The West is awake to Gaeltacht areas becoming digital entertainment hubs

23 Oct 2008

Broadband is the magic ingredient bringing Ireland’s Gaeltachts to Hollywood

The next time your daughter sings along to Sesame Street, wants to turn on Dora the Explorer or watches Tutensteinon Discovery Kids, just remember that a company in the Connemara Gaeltacht played a key role in developing these products.

That company – Telegael – which has won two Emmy awards, had the courage to have a global vision and today is planning to locate offices in LA and London. The company produces TV programmes that are hits in mass markets such as Germany and the US.

Future Human

Telegael is just one of 40 companies in various Gaeltacht areas around Ireland involved in the production of some 70 television programmes. These companies employ over 220 full-time staff and around 190 part-time employees.

According to the chief executive of Údarás na Gaeltachta, Pádraig Ó hAoláin, the onset of TG4 – or TnaG as it was originally known – was the spark for the development of the audiovisual sector. “It started small even before that when independent producer Bob Quinn travelled around Connemara to make films and show them in local pubs.”

Údarás na Gaeltachta developed training programmes, which meant that by the time the Government decided to support the creation of an Irish language station, graduates were available to staff the fledgling venture. A vibrant, independent TV production industry was born.

Now, another spark may ignite industry in the West. As a result of an investment in a 300Mbps wireless network, companies in Gaeltacht areas will be able to think global and create a digital media cluster of their own.

In recent weeks, the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) internet service provider, HEAnet, had wireless broadband specialist, AirSpeed Telecom, deploy a high-speed data service of up to 300Mbps to the Galway, Mayo and Donegal areas.

The move will facilitate new technologies on-campus such as high-definition videoconferencing at the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway and Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) campuses, as well as e-learning and other IT services. Importantly, it will also mean that businesses in these areas will not be limited by Ireland’s under-invested broadband infrastructure.

“The investment will provide a badly needed boost in five Gaeltacht outreach centres owned by third-level bodies. NUI Galway is the owner of five of the seven areas that will be serviced,” says Ó hAoláin.

He cites examples demonstrating the impact of broadband availability. Sports news service An Rinn employs 25 people full-time, and will now be able to discover more efficient means of providing content to TG4 and RTÉ.

In recent weeks, Web 2.0 voice over internet phone player SpinVox – which boasts clients such as Vodafone and Skype – announced it is to create 41 jobs in Gweedore.

“The quality control and language experts that will be based there will play a key role in supporting the customers who use our voice-to-content services around the world,” said SpinVox co-founder and CEO, Christina Domecq.

“Companies like Telegael and SpinVox will use the broadband capability to compete internationally, and Údarás na Gaeltachta sees broadband as vital to enterprise promotion, whether by encouraging businesses to leave large cities or allowing people with vision to get businesses up and running,” says Ó hAoláin.

Telegael is a prime example of a company in the West of Ireland that both competes and co-operates with players all over the world, from Hollywood to Korea, India and China.

One of its programmes, Skunk-Fu, has been bought by 100 broadcasters around the world in its first year, while Die Volly Diehas been sold in 100 countries and is the No 1 pre-school show in Germany.

“How we communicate with these broadcasters is through broadband, we wouldn’t be able to function without it,” says chief executive Paul Cummins.

Despite the poor availability of broadband, Telegael has succeeded, but, as Cummins notes, it hasn’t been easy. “There are Third World countries that have been ahead of us in broadband. The new system is excellent and increases capacity. As a small business, it enables us to expand.”

Telegael was set up in 1988 and currently employs 60 full-time staff and a further 300 part-time staff in Ireland and overseas.

“Often I felt I should have located the company in London or LA, where there was a critical mass of similar companies. We felt this keenly at the early stages when we needed skilled staff and couldn’t find them locally.

“We often felt our location was a disadvantage, but broadband helps to mitigate that. We have an operation in Belfast and we’re looking at the possibility of setting up offices in LA and London. But our roots are where we are and we see ourselves very much as an international company.”

Cummins says that the new broadband system can be expanded as Telegael’s needs grow. “Everything is digital now. Ultimately, all our business will be done on broadband. And while our location has been a disadvantage at times, the arrival of broadband and decent delivery capacity levels the playing field for us.”

He says that broadband availability has the potential to unleash a new wave of entrepreneurial activity in the region, as well as enabling local people to work from home and contribute to the local economy.

“It’s a fact of life. More and more people are working from home. Thanks to broadband, you can work from anywhere now, and this should benefit regions like Connemara.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured: the chief executive of Údarás na Gaeltachta, Pádraig Ó hAoláin, believes Ireland’s Gaeltacht regions can work as digital media clusters. Connemara-based Telegael, for example, works with shows likeSesame Street and Dora the Explorer, and has its own successful animation product, Tutenstein

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