Senior CEOs of Irish-based telecoms firms believe the path to next generation networks (NGNs) will be incremental rather than a hurried affair. The difficulty, they agree, will be avoiding a digital divide in rural areas, where 40pc of Ireland’s population live.
At a CEO roundtable at yesterday’s annual Telecommunications and Internet Federation (TIF) conference, questions of how fast NGNs may be deployed at a time when at least count 10pc of Ireland’s population are without broadband.
“While it’s important we get to a plan quickly,” said BT Ireland CEO Chris Clark, who reminded the room that there will need to be strong regulation, “you can’t change a network overnight. That’s the last thing you want to do. We are behind the curve in this country and while we need to move fast, an NGN rollout will take time and planning.”
BT is currently investing €500m to deploy its 21 Century Network (CN) across Ireland.
Robert Dunn, general manager of UPC Ireland is also in the midst of a major network upgrade involving a potential capital spend of €1bn. While 400,000 subscribers are now upgraded to be capable of accessing broadband, Dunn admits it will take time to see its own NGN deployed.
“My shareholders would be delighted if I came up with big bang approach. We will always have to be incremental approach – I think also that key market players, most sitting here today, are all investing heavily to bring that access to market place in Ireland.
“An aggregate €3.2bn will be invested in telecoms here in the next five years – that’s €1,500 euros for every home. If that money does get spent I’m not sure all shareholders will be grateful. Upgrade to NGN will be incremental but there are a lot of telecoms organisations coming into Ireland.”
Eircom chief executive Rex Comb said the company has kickstarted its €60m upgrade of its core network but reminded the audience that as a business there will be issues to be studied: “I think our plans are solid on the basis of upgrading the core network.
“But it’s easy to talk about spending money but getting a return investment is crucial — at the end of the day it’s a lot of money. For example our workforce in the network division — there are over 4,000 of them and the average age is 50 — will need to reskill. These are conversations we are having with the Communications Workers Union (CWU).”
Robert Finnegan of 3 reminded the audience of the importance of mobile in the NGN sphere. “Much of the debate around NGNs implies mobile operators are outside NGNs, but mobile operators are a major part of it. The evolution of mobile in last 12 months has been phenomenal and most networks are upgrading to HSDPA – 7.2Mbps [megabits per second] and 14.4Mbps will provide a real alternative to provide fixed broadband.”
Charles Butterworth, chief executive of Vodafone Ireland said Ireland was still at the starting point. “What are we all trying to deliver is ubiquitous broadband for everyone. Wireless and wireline will complement each other.
“As a mobile player in the last several years we lost our religion, we previously held that everything was going mobile but now we delivery agnostic.
“One of the positive things about mobile, is the standard evolutionary roadmap on HSDPA, it’s a good medium-term technology and we have a framework to invest a lot of money in this market.
“But it is increasingly important as we think about the converged and on the move world. As far as I’m concerned the framework we developed is critical to future,” Butterworth said.
By John Kennedy