity to create the smart grid, essentially the spine and sinews of a fully functioning 21st-century economy, joining these metros, motorways, schools and hospitals together.

The NBP has its critics. Some say it was too ambitious to begin with – could you really bring 30Mbps fibre to the Black Valley of Kerry? – while others believe it is precisely what will save rural Ireland.

But rural Ireland is dying and it is in a race against time. In recent weeks, I wrote about how important it is to have the connectivity to encourage more people to be able to work remotely wherever they choose to live. I spoke with community members from Gort in Galway, for example, who are crying out for companies such as Facebook or Airbnb to allow workers with young families to move west and achieve work-life balance, while also contributing to the vibrancy and fabric of the community.

This weekend, I learned that there were at least six vacant shops on the main street of my hometown of Trim – a town that is just 30 miles north-west of the capital, Dublin.

This morning, I wrote about how €5bn out of €40bn of retail spending is now online. Lamentably, about two-thirds – a whopping €3bn of spend – leaves the country as consumers opt to purchase from overseas retailers.

For rural Ireland and once-prosperous market towns, it is another worrying sign of change.

The dark horse in the broadband race is SSE

I still believe Ireland needs its NBP to deliver, or some kind of plan. It is about connecting 540,000 premises, which is effectively around 1m people and a huge chunk of Ireland’s workforce.

I felt numb when Eir pulled out of the race in recent weeks, just months after the ESB-Vodafone consortium Siro did the same in order to focus on regional towns rather than up hills and down boreens.

This left just the Enet-SSE consortium in the race.

Communications Minister Denis Naughten, TD, was bullish in his belief that the Enet-SSE consortium will deliver when the contract is signed in September. He said that this is not only because one of its leaders, David McCourt, has vital infrastructure experience in the US, but that McCourt plans to use Ireland as a kind of ‘shop window’ for similar infrastructure projects in Europe.

In the days that followed, I received phone calls from people opining that there’s no way the Enet-SSE consortium can deliver, likening Enet to “two men in a white van” compared to the power of either Eir or Siro.

Is it possible that these critics are just looking at Enet – which until now has stewarded the metropolitan area networks on behalf of the Government – and not the SSE component of the consortium? Are people not seeing the increasingly obvious?

What do we know about SSE?

In Ireland, SSE Airtricity is the second-largest electricity provider, powering around 800,000 homes and businesses, mostly with renewable energy.

Its Scottish parent company, SSE plc, is considered one of the ‘Big Six’ companies that dominate the energy market in the UK and it is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

The company generated £28.7bn of revenue in 2016 and it employs close to 22,000 people.

It is a profitable enterprise, generating more than £585.2m in net income in 2016.

That means it has the wherewithal to adequately invest, or borrow to invest, in a nationwide infrastructure roll-out, not only in Ireland but across the UK and possibly anywhere else in Europe it sees an upside.

An article published in The Telegraph in the UK, dated from June last year, detailed how SSE is exploring major investments in ultrafast broadband infrastructure in the UK, threatening both BT and Virgin Media, and it is worthwhile reading.

Crucially, the move is being seen as “a major signal of confidence in the growing links between broadband and the utilities sector”.

It would seem that SSE and its gas and electricity rivals are increasingly offering smart thermostats and other technologies that need an internet connection.

And, therefore, joined-up thinking around electricity and broadband is the linchpin of future smart infrastructure.

Smart infrastructure should be seen as the linchpin of the overall Ireland 2040 strategy, and equally as tangible as the roads, rail and hospital infrastructure that most citizens understand.

We are at a crucial junction on smart infrastructure

Eir is being acquired by French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel’s NJJ-led consortium at an enterprise value of €3.5bn. Niel’s expertise is in urban-based, broadband infrastructure, which suggests his interests are in retail, not rural connectivity.

But, once the acquisition closes, you have to wonder, does Eir have any plans to go beyond the 300,000 rural premises it managed to pry out of the original NBP intervention area?

With Siro focused on regional towns, Eir taking on a more urban ethos and Virgin Media quietly working away on connecting Irish towns under its £4bn Project Lightning strategy, that means rural Ireland could be in danger of being forgotten. Once again.

That is, of course, unless the NBP succeeds with its last bidder, Enet-SSE, working to a grander strategy focused on the smart grid.

Essentially, in the not-too-distant future, large tracts of vital national telecoms and electricity infrastructure will be owned by UK and French interests.

If electricity and broadband are coming together and the smart grid is the real prize, then, if I was a strategist or planner at ESB or Eir or the Department of Communications, I would be looking at the NBP through a fresh new lens.

Wind turbine at Burtonport Harbour, Co Donegal. Image: Rob Crandall/Shutterstock

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