What began as a balanced discussion on the fledgling digital media industry in Ireland degenerated into something resembling an anguished parish meeting about potholes in Mayo at last week’s First Tuesday meeting.
Like driving a car without petrol or having no milk to feed the baby, broadband, and the lack thereof, remains the one elusive component that prevents us from breathing life into a sector that the pundits say has promise.
“At this point in time, there are only 1,600 connections that can be described as anything resembling broadband in this country,” remarked a visibly agitated Bill Murphy of Esat BT. What followed was an emotive discussion about potholes – potholes in Ireland’s digital infrastructure.
Murphy was among a panel of distinguished speakers at the event held at MediaLab Europe, the European offshoot of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which has chosen to locate within Dublin’s Liberties-based Digital Hub as part of a multi-million euro investment.
The topic of the evening was Discussing Opportunities in Digital Media, and as well as Murphy, the panel comprised: Jennifer Condon, informatics director of Enterprise Ireland; John Guest, entertainment manager, Microsoft Ireland; Denis Molumby, manager of the banking and strategic business group at IDA Ireland; Paul Hayes, marketing manager of indigenous games company Havok.com; and Aine Mizzoni, CEO of digital media for business firm emergeSmart.
Given Ireland’s position as the largest exporter and developer of software in the world and our reputation as an island of creativity and learning, shouldn’t we be in an ideal position to develop a thriving digital media industry? Not so, was the consensus in the room. John Guest painted a bleak picture.
“While we helped develop the major games for the Xbox in Ireland, we found it difficult to test the Xbox because we didn’t have any broadband. That was embarrassing and caused us quite a lot of aggravation. We are working locally with artists, film-makers and audio firms, and because they are local it works. But if they were trying to sell their services overseas to a growing digital media community that could use their skills, without broadband they won’t be able to do so.”
In defining the actual business future of digital media, Jennifer Condon of Enterprise Ireland said that if the industry here is to flourish, it will depend on the mastery of three things: content creation, content management and content distribution. “In time, all content will be digital and will impact on all areas of business, from education to publishing. It embraces games, e-learning and telecommunications,” she said.
Condon highlighted the challenge of making Irish companies connect with digital media and Hollywood giants in the US, saying that a lot of Enterprise Ireland investment goes into creating a beachhead for Irish firms in this area. “Irish companies need to have a unique selling proposition. Small companies that are experts in TV content and film should be getting ready for this challenge,” she added.
IDA Ireland’s Dennis Molumby argued that Ireland was in a good position to develop a thriving digital media sector. “Technology is something the world knows we are good at. What we need is a think-tank or cluster of companies that can pull together better than any other country can. To survive, we have to be competitive in a different way than in the past.”
However, the attitude of speakers such as Bill Murphy more accurately caught mood of the meeting. “There is no flat-rate internet access in this country. At the end of the day, everything will be online. If we don’t have the right environment that drives PC and net penetration, we will fall seriously short of this digital media dream,” said Murphy, who contrasted the digital nirvana that is Belfast with its poor southern relation of Dublin as “a tale of two cities”.
“We would do more if we could, but it’s going to require industry and government to lead the charge,” he argued. “The richness of people in the marketplace here and the competencies and skills are ideal. It would be a shame if it all goes wrong.”
His criticism on the current state of broadband provision struck a chord with the audience, sparking a vigorous debate from lobby group Ireland Offline and companies hoping to make a name in digital media such as Windmill Lane Studios.
“At the end of the day it is all about jobs,” Murphy continued. “We could invest €400 million in broadband in this country, but the lack of regulatory enforcement is preventing us from doing so. In the UK, the decision was to go for volume roll-out of broadband. BT made that decision and today 20,000 broadband connections are going in per week. We need flat-rate internet access. We are very close and I think the Government has listened, but there’s more do to.”
If this event was a barometer of the mood of the companies involved in Ireland’s fledgling digital media sector, broadband is clearly seen as the major stumbling block to progress.