BT Ireland’s Colm O’Neill: agile countries will reap the rewards of the digital age (video)

8 Jul 2013

Colm O'Neill, CEO, BT Ireland

Ireland is actually in the vanguard of the changes sweeping the world via technology, says BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill. Not only is it an international location for business, but O’Neill says having the household names in the global technology industry based in the country should be harnessed to drive change in terms of education, skills and lifestyles.

BT has a dual existence on the island of Ireland. On the one hand, it is the incumbent telecoms operator in Northern Ireland, where 90pc of homes are connected to a fibre cabinet, making it the most fibre-dense region in Europe. On the other, it competes as a licensed operator in the Republic of Ireland, where it has a core network that serves the business and government markets, as well as supporting other telecoms providers who serve consumers with broadband.

In the UK, BT is investing stg£2.5bn in fibre broadband and recently announced 1,000 new jobs at its Openreach business. The fibre network is already the largest in the UK, passing more than 13m premises and reaching an extra 100,000 homes and businesses every week.

One of the hallmarks of BT’s approach is how daring it is in terms of going the extra mile to reach into places that wouldn’t be traditionally considered accessible for state-of-the-art operators, and Irish policy-makers and other telcos would be wise to take note. For example, Rathlin Island, off the northern tip of Ireland, is to be the first location in Ireland and the UK to experience 80Mbps wireless-to-the-cabinet broadband technologies.

From O’Neill’s perspective, the world is undergoing a major transformation because of digital that has the potential to empower and enrich lives, culturally and economically. “I would split this transformation into two; what’s going on in the consumer’s life and the business and the implications they have for the future.

“In the consumer space, the big story of the last five years has been the growth of the device – this is having a massive impact on industry, and the profit has shifted from telecoms provider to the device manufacturers,” O’Neill said, referring to the proliferation of high-powered smartphones and tablet computers.

Digital Ireland: BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill on Ireland as a global hub for digital and internationally traded services

He said the remarkable thing that is different is how people interact with technology. “The device has broken the barrier between tech savvy and non-tech savvy. We all say what a great achievement it is by a two-year-old to use an iPad. It’s not. It’s a great achievement by the designers of the technology. This extends right up to a 76-year-old mother who can intuitively pick up that device and use it. That has been the transformation in consumer tech.

“In business, the big transformation has been virtualisation. What that has done is it has decoupled systems from their physical hardware infrastructure. Typically, businesses had a system that ran on a server; that link has been broken forever, we just talk about systems as virtualised.”

O’Neill said Ireland had been slow to get off the blocks when it came to broadband. “But now we are seeing meaningful high-speed network rollouts for businesses and consumers. The next big question for the technology industry is, now that the people have the devices and they will have the networks, what will they do with that high-speed network?”

He believes the power of the networks will be transformative in terms of how we entertain ourselves, how we work, how we treat sick people.

“That ubiquitous availability of high-speed networking is going to change; it’s going to be unpredictable how that happens. In business, having broken the link between the network and hard infrastructure, the next thing to be broken is physically where data is located and who owns it. That is the basis for cloud computing – people no longer know where their IT systems are located,” O’Neill said, adding that a lot of important questions will have to be answered in terms of the location of IT assets and privacy.

O’Neill said BT weathered the economic crisis of the last five years by investing in its networks, north and south. “In Northern Ireland, 90pc of homes and businesses are connected to a fibre cabinet, which is an investment that has worked out well and will serve us long into the future. In the Republic, our core backbone network integrated into the Eircom exchange network and we will continue to invest in that. We anticipate a proliferation of network capacity. As soon as you increase bandwidth, home consumption of data increases exponentially.

“The other thing we’ve invested in is our global network. Ireland is fortunate in many respects to have a provider like BT connected to global networks here in Ireland, with the skills to connect to indigenous and global businesses. We will continue to invest in that network.

“We are fortunate to have acquired the IT services capability alongside network capability which will help us to deliver IT infrastructure to businesses as a service. The whole concept of cloud or everything as a service is a strong driver for our business over the years and will continue over the next few years,” O’Neill said.

Ireland is open for business

O’Neill spoke highly of IDA Ireland, which has assembled the top global names in key sectors such as finance, IT, digital media and pharmaceuticals. The impact of this on Ireland is the country is now one of the most globalised nations on Earth.

“That changes our lens on life. People grow up in Ireland knowing that these technology companies they interact with through their devices on a daily basis are here in Ireland, recruiting Irish people. That’s a great achievement.”

BT is a proud sponsor of the annual Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition, and O’Neill said the quality of projects and the go-ahead attitude of the young students taking part is a great source of optimism.

“We often talk about the importance of science and engineering skill sets and the scarcity of them. What we’ve got to remember is it is a global shortage of those skills and as many as we can produce here will be consumed and our ability to produce those skills sets in Ireland will determine how successful we will be in the long term. It is all about skills over the next 10-15 years.

“For Ireland, it is a two-pronged attack. One is to catch up with the requirements for skills in this digital age and the second thing is the work done to promote visas for people wanting to come and work in these areas. It is a good result for the country.

“I think it is a good example of Government listening to industry and responding to it – and I saw this at one your events – the great thing about a small country is that you can have that immediacy of interaction with government and before long some real action and a real result for the country.”

Colm O’Neill will be a panelist at the Digital Ireland Forum: Global 2.0 on 20 September in Dublin, where digital leaders will discuss Ireland’s future as a hub for the best in internationally traded digital services.

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