Comment: Can Ireland make more of wireless?

14 Apr 2004

There is often a disparity between where Ireland likes to see itself and what’s actually happening at grass roots. There is also something of a divide between what the larger multinationals are preaching on a pan-European stage and what they are actually doing here in Ireland. This came sharply into focus with the rounds of mobile announcements that followed the CeBIT trade show, the biggest date in the communications calendar as far as manufacturers and service providers are concerned.

The local offices of Nokia and Motorola followed up the event with local announcements, which in both case cases turned out to be a roll call of new phones. Next generation handsets will come in all sorts of shape and size, appealing to every imaginable demographic, though in many cases their availability in Irish shops is still to be decided by the all-powerful operators.

Nowhere in sight, however, were the top line stories that both companies have been telling the world about their plans to penetrate the corporate or government space with solutions aimed at extending their reach into organisational infrastructure. Nokia is working closely with the likes of IBM, Cisco, Oracle and Symantec to become, in its own words, “a leader in mobile enterprise”. Motorola already considers itself a world leader in integrated communications.

But attaining any concrete evidence about how these global goals are reflected on home turf is like getting blood out a stone, suggesting that there really isn’t anything happening at all. Why not? Perhaps they are just being prudent in what is after all a small country with relatively few large customers to invest in these types of solution.

If this is true, then why are Vodafone and O2 so active in the public sector? The Government likes to see itself as cutting edge when it comes to technology, so SMS broadcast facilities are, for example, being rolled out to local councils by the Local Goverenment Computer Services Board. It’s part of a contract with Vodafone that will enable e-citizens to receive message updates about various services, from planning applications to driving licence renewals.

The system was developed by Saadian Technologies, a Dublin firm that recently won a contract to help the London Metropolitan Police with an email and SMS intelligence system that automatically notifies officers when offenders are released from prison. Saadian are by no means an isolated example of indigenous companies making waves in the wireless world.

Earlier this month Forfas issued a report that said Ireland has the strength to establish a robust wireless cluster to exploit opportunities in a global market for mobile data services. Over 60 companies currently work away in the sector, employing some 4,300 people.

The report also went on to call for further liberalisation of the spectrum management market in Ireland enabling more trials and deployment of cutting edge wireless technology. It also urged greater collaboration between industry and academia in the research area. Martin Cronin, chief executive of Forfas, suggests that there is a strong opportunity for Ireland to establish a robust wireless cluster based on its existing strengths in the sector.

The irony is that Ireland is in danger of fostering wireless solutions only to see many of them shipped instantly abroad without reaching any indigenous customers. In fact, the danger with home grown wireless companies, especially those that have attracted venture capital funding, is that they are being fattened up to be bought up by larger overseas companies.

Such a scenario may dissuade those who hold the purse springs from subsidising the development of the wireless sector, unless we can provide a vibrant showcase for what can be achieved in the public and private sector through these cutting edge wireless technologies. And who knows, if we engender enough excitement in the sector the big players like Nokia and Motorola might be persuaded that Ireland may well be a place to explore some of their high level business applications, rather than concentrate exclusively on selling more handsets.

Naturally, there is always a caveat. According to Ovum Research in the UK, there is a possibility that opportunities in and around the concept of the mobile enterprise have been well overcooked. The enterprise sector is a tougher, more complex market for wireless than many in the mobile industry seem to appreciate, warned a recent report. More worrying was the analysis that the enterprise market may also be smaller than the mobile industry had hoped with fewer mobile workers than has been previously suggested.

Maybe the local offices of Nokia and Motorola have got it right. Keep pushing the multimedia entertainment phones. At least it’s a proven market.

By Ian Campbell