Data is the core of what we do, says Three CTO

16 Feb 2017

David Hennessy, CTO of Three Ireland. Image: Connor McKenna

Three Ireland is currently investing €400m in its network and IT consolidation, and overall digital transformation. CTO David Hennessy talks to John Kennedy.

As part of a €400m IT and network transformation, Three Ireland will emerge as a cutting-edge data operator, according to CTO David Hennessy.

If you recall Three’s arrival in Ireland over a decade ago, the company was starting afresh with a brand new 3G network to challenge the mobile industry.

‘Three is a data company first, completely. From my perspective, that’s what I do’

It steadily grew its customer base and acquired vital 4G licenses, but quickly consolidated its position as one of the biggest operators in Ireland through its acquisition of O2 Ireland in 2014 for an estimated €850m.

Hennessy is a telecoms industry veteran who masterminded the construction of Three’s original network in Ireland, dealing with the challenges posed by the merger with O2.

Three’s new €400m transformation involves not only the merging of two mobile networks and various data centres, but also laying the groundwork for Three’s network of the future.

Building the network of tomorrow

The magic word in all of this is, of course, data.

“Data is becoming more and more integral, and connectivity is integral to people. So mobile operators play a bigger role in data than people realise.”

Hennessy began his career in the mobile industry with Esat Digifone in the 1990s before moving abroad to work with Three UK. He returned to Ireland in 2005 to spearhead the construction of Three’s new network.

12 years later, I ask him is it fair to describe Three as a mobile network operator in the traditional sense? Or is it a data company?

“Three is a data company first, completely. From my perspective, that’s what I do.”

Hennessy elaborates: “Coverage is king. If a network goes down or calls get dropped, people notice. But if you think about where people spend their time, it is all about data.

“Voice traffic isn’t growing and in fact, it is converting into data, and if you look at data overall, data is doubling every year. 4G is fuelling that because speeds are better, there is more data and we have the back-end infrastructure to support that.

“If you think about our transformation, the fundamental shift has been towards getting the back-end right.”

Hennessy said that the transformation can be seen in Three’s original 3G network in Ireland, handling a few gigabits of data per second at peak times; to today, where it deals with hundreds, if not thousands, of times that magnitude – and this is doubling every year.

To prepare for this eventuality, Hennessy said that Three has virtualised its core network to enable the company to scale more efficiently and handle higher and higher data volumes.

“The numbers are starting to get very big and we have to be ready for that.”

Because of the nature of merger negotiations in 2014, Hennessy explained that by the time the acquisition was completed, O2’s Irish network was in an underinvested state.

“Every network goes through a cycle where you need a new heavy investment. This is because technology changes so fast and you need to refresh a lot of stuff.

“The decision was made to consolidate the two networks because it makes no sense to run two radio networks, two core networks, six data centres, two billing systems, and so on. We decided to make one big investment, normalise the cost base and get rid of all the duplicate costs.”

This was also an opportunity to transform the network.

“Effectively, we were underwriting the transformation investment with the synergies we would get from creating a single modern network.”

In practical terms, this involves putting 4G on every single base station and future-proofing them with new hardware.

“It was the same for our data centres, getting rid of old data centres and, in the past few weeks, we have gone live with a new tier-three data centre, a new billing system, and a platform that is virtualised and future-proofed.”

For Hennessy and his colleagues, the decision to move to a brand new, virtualised network eradicated a lot of the complexity associated with legacy networks.

“Data is becoming integral to Irish society. To serve Ireland, we needed a network that would be secure and efficient.”

In the new data centre, Hennessy said that everything is virtualised and software-defined. “When we need to upgrade we just put in more blades and software.

“If there is a problem with a data centre, we just set up a new data centre in a private cloud. The days of tin and wires are in the past.”

Getting Ireland ready for the internet of things

Hennessy believes that the challenge for operators like Three in the future will be the number of endpoints on the network. These won’t be just people with smartphones but also thousands, if not millions, of intelligent connected machines.

Effectively, the number of machines will overtake the number of people on the network.

‘We have a big 4G network and the intention will be to provide NB-IoT on that in the next 18 months’

Three is already the biggest machine-to-machine (M2M) carrier in Ireland.

Currently, around 12pc of mobile connections in Ireland are M2M. Three is responsible for 50.1pc of that figure, according to recent ComReg figures.

“We are the market leader in M2M and currently, hundreds of thousands of M2M devices are connected to our network.”

Hennessy said that the majority of these are SIM-based, legacy M2M connections. “The game will change significantly when we move into internet of things (IoT) machines that will use next generation standards like NarrowBand IoT (NB-IoT).

“These will be low-data rate, low-energy devices that will send very important data, such as bin collection firms using sensors to inform base that a bin has been collected, for example.”

Hennessy said that when it comes to these standards of IoT, there is a VHS v Betamax moment in the mobile telecoms world between the LoRa Alliance and proponents of NB-IoT.

“LoRa is slightly ahead, but eventually will go the way of Betamax.

“We have a big 4G network and the intention will be to provide NB-IoT on that in the next 18 months.”

He said that as well as businesses, consumers will be massively into IoT thanks to IoT-enabled, next-generation versions of products such as cameras and phones that will require high bandwidth transmission.

“NB-IoT opens up a massive opportunity for putting low-power sensors very cheaply into devices with long-life batteries.”

While Hennessy has one eye on emerging IoT standards, he is extremely vigilant around how the industry is also being targeted by hackers to launch massive DDoS attacks on businesses and networks.

“The frightening thing is how they can sweep past the most sophisticated, elaborate security measures by getting someone to click on a link in an email.

“You have to take it seriously and have tight security on everything. From a data centre perspective, you have to be ready for precisely when an attack is happening, and try to divert that traffic elsewhere. Nobody is immune.”

Looking to the future, Hennessy also has his eyes on 5G and what the challenge of providing speeds of around 1Gbps to mobile users will mean.

“For 5G, we will have to prepare for the speeds, massive connection densities of typically 1m devices per sq km and ultra low latency. For 5G to work, latency will have to come down to one millisecond if you want to support real-time applications like autonomous vehicles and drone control.”

For Hennessy, these challenges are exciting.

“We have to prepare the networks to handle these kinds of specifications. We have to be ready for an infinite amount of new services and applications we haven’t even begun to imagine, and that have not been invented yet.”

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