‘There can be no green economy if we don’t sort out our broadband problems first’

11 Feb 2010

The green economy is just a pipe dream if we remain broadband laggards, says Magnet chief.

The news last week that Irish wave energy company OceanEnergy signed a deal with US multinational Dresser-Rand that could generate thousands of Irish jobs based on a market potentially worth €200 billion shows the possibilities behind the green dream.

The story lends credence to the aspirations of a nation that sees alternative energy, such as wind and wave power, tied in with sophisticated abilities, such as exporting this energy via an interconnect with the rest of the world as our potential economic salvation.

Three jobs for Ireland

But for Magnet CEO Mark Kellett, who has worked for technology giants such as Sun and Yahoo! in Silicon Valley, these aspirations are just a pipe dream if Ireland fails to do three things: sort out our lamentable broadband problems; learn to cluster and focus innovation; and provide better support for entrepreneurs.

“Green technology is not only something that benefits our generation, it benefits our children and our children’s children in terms of what it does for the environment and the economy, and it is something that can be tangible because it generates jobs and exports.

“But you will never have a sustainable green economy unless you underpin it with a sound telecoms infrastructure,” he says.

If Ireland is going to have an intelligent smart grid, high-speed telecoms broadband that connects homes and businesses with global pricing and the ability to trade energy will be paramount.

Kellett believes, however, that so far Ireland has failed to grasp the opportunity high-speed broadband infrastructure presents, and lacks a cohesive national plan that would be a selling point for the nation and the lynchpin for future job creation.

“It has been said lately that the cost of deploying smart meters in every home to measure water usage would be €2.5 billion. We know for a fact that you could deploy fibre-optic cabling around Ireland for the same amount. Why don’t we deploy both at the same time so that we have a world-class infrastructure? What that needs is a brave decision to cross that chasm. Brave decisions require one giant step – taking two or three piecemeal steps at a time won’t get us there.”

A bit about Magnet Networks

Magnet Networks provides voice and broadband services to Ireland’s major cities and towns and can serve 600,000 people with DSL broadband. The company’s 50Mbps fibre-broadband service is available to 11,000 homes around the country. Last year, Magnet completed €9 million worth of business deals – 75pc of its new customer base accesses speeds of 15Mbps and higher.

Kellett argues that broadband rollout in Ireland over the past decade has been frustrated by the competitive environment and the inability of the State to see the importance of the infrastructure for the country’s future.

“We have a lot of fibre infrastructure deployed across the nation, but much of that infrastructure is stranded and not being exploited by the agencies who manage it. Fundamental to the success of the green economy is enabling the nation as a whole to talk in terms of the technology, the innovations and the learning around green technology.

“We need to have clusters of companies talking to each other, Irish universities talking with universities in the US, Japan and China and a broadband infrastructure the equal of anywhere else in the world. If we don’t do this, we will be a stranded island on the periphery rather than one that sits strategically between the US and Europe,” he explains.

“We have a unique opportunity to grasp. We have the potential to be at the core of the global green economy. We have 16pc of Europe’s coastline and there’s tremendous potential to exploit that. But again, you need to have infrastructure in place first.”

Digital infrastructure in Ireland

Digital infrastructure, especially fibre-optic cabling, running around the country is fundamental. Kellett believes State-owned assets such as the Bord Gáis fibre network, ESB’s fibre network and CIE’s fibre network, not to mention the ducting beneath motorways owned by the National Roads Authority, must be exploited in tandem with a State-backed framework for the future.

“There are two or three key things holding Ireland back in the era of digital infrastructure. First, let’s recognise that there has been tremendous investment by Magnet and others in this space, but also let’s recognise that there’s been investment in the past that currently is stranded. The ducting underneath our motorways is unutilised. If we used our heads we could have fibre infrastructure connecting all the towns and cities of Ireland and be bringing jobs.

“We have the metropolitan area networks (MANs) in place. What isn’t in place is the political will to drive fibre forward and see linked usage of the assets that are in place. Companies like Magnet have invested approximately €115 million to bring truly high-speed broadband and what we want to know is whether we can compete fairly on a level playing field.”

He also believes that, at a political level, there is a lack of understanding of digital economic opportunity, in contrast with the US, where President Barack Obama is due to unveil that country’s digital plan for revitalising the economy.

“In the US, they seek the advice and services of industry experts, but at the moment in Ireland we have a body politic that are not necessarily experts in this area.

“One of the things we do in business, and it should apply in Government, is recruit to our weakness. One of the key things as a leader is to recognise your weakness and recruit to that weakness. Don’t see it as a threat. See it as a positive that builds you as a leader and surround yourself with people who are better than you because all that will happen is you will learn from them. And that should apply in a political and governmental space.

“They need to recognise that, at a departmental level, we don’t have the skills or the experience and we shouldn’t see that reaching out to industry is a weakness. It’s a strength,” Kellett concludes.

“Foreign multinationals looking at Ireland will see that kind of a model as a ‘joined-at-the-hip-thinking’ model, and to me that would encourage more FDI into Ireland where they see both industry and government working side by side instead of at the moment an unwillingness to move at the pace we need to move in.”

By John Kennedy

To watch a video interview with Mark Kellett, go to Digital 21.

Digital 21Digital 21 is a campaign to highlight the imperative of creating an action programme to secure the digital infrastructure and services upon which the success of our economy depends.

Photo: If Ireland wants to have smart metering technology to reduce energy consumption, such an investment should happen in tandem with an overall digital strategy, says Mark Kellett, CEO, Magnet Networks

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