Making the Euro connection

27 May 2004

There is one major objective governing the extensive provision of special information and communications technology (ICT) facilities for the EU presidency — everything has to be world class and state of the art. There are two reasons, of course: we want to showcase Ireland as a state that practises the ICT art at the highest level — and our visitors expect it. We are being observed by experienced and hard-headed visitors from the 25 countries of the enlarged EU, half a dozen or so aspirant members and a media corps that is actually serving a global audience for the major events.

In a general sense each host presidency takes over from and continues the previous model in terms of facilities, just as it does politically. Innovation may impress, but it is really the overall consistency, quality and to some extent generosity of the technical facilities that leave the lasting impression.

Ireland and Eircom, as the lead communications partner in providing the ICT services, are scoring serious brownie points this time for the pervasive wireless internet access and high bandwidth, both in the three permanent locations in Dublin and the temporary venues around the country. This is the first presidency that has offered wireless access universally and without charge (as opposed to simply using facilities already installed in major conference venues) including all of the smaller locations as we distributed meetings around the country.

Wireless internet access was specified in the tender by the ICT team in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), which was responsible for the overall strategic direction of the technology and the facilities to be offered to working delegations and the media. The Danish Presidency had provided co-ordinated ICT services while the Italians organised its service provision through each host department of government. Ireland opted firmly for central direction and control, incorporating the requirements of the different departments but ensuring that the benefits of the ICT programme were maximised in terms of efficiency and buying power — and attractiveness to technology sponsors — by being managed on a national basis.

It also aimed to factor in the advances in technology (notably wireless and mobile communications) and to offer generous facilities, both to display our capabilities and in the spirit of being good hosts. This approach also served to ensure that repeat participants had a consistent experience of services across the range of locations and meeting types.

“We are providing connectivity up to a full 10 megabits at each location,” explains Dave Murray, Eircom programme director for the EU Presidency, “which is accessible both through the PCs and workstations supplied and via Wi-Fi to all participants using their own laptops or other portable devices.” The 25 EU countries, commission staff and the three applicants (Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey) all have assigned offices in the Dublin Castle complex. The media centre contains over 200 workstations of which 50 have broadband internet access while the others are equipped with phones and dial-up modem or ISDN internet connections for those who do not use Wi-Fi. Broadcast media tend to use ISDN both for voice transmissions and internet.

Eircom has overall responsibility for all ICT systems installation and configuration, support and management for the duration of our presidency. That includes catering for more than 250 meetings in over 50 locations around the country, of which 40-plus are major events with large numbers of participants, support staff and media. The biggest events, apart from the formal accession ceremonies and Council of Ministers meeting on 1 May, were the Foreign Ministers’ meeting in Tullamore and the Finance Ministers in Punchestown.

Some idea of the scale can be gathered from the fact that the Tullamore operation, which used a large marquee for the media facility and other temporary structures, required a total of 25kms of IT cabling and 8kms of power cabling. These two ‘temporary’ venues provided about 500 workspaces each, with 1,500 phone lines and up to 500 ISDN lines, and reported levels of usage in each case that reached to 80-90pc of nominal capacity. But Eircom’s plans for the presidency include scalability on demand of all facilities while the DFA had insisted on resilience (dual exchange paths to all locations), which include high-capacity microwave radio links to cater for almost any situation.

The core technical support for the events around the country numbered about 30 engineers and technicians, says Dave Murray. “They quickly merged into one team, whether from Getronics, Oltech or the Board of Works — no demarcation lines, everyone has been doing their own jobs and whatever needed to be done.” Over the full six months, however, 350 technical people from a huge range of technical specialisations will have been cleared by security and worked on the project.

“Possibly the major reasons it is all going so well — apart from really thorough planning by all of the organisations involved — is that everyone has been taking it very personally. People are working well above and beyond the call of duty, committed to making things not only work but work excellently. I remember one occasion at a venue with time-restricted access. The technical crew worked until 4am to get the setup ready, were back at 7.30am to support the event, and then set to work at the end of the day to strip everything and did not finish until about four the next morning.”

The technical hosting for the highly successful website of the Irish EU Presidency is being looked after by the Local Government Computers Services Board (LGCSB). It already hosts most of the websites of local authorities and various other government agencies on its Dublin HQ server, with continuity back-up on a secondary server at an alternate location. Security considerations are very important, since all government and high-visibility websites attract particular attention. But this is, of course, an area in which LGCSB has experience and technical expertise built up over recent years especially. Traffic volume on the website makes it probably the business Irish site ever, with over 27 million hits in the first four months which translates into 13 million page views. The website itself now contains over 3,000 pages of content, amounting to approximately 1.5 million words, which is also available in French and Irish on the site.

On-demand TV
At the Druids Glen and Marriott Hotels, the Eircom team was approached by the head of the Cypriot delegation to see if there was any possibility of tuning in to news from Cyprus, where the all-important referendum on the terms of its EU entry was taking place. Some internet searching found a live web streaming broadcast from a Cypriot TV station, which one engineer literally brought to the delegation office on a Wi-Fi enabled laptop. Soon members of the delegation were clustered around a couple of screens in the press centre. Some more ingenuity by the Eircom engineers managed to ‘borrow’ some large screens, speakers from the hotel and an available meeting room. Within an hour of the first request, almost the entire Cypriot and Greek delegations were watching live TV from Nicosia in colour and surround sound, and were able to follow all of the historic events as they unfolded.

One press man at a Dublin Castle event was delighted with the wireless internet access on his new laptop, which he had never experienced before, but on the second day approached the Eircom engineers with a problem: he had found a nice secluded area of the castle to work in but could not find the signal. The boys explained the problem — old buildings, thick walls and so on, but sketched out the three main areas where the signal was guaranteed. Alas, the poor journalist was back within an hour. He had visited each main location and found a clear signal, he explained, but then lost it when he returned to his favourite niche!

The lone hack myth
A story some weeks ago that one of the more remote events had found one solitary journalist wandering into a lavishly equipped media centre is an urban myth, according to Murray, except for the smart media centre bit. It was Dromoland Castle, he explains, and the photo of the lone hack was actually taken about 7am. Attendance by the media at that event was indeed short of expectations at just a couple of dozen, but 250 journalists had actually registered for and been security cleared for the event and the facilities were scaled accordingly. At an early stage, apparently, a great many journalists used the handy website facility to register for all presidency events. As it progressed, confirmation for specific events was then sought by the organisers using email and text messaging. But in the absence of further information, all facilities for participants and media were provided on a contingency basis to cope with maximum demand.

By Leslie Faughnan