You want to find Ireland’s answer to Google or Facebook? You’re looking at it

24 Sep 2009

The internet is slowing down, but Irish company Intune Networks has the solution to a global problem.

It’s not quite the Victor Kiam story where the Remington shaver owner quipped: “I liked it so much I bought the company”, but Tim Fritzley’s story echoes this sentiment. Several years ago, the CEO of Intune Networks – an Irish company that could very soon be the driving force for the future of the internet globally – was the head of Microsoft’s TV division, with networks, internet entrepreneurs and Tier-1 telecom operators vying for his time.

Fritzley was cornered at a trade event by a group of earnest young Irish entrepreneurs who told him they could stop the internet from slowing down. Resignedly, he gave them two minutes.

“I asked them for some Tabasco sauce, I was ready to eat crow.” Within three years, Fritzley abandoned his high-flying career with the world’s biggest software company to join this little-known Irish start-up and relocated to Dublin.

Dublin-based Intune Networks, formed in 1999 by a group of ex-UCD photonics researchers, has developed a technology that can enable a single strand of fibre to move from carrying one signal from one operator to carrying data from 80 telecoms and TV companies all at once. It plans to manufacture and export this product and answers a problem that technology giants AT&T, IBM, Cisco and Bell Labs have been trying to solve for 30 years or more.

The fact is the internet is slowing down. While we all talk about getting faster bandwidth speeds, network operators are struggling to keep up. Every minute, 20 hours of new video are uploaded on YouTube, millions of people converse by sound and video via Skype and more than 300 million people worldwide share text, pictures, video and more on Facebook. All of this will contribute to a bandwidth bottleneck that will see network routers possibly burn out.

In July, it emerged that Ireland – bedevilled by its own broadband problems – is to become the test bed for Intune’s revolutionary technology. The Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan TD, contracted Intune to trial its technology here first before it hits mass manufacture. The solution – the Exemplar Network – could sort out the country’s broadband woes and catapult Ireland to the cutting edge of telecoms before anybody else.

The move will grow Intune from 100 workers in Dublin and Belfast today to employing an additional 300 people over the next three years.

“The Exemplar Network is going to be an infrastructure test bed funded by the Government and will allow Ireland to have early access to technology that could be used to rollout a next-generation fibre network across Ireland and facilitating any kind of broadband access,” Fritzley explains.

“The underlying technology is optical burst packet switching, so we use coloured light to switch the packet versus silicon chips. Because we are switching at the physical layer of light, we can respond to incoming packets.

“Today’s networks go through IP routers and switches out to current broadband access, whether it’s 3G, DSLAMs, DSL, fibre to the home or WiMax. The problem is all these switches and interconnects are static. They can’t respond to flows of packets based upon the new web services that are arriving all the time. What we’ll be able to do is virtualise all the physical network and support any type of access from any company. You can have a shared fibre network for any operator that wants to come to Ireland.”

Ireland has already built 94 metropolitan area networks (MANs) that are managed by E-net. The key problem, however, is not only linking them up, but ensuring access for homes and businesses. The country’s semi-state bodies such as ESB, CIÉ, Bord na Móna and Bord Gáis have thousands of kilometres of fibre, some of which is unused, and future access technologies like WiMax and Long Term Evolution will need fibre to work. The Exemplar Network could solve this problem.

“Basically, each fibre with our technology can support 80 wavelengths, 80 colours of light. Today, a typical fibre network can support eight to 32 fixed wavelengths. Each wavelength would run at 10GB, each fibre would then be able to switch and transport 800Gbps of packets,” Fritzley explains.

“I would say that by the end of 2010 this technology would be well understood enough for any operator, including the Irish Government, to roll out on a national fibre network.”

But why Ireland? “Ireland probably would have been one of the last places we would have deployed the technology first. It would have been five or 10 years before this technology would have come back into Ireland.

“I was approached by Minister Ryan and his team and they asked me: ‘Tim, why aren’t you deploying it here?’ and I said there really isn’t a market for it here. They said: ‘we’d really want to be first with this new technology to facilitate an Irish-born ecosystem. This new technology would foster a lot of Irish spin-offs – new software applications, new web services, new networking devices as it goes forward.’ It sometimes happens that the first place such an ecosystem forms is where this technology is deployed. Places like Silicon Valley? Absolutely.”

Intune owes its origins to research work being carried out by John Dunne and his colleague Tom Farrell at University College Dublin. Dunne recalls: “We were involved in EU projects and were working on a very strange little area known as tuneable lasers. In 1999, the telecoms industry was on a high and we had lots of job offers to join companies in the US or Europe. We decided to set up a company and sell our knowledge through products to all of these companies at the same time.

“We have developed a technology solution that is an enabling key factor in the next generation of digital networks. Instead of buying your TV, your phone and your internet as a small three-point package, you could have 40 or 50 different types of services and the next week change providers and add 30 or 40 new services. The designers of TVs will have a lot to do to pack all these services onto the same screen.”

“The truth is,” says Fritzley, “the internet is becoming slower. The networks are becoming clogged. It is difficult to figure out the routers into these optical pipes, optimise depending on who is using.

“One of the lead engineers on Facebook came out recently and said: ‘we need faster types of fibre networks in place to support growth going forward.’ The Googles, the Microsofts, everybody in this business today understands we need to move from static optical pipes to dynamic optical pipes.”

Intune is well on its way to solving this problem. It could be the breakthrough indigenous technology success story that Ireland craves.

By John Kennedy

Photo: John Dunne, chief marketing officer, Tim Fritzley, CEO, and Tom Farrell, chief technology officer at Intune Networks. The company is building a network technology that could soon be exported all over the world to speed up clogged-up networks.

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