No stony grey soil impedes cross-border broadband


22 Aug 2003

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Unlike disillusioned poet Patrick Kavanagh to whom the stony grey soil of Monaghan represented a mental barrier to his wildest hopes and dreams, the present inhabitants of the Armagh-Monaghan region are working to ensure that their dreams come alive on the soil on which they stand. Over the past four years, local entrepreneurs and planners in the two counties straddling the border have pooled their energies to drive an ambitious programme based around digital technologies that has resulted in the creation of a sophisticated broadband network envisaged to fuel job creation and inward investment.

The cross-border agency, the Armagh-Monaghan Digital Corridor (AMDC), is credited with creating over 500 jobs in the region based on plans to establish a broadband corridor linking the two counties. Already, some 380 call centre posts have been created in the past year by Answer Call Direct and a further 120 technology jobs at southern companies Eblana and Datacare.

AMDC was established four years ago with £2m sterling in funding from Invest NI, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, Interreg II, Monaghan County Enterprise Board, Monaghan County Council, Armagh City and District Council, Armagh Economic Development Group, Co-Operation Ireland and the International Fund for Ireland.

The jobs have been created at two buildings known as M:tek and A:tek, which were built two years ago. A 34MB link between the two buildings is due to be completed by the end of the year. At the A:tek building in Armagh a point-of-presence has been established to enable businesses to make the most out of the nearby backbone networks of NTL and BT.

Once the connection is in place, companies will have high-speed access to the internet and video conferencing. As well as this, A:tek companies will no longer have to pay international leased line rates to the Republic and M:tek companies will have affordable data connections to Britain.

According to AMDC’s business development manager, Bernard Conlon (pictured), the cross-border agency is awaiting confirmation from Interreg and the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources of a €500k grant that will be used to pilot an ambitious project that will see the appointment of an independent firm to manage the 34MB link as well as myriad of broadband technologies in the region. These will include links to the metropolitan area network (MAN) planned for Monaghan as part of the Republic’s 19-town national broadband strategy as well as the successful bidders for a wireless broadband provider contract for the region. The successful operator will function on a basis similar to the proposed Managed Services Entity planned to manage the 19-town MAN rollout in the Republic.

Conlon explains: “In Monaghan the availability of infrastructure is poor and it is all we can do to get a 1.2MB broadband connection at present. That’s why we need to ensure that alternative and affordable broadband connection technologies are available for businesses in the regions and for businesses considering establishing in the region.” Conlon estimates that a further 150 new jobs may be created in the region over the next year and a half.

The A:tek and M:tek buildings, 1,400sq m and 2,044sq m respectively, are both within easy access of both Belfast and Dublin airports and since inception have fostered close ties with Queens University Belfast and Trinity College Dublin.

“We are not a telecoms company, despite all the connectivity we are driving into the region. We need to establish a professional operator, independent of the incumbent telecommunications firms, that will help aggregate demand in the region with the ultimate benefit that the AMDC will be attractive to firms setting up in Ireland, new business start-ups in the regions or firms in Dublin or Belfast looking for a new cost base,” says Conlon.

Looking ahead, Conlon says that although the €500k may not be finalised until the end of the year, the AMDC was moving to drive forward other initiatives for the region. These include establishing an incubator company for start-up firms from the region, pioneering e-working and hot-desking initiatives for workers in the region as well as providing start-ups in the region with better access to venture capitalist firms.

“Instead of looking to their respective capitals, [the counties of Armagh and Monaghan] decided to start helping themselves by establishing links between each other and pooling resources to deliver the services the region needs,” says Conlon. “In the future, businesses should have access to broadband and video conferencing and location should become irrelevant. We are targeting 100 new jobs in the next two years. They are ready to go when the new initiatives happen,” he concludes.

By John Kennedy