‘We need to coach people, demystify business and cut through the red tape’

18 Jun 2009

BT’s man in Ireland, Chris Clark, says we need to urgently tackle the nation’s digital divide.

Chris Clark is a pragmatist. He believes that 90pc of the technologies the world will be using in 2021 haven’t even been invented yet. But many of the companies behind these future technologies, from Microsoft to Intel and IBM, have a base in Ireland and we need to hold on to them.

The BT Ireland CEO’s view bears some credence when you think that search giant Google, for example, is just nine years old and, as the world’s biggest technology buyer, has tasked itself with managing the globe’s knowledge, employing over 1,500 people in Dublin.

But Clark also holds the view that there’s no reason why Ireland can’t be the birthplace of the next Google or Apple.

“The more time I spend in Ireland, the one thing that strikes me about Irish people is their entrepreneurial nature.

“The phrase du jour is ‘let’s not let a good recession go to waste’, and from a Government perspective smart people should be asking themselves how can we harness this creative energy and back it up with tax incentives, realistic training and business skills? We need to coach and mentor young people, demystify business and cut through the red tape.”

Clark, who joined BT in 1991, is tasked with managing a 3,500-strong operation in Ireland, north and south. Prior to taking up his role here, he was CEO of BT’s Converged Mobility Operations, while before that he was president of BT Global Services’ Wholesale Business, a global business unit responsible for delivering in excess of €1.5bn in revenues in 16 countries.

Since taking the reins in Ireland, Clark has refocused BT from being a straightforward telecoms and broadband provider to a major IT and network services and training provider, with revenues of £800m sterling.

Key deals such as Telefónica O2 Ireland selecting BT as a managed services partner in a multimillion euro deal, being chosen by 3 to become the principal sub-contractor for the delivery of the National Broadband Scheme (NBS) and signing a concession agreement with the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to provide the State’s Emergency Call Answering Service are seen as pivotal to the company’s progression.

BT, which recently launched 24Mbps broadband in 22 locations around Ireland, has witnessed firsthand the difficulties in rolling out broadband here. Clark believes a race is on worldwide for digital supremacy, with countries from Britain to Korea and Australia seeking the mantle.

He is familiar with Lord Steve Carter’s groundbreaking Digital Britain Plan, which includes plans like 2Mbps broadband for all, as well as top-down measures such as making government services like motor taxation available online only.

“It’s clear to me that having a digital plan is central to countries’ competitive position in the post-recession world,” says Clark.

“In terms of digital infrastructure, Ireland faces two hard issues – rural dispersity and regulation. The country needs a first-rate digital nervous system to give every business and every multinational here an opportunity to be relevant in the years to come. A strategy has to come from industry, Government and other stakeholders and a pragmatic solution needs to be arrived at.

“Saying we’re going to have fibre everywhere, however, is unrealistic. But saying we want a high-speed infrastructure by a certain date, and a joined-up plan to get there, is a sensible approach.

“You need to start with basic coverage for all and the NBS is to some extent doing that. But we need a long-term plan that addresses fibre to enable a multitude of different internet access technologies for punters and businesses.

“Where Digital Britain has done quite well is at the infrastructure level – how much of this can industry do by itself? It takes into account competition, regulation and the current business climate. If you ask me whether the regulatory rules in Ireland over the past 10 years have been adequate, the answer is no.”

Five years ago, Britain experienced a major broadband breakthrough when incumbent BT signed an agreement with telecoms regulator Ofcom for functional separation of BT’s wholesale and retail divisions. As a result, it was easier for rivals to unbundle local exchanges and the amount of unbundled lines grew from 100,000 to 5.5 million lines within three years.

Unfortunately for Ireland, 11 years after deregulation, this hasn’t occurred and, as a result, 96pc of DSL copper sold in Ireland originates with Eircom.

“We can sit here and think of ways of conquering Ireland’s digital divide, we can talk about green energy and smart metering and other blue sky ambitions that won’t be possible without the right infrastructure. What Ireland needs is an overriding plan that acknowledges what needs to be done, what parts aren’t possible and looks at broadband in schools and smart metering as a way of bridging the divide.

“Ultimately, the regulator’s job is creating regulation, so there’s no longer a need for regulation. But today, we need better regulation. Where is Ireland on the development curve for broadband? While there have been some improvements and 1.4 million people have it, Ireland is behind the curve and certainly not where it needs to be to be as a leading island economy in a globalised world.”

But how can a cash-strapped nation make the required top-down infrastructure investment?

“It will take a lot of money to deploy a national digital infrastructure. But we need to see the size of the prize and ask ourselves are we going to stake our future on this? Are we going to be bold?

“All of us in industry believe that digital is absolutely fundamental, whether you work in agriculture, furniture manufacturing or software. Bold decisions made in the Eighties in Ireland in terms of education, tax breaks and the International Financial Services Centre pushed Ireland to the upper echelons of the global economy.

“The size of the prize is very similar. Creating a national digital development plan for Ireland will turn the country into a sustainable GDP wealth-creation economy. Look at Ireland’s natural strengths – its entrepreneurialism; the only English-speaking country in the eurozone; and its natural affinities with the US economy.

“But how do we capitalise on these strengths? It has to be around a digital infrastructure. If we do this, geographical location becomes less of a weakness. If we don’t do this, it will become a bigger weakness.

“If the Irish Government is going to place that bet – as are countries like Britain with its digital plan and Australia with its $5bn investment in fibre – how is it going to do it?” Clark asks.

By John Kennedy

This story is part of the Digital 21 campaign to encourage Ireland to develop a National Digital Development Plan, ensuring the country and its economy are strategically well placed to thrive in the 21st century. For more stories, and to add your comments, visit www.digital21.ie.