Apple’s streaming push is a reminder of what Ireland’s west has lost

26 Mar 2019

Artist’s concept of what the ill-fated data centre in Athenry would have looked like. Image: Apple

Services such as streamed TV and fintech represent tech giant Apple’s next multibillion-dollar goldmine. It’s just a shame the fields of Athenry still lie low and empty, says John Kennedy.

Last night (25 March) Apple revealed how it intends to take on the world of streaming entertainment and real-time video gaming as well as financial services with a new Apple Card.

At the heart of these services is their engine rooms: the data centres. And in recent years, through a lamentable comedy of errors, legal fumbling and bureaucracy, Ireland allowed a multimillion-euro investment that would have put the country’s western region on the global digital map to slip through its fingers.

In its recent earnings Apple said it reported the highest revenue yet from categories such as the App Store, Apple Pay, iCloud and advertising. Apple Pay alone saw 1.8bn transactions in the quarter while revenue from the cloud was up 40pc.

The new Apple TV Plus app, Apple News Plus app, Apple Card and Apple Arcade gaming platform, as well as a myriad of existing services such as iCloud, would have flowed through an €850m data centre campus that was pitched for Athenry.

Data centres are the engine rooms of our digital age

Sadly, what could have been came to a bitter end in May last year when, after a litany of court appearances and appeals around the plan, with both the Supreme Court and European Court of Justice slated for possible involvement, Apple decided enough was enough and pulled the plug on the whole sorry episode.

The loss of a flagship Apple data centre project for Athenry, while the sister site announced in Denmark at the same time in 2015 is now fully operational and expanding, was a dark day in Ireland’s digital history.

The project was mainly held up by planning objections. Two people objected on environmental grounds, such as whether the giant data centre complex would have been sustainable in terms of the sheer amount of energy required and the effects on local wildlife, while the third was a businessperson who wanted to build a data centre complex in Wicklow.

Delayed court date after delayed court date revealed Ireland’s real Achilles heel: that despite being a small country, we are anything but nimble when it comes to bureaucracy. It showed up our legal and planning systems (perhaps most of our administrative systems) to resemble a Gordian knot at the best of times.

Concerns about energy infrastructure were fair and grounded in reality because a single data centre could consume as much energy as a town or indeed Dublin Airport. But it would have been an interesting problem to solve.

The reality is that for such a data centre to work – and indeed Apple stipulated that it would be powered by renewable energy sources – any missing infrastructure would simply have to be built. As such, the project would have acted as a kind of demand aggregator for the necessary infrastructure that would have set up Ireland’s west for decades to come. It might also have acted as a kind of silver bullet to sort out the still ongoing hold-ups on Ireland’s north-south interconnector for electricity.

So, solving the physics problem of powering a data centre from Athenry in Galway would have been a boost for regional Ireland and the west in general.

Another tragic aspect of the entire episode was how badly most of the local community in Athenry – people who knew first-hand the effects of the recession a decade ago – wanted the project to succeed. It would have brought in lots of construction workers spending money on local goods and services. And, while in the long run data centres don’t require lots of workers to run them, the prestige of having an Apple data centre campus in the region would have served to bring more and more digital enterprises to Ireland’s western seaboard. It would have been a win-win for the community and the wider economy over time.

But not all has been lost. The bureaucratic fudging that caused the loss of the data centre project led the Government of Ireland to overhaul its data centre policy along the lines of balanced regional development, less bureaucracy and aligned electricity goals.

For its part, Apple, a longtime resident in Ireland since it came to Cork as a start-up in 1980, said there were no hard feelings. Last May Apple stated that although the setback was a disappointment, it would not be a deterrent to it tabling new projects in Ireland in the future.

At the time it also emphasised its large presence in the country and its generally good business relationship with Ireland. “In the last two years, we’ve spent over €550m with local companies and, all told, our investment and innovation supports more than 25,000 jobs up and down the country.

“We’re deeply committed to our employees and customers in Ireland and are expanding our operations in Cork, with a new facility for our talented team there.”

So maybe, just maybe, there is a tiny chance the project could be rekindled. If not, then it is lost to time. And indeed, the new slew of cloud subscription services from Apple serves as a reminder of how, once again, the west of Ireland lost out.

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