For Ireland to achieve its digital destiny, we need another Ardnacrusha moment, and to join up the dots on our data tapestry, urges John Kennedy.
The past week has been one of epiphanies for me. As I sat in the cosy offices of SUP46, a start-up hub in Stockholm, while a minus zero Arctic breeze added to the hurry of people outside, it was explained to me how a pioneering policy on fibre broadband in Sweden around the turn of the century laid the groundwork for where the city is today.
It has produced internet giants like Skype, King and Spotify, to name a few. In the past year, start-ups in Stockholm have accrued $1.4bn in venture capital investment. Today, 18pc of the city’s workforce is employed in tech, ahead of the international average of 10pc, according to Invest Stockholm.
This began a rumination in my mind on Dublin – with employers like Amazon, Facebook and Google (estimated at 6,000) – but also on how much of Ireland’s population is currently employed in digital enterprises, and it would be a worthy exercise to find out what the precise number is.
Ultimately, just how much of Ireland’s economy depends on the digital landscape that has been built up in recent years in the form of data centres, telecoms infrastructure, FDI companies, digital start-ups and more?
This morning, Pure Telecom revealed that it is creating 32 new jobs in anticipation of the forthcoming National Broadband Plan. At the weekend, it emerged that e-commerce giant Amazon may be investing €600m in a new data centre complex in Dublin, paving the way for 120 full-time jobs in addition to the 2,200 people it currently employs, and the 500 new jobs it is creating now in Ireland.
This is down to Ireland having the people and the infrastructure to support the global data-centric economy.
Joining the dots on joined-up thinking
Last week, I had coffee with two individuals who made me realise that if Ireland really wants to be a data-centric economy – let’s face it, in the 21st century, data will be the new oil – the revolution needs to spread beyond Dublin.
One of the individuals I spoke to works for a global online brand and, from the comfort of his home in rural Ireland, supports its global operations. The ability to do so affords him a perfect work-life balance and a rewarding, fulfilling career. In fact, in the village where I live, around 60km from O’Connell Street, a good number of people work in software, electronics and telecoms. And many often work from home and contribute to the local economy, thanks to broadband.
The second individual I spoke to discussed fibre in the regions and said that while broadband is good for some, it is important to remember the National Broadband Plan is an intervention strategy to correct an embarrassing imbalance, whereby 1.8m people in rural areas are on the wrong side of the digital tracks. It is an ambitious plan that will see fibre pass 100,000km of existing road network to connect almost 700,000 members of the national workforce.
The reality is that the intervention should have happened 15 or 16 years ago. Technophobic politicians and dithering telecoms regulation are the real reasons that rural Ireland still doesn’t have fibre to the home in 2017.
But if Ireland gets it right with the National Broadband Plan, the country could be propelled to the top of the global league tables. That is, if Ireland gets it right. It has one shot – the chance will never come again.
My contact – who has worked in telecoms for a number of years – and I spoke like two war-weary veterans just out of the trenches. We were cynical, but hopeful too. Ireland has to deliver.
“Look, we just need it to be another Ardnacrusha moment,” he said with feeling.
What he was referring to was the decision by the fledgling Irish Free State in 1927 to put one-third of the country’s available budget into building the Ardnacrusha hydroelectric dam.
That leap of faith was the lynchpin moment in the construction of modern Ireland and the electrification of the country.
For the National Broadband Plan to succeed, we need that kind of bravery.
Ireland’s data tapestry unfurled
Such bravery will add to the tremendous progress that Ireland has made on numerous fronts when it comes to becoming a fully-fledged data-centric economy.
Dublin has more than 30 different data centres, ranging from in-house data centres belonging to Microsoft, Vodafone, Amazon, Facebook and Google, to service providers like Interxion, Equinix, BT, Eir and Digital Realty Trust.
But there is more to Ireland’s digital tapestry than just the data centres.
The data centres are connected to the world and the rest of the country fibre providers, including Enet, BT, Eir, Virgin Media and Aurora.
The nerve centre of the digital tapestry is the core internet exchanges provided by companies like Inex, CIX and Unifi-Ix.
Connectivity to the world comes through tier one fibre players like AT&T, Level 3, GTT, Viatel, BT and Verizon.
On the ground, and in our pockets, are the wireless networks provided by Vodafone, Three and Meteor/Eir.
Adding to the complexity of the data tapestry are other specialist wireless platforms via AirSpeed and VT Networks (Sigfox).
Clustering around every imaginable form of data collection and dissemination point are a horde of fast-emerging internet of things companies such as Asavie, Firmwave, Johnson Controls and DecaWave, to name a few.
All of this before you even get close to the thousands of people working in software, cloud, big data, fintech and countless start-ups who view data as the raw material for business.
In effect, the data-centric economy is alive and kicking, with the exception of areas that still can’t get broadband.
Removing the kinks from Ireland’s data tapestry
Connectivity will be king, but good government and governance will be essential.
The opportunity for data and digital industries to transform urban and rural Ireland and create highly paid jobs allied with a good work-life balance is within our grasp.
But the data industries cannot be solely concentrated in urban areas. While it has made sense for data centres to be consolidated along fibre routes and close to electricity hubs, that is changing.
Apple’s proposed data centre in Athenry could be, and should be, a game-changer. It puts a data centre right smack bang in western, rural Ireland. It will be 100pc powered by renewable energy.
However, lengthy planning delays and court battles have resulted in the project potentially being delayed by two years, while construction has already begun on a counterpart data centre in Denmark.
The fear is that the Danish data centre will be fully operational by the time the first sod of turf is turned on the Apple data centre in Athenry.
That is unforgivable and turns Ireland’s ambitions to be a data-centric economy into a pipe dream, unless urgent changes are made to planning and legal processes.
While we dither on planning issues, hundreds – if not thousands – of jobs and new enterprises could perish.
What is needed is, once again, joined-up thinking, brave planning and an unflinching attitude to securing Ireland’s next Ardnacrusha moment.
A digital tide should lift all boats
There are reasons to hope, however. Quite smartly, it was decided last year that the National Broadband Plan wouldn’t be solely a Department of Communications gig. It would be a joint effort involving the Department of Rural Affairs, which would aim to remove the bottlenecks, such as planning, from impeding the plan.
Just this morning, the Minister for Rural Affairs Heather Humphries, TD, revealed a new €60m action plan, ‘Realising Ireland’s Potential’, which aims to lift the rural economies by tackling core issues, from health and safety to job creation and other rural frictions, including removing mobile black spots.
It has emerged that one of the architects of the National Broadband Plan, civil servant Katherine Licken, has been appointed secretary general of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.
It is an inspired move. Having dealt with Licken in recent years on the National Broadband Plan, she is focused, determined and unwavering in her ambition to see regional Ireland benefit fully from the digital age.
The digital revolution is one that should lift all boats across Ireland. The data centres may be the shiny, expensive engine rooms, the broadband the sinews and arteries, but the people? The people should have the power.
Key to this is infrastructure, planning, and solid, concise policy.
Tune in to Siliconrepublic.com in mid-February when, as part of our Data Week, we will illustrate the scale of the data tapestry that has been deployed across Ireland in the form of data centres, telecoms carriers, and digital and cloud providers.
We will look at upcoming issues such as privacy and data governance and what the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation will mean for the country and its employers.