The Friday Interview: Dr Willie Donnelly, Waterford Institute of Technology

7 Nov 2003

Waterford as Ireland’s telecoms research hub? It will be so if Dr Willie Donnelly (pictured) succeeds with an ambitious five-year programme to build a €24m research facility in the city.

Donnelly is well qualified to lead such a project having established in 1997 the Telecommunications Software Systems Group (TSSG) at the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). The group currently employs 50 full-time researchers and focuses on telecommunications management; software services and distributed systems; and internet technologies and the mobile internet. The group recently received an initial €3m development award from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). The award, which will be delivered in annual tranches of €1m over the next three years, was made as a result of the TSSG submission to the SFI Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET) Development programme. The submission proposes the establishment of a National Telecommunications Services Research Centre (NTSRC) in Waterford. If the proposal meets with its approval, the SFI will stump up 80pc of the €24m budget, with the WIT’s industrial partners – Ericsson, Motorola, Lake Communications, Eircom and O2 – providing the rest over a five-year period. The centre would be established with Donnelly as its director.

One of the main research thrusts of the facility would be to look at ways to close the gap between what Donnelly terms “the two separate worlds” of network technology and services, a gap he describes as “the single greatest barrier to the creation of the information society”.

He argues that the telecoms industry has always been driven by a technology vision rather than a user one. Services are developed to run on a particular network technology and there is very little portability of services between different platforms as a result. Donnelly’s vision is one where user needs are placed at the centre of technological innovation. “The centre is needed to create an environment where services are not technology-based but user-based,” he asserts.

The holy grail, he says, is for communications infrastructure to ‘disappear’ altogether so that users are totally oblivious to it and are simply aware of applications that work quickly and reliably wherever the user happens to be. “Users will have access to a multiplicity of communication environments but it won’t be obvious to them. They will simply select the one that is most suited to the service being used at the time.”

This nirvana may still be a long way off but Donnelly believes there are good reasons why Ireland can become a leader in this area of research. First, it already has an excellent reputation for telecoms software research. Alcatel, Ericsson and Motorola are among a large number of leading telecoms companies that undertake research in Ireland. There is, in addition, a cluster of home-grown software and hardware firms plus several research institutes such as Donnelly’s own TSSG group, beavering away in the area. According to Donnelly, the proposed NTSRC would harness all of this activity. “A lot of the pieces of the jigsaw are already here and our role will be to bring all the pieces together,” he explains.

Secondly, Ireland is starting to become a magnet for high-profile international researchers who recognise the country’s expertise in the area and want to base their research efforts here. Donnelly himself has managed to recruit a former Cisco senior engineer who is due to take up the position of technical director of the centre early next year. Describing the appointment as a “major coup”, Donnelly says the technical director – whom he is unwilling to name at this early stage of the process – is one of seven “internationally recognised academic researchers” who are coming to Waterford thanks to the SFI development grant.

Donnelly did well to get the grant as on average the SFI approves only one in three funding applications. This willingness to turn down projects as well as approve many others is, Donnelly feels, one of the most important – if not universally popular – innovations the SFI has brought to Ireland. “They’ve had the strength to say no whereas in Ireland in the past when you got to a certain level you generally got funding…of course, I may have a completely different perspective at the end of January if our proposal is rejected!” he jokingly adds.

On a more serious note, Donnelly says that the suspension of the Government’s other main funding programme for research, the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions (PRTLI) is a major cause for concern. WIT was awarded €5m under Cycle 3 of the scheme, €2m of which was to be invested in the construction of a new building. As a result of the freeze, Donnelly has had to rent office space in a technology park and find the annual rent of €50k from other sources.

But he has a solution. He feels that the WIT and other third-level institutes affected by the funding drought should be able to borrow on the basis that the funding will be released at some time in the future. “The €2m may be a small amount of money in the overall mix but it could make a huge difference to us.”

By Brian Skelly