The Friday Interview: Andrew Fordham, Eircom

6 May 2005

If you believe half the reports you read from analysts to tinpot gurus you would be convinced the advent of voice over IP (VoIP), Wi-Fi and potentially WiMax as well as new entrants such as Skype all contrive to sound the death knell for traditional telcos. Not so, says Eircom’s business marketing manager Andrew Fordham (pictured), who intends to turn these threats into an opportunity for the incumbent.

There is a quiet revolution sweeping the business end of the telecoms market. Whether harried executives realise it or not, they are using VoIP for most of their phone calls. What an increasing army of these professionals are aware of, however, is the growing usefulness and availability of facilities such as Wi-Fi in airports, hotels and, if you’re truly alert, in a phone box near you. The ability to work from a hotspot at high speed and access the company virtual private network (VPN) as if you were in the office is an advantage growing numbers of executives worldwide are availing of.

What few people realise, however, is just how much Eircom has embraced the opportunity Wi-Fi presents. The company has surpassed a target of having 250 Wi-Fi hotspots countrywide, not only in restaurants and airports but is taking advantage of its network of phone boxes around the country to locate Wi-Fi modems. As a result, the Wi-Fi experience is no longer confined to the coffee shop but workers and students can log on to the web through their laptops or PDAs from a park bench, car or street corner.

Fordham elaborates: “We’ve got around 252 hotspots around the country, which are visible in restaurants such as McDonald’s, but the vast majority are in hotels. What few people realise is that we also have Wi-Fi set up in around 90 phone boxes across Ireland that are public wireless hotspots, which enable people to use the internet around that payphone, whether they are in a park or on a street.”

Confirming that Eircom views Wi-Fi as a strategic opportunity, Fordham explains: “If you look at the computers being sold across Ireland today, a higher percentage of these computers, especially laptops, are being sold with built-in Wi-Fi. In terms of market growth, the serious growth is currently in the business market and to a lesser degree the residential market, but that will change. We are looking to serve both markets. Since 1 April, anyone who signs up for Eircom Broadband will automatically be given a wireless modem and can create a wireless network in their homes or business. As well as this, we launched a separate ‘Wi-Fi in a box’ product, which enables people with a premises to literally install a wireless hotspot by themselves and offer customers voucher-access to that hotspot.”

Although Eircom’s Wi-Fi service does not currently allow users to roam on to other providers’ services, Fordham said the operator is in talks with other providers to make this happen.

While the benefits of high-speed data transmission over Wi-Fi are obvious, Fordham believes the corporate market is among the earliest adopters of the new technology. “Mainly it is businesses, but not exclusively, who use DSL and then progress to Wi-Fi. There are currently 32,000 business customers of Eircom Broadband and there’s a significant amount of people in the office who have got used to the speed and efficiency of DSL. When they are out and about, the more they need to use it and that’s where Wi-Fi fits the bill. If you’re away from the office, you want to check if you’ve got email and need to use it. Our feeling is there are lots of people in that situation. What we’ve done is made it a lot easier.

“There are two ways of paying for Wi-Fi in Ireland. You can buy a voucher for one hour or 24 hours and you can still do that — or if you’re a DSL customer, you can have a subscription on your Eircom bill for €10 a month. This was originally €66 but we thought that was too expensive. We want to encourage usage. If you have a broadband line from Eircom, you can sign up online for a €10 subscription that gives you access to any Eircom hotspot around the country.”

In terms of the rollout of broadband, Eircom recently pledged to have 90pc of its phone lines broadband enabled by 2006. Fordham says this is progressing apace. “What we’re finding as the more people that connect to broadband, word of mouth spreads and many people who get DSL don’t want to go back to a dial-up situation. DSL is one of those technologies where the benefit is visible, once you’ve used it you are loath to give it up. Broadband is currently available in 200 towns around the country. We’re now getting down to smaller places. We originally said the first phase would have it in every town with 1,500 people. Our next phase will target places with fewer than 200 people. That’s going very well. We are on plan and looking to do an events programme involving more than 30 events around the country educating people about broadband.”

Fordham is certain that the onset of broadband and services such as Wi-Fi could profoundly change the way we work. “There is already a huge increase in the volume of people who telework. The real revolution, however, will be more about flexible working. Everyone talks about how much busier they are today. People are going to be looking for much more flexible arrangements in terms of, perhaps, working at home for a few hours in the morning and then drive to the office after rush hour. Or simply work from home on a Friday afternoon or from a Wi-Fi hotspot at a coffee shop in the city centre.”

But what about owner/managers of businesses who are averse to the idea of employees working from home and would prefer to see them at their desks 9 to 5? “If you have to physically see people at their desks and keep an eye on what they’re doing then you’ve got bigger problems,” he says.

On the original questions surrounding the onset of Wi-Fi, VoIP and new wireless broadband technologies such as WiMax, Fordham laughs off the suggestion of a difficult future for the telecoms industry. “Quite the opposite in fact. In the early Nineties people said the internet would kill telecom operators. Now telecom firms are reaping the benefit of the whole move to broadband. I would see VoIP, Wi-Fi and eventually WiMax leading to huge opportunities for the telecoms industry.

“Telecoms are essential to business communications. If anything, telecom players will become even more relevant to businesses going forward,” Fordham concludes.

By John Kennedy