BT Ireland’s Colm O’Neill: broadband will take Ireland to the next level (video)

12 Sep 2012

BT Ireland CEO Colm O'Neill

Now that goals have been set for Ireland’s national broadband strategy, BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill stresses that this is an opportunity to move in concert to boost efficiency and quality in other areas like education and healthcare. We must not shirk our broadband responsibility, he warns.

Describing the internet economy of today, O’Neill points out the irony of how consumers are actually racing ahead of businesses in terms of e-commerce, cloud computing and social media. The poignant reality, however, is the wider this gap grows between the consumer and the business in Ireland the harder it will be for Irish firms who have yet to embrace e-commerce to catch up and the danger is trade will flow elsewhere. Already out of €3bn spent online every year by Irish consumers, about 70pc of this flows to overseas retailers.

The digital economy, O’Neill points out, offers an opportunity for everyone to gain and could transform the business landscape as we know it. “It’s one of those movements where the consumer has a greater grip on what is driving the industry than the businesses. Actually businesses are running to catch up with their customer in terms of how they want to interact and deal with businesses.”

This is a reality acknowledged by Ireland’s Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, recently following the unveiling of the National Broadband Strategy after the work of the Next Generation Taskforce of which O’Neill was a member. Firms are working so hard just to keep the lights on in the present economy that embarking on e-commerce strategies and building websites just aren’t on their radar.

For BT, which serves governments and businesses with advanced ICT and communications services, and which also provides infrastructure services to UPC, Sky, Three Ireland, Telefónica (O2) and Vodafone, advanced infrastructure rollout will prove vital to lifting the entire island of Ireland’s economy.

Northern Ireland, where BT is the incumbent operator, is currently the most fibre-dense region in all of Europe. At the end of March, 89pc of lines in Northern Ireland were connected to a fibre-enabled street cabinet. Current speeds in Northern Ireland are up to 80Mbps and in the UK BT is looking further at speeds of up to 300Mbps.

In recent weeks, BT won a major deal to be the infrastructure partner for Sky, which is rolling out broadband services in Ireland. As well as Sky, BT also functions as an LLU partner for Vodafone, which has captured 17pc of the DSL market in Ireland.

According to BT’s recent financial results, BT Ireland’s consumer division, which operates in Northern Ireland, recorded strong demand for BT Infinity, its superfast fibre-broadband service, which provides consumers with download speeds of up to 76Mbps. Take-up increased by more than four-fold year on year.

In the Republic of Ireland, BT is significantly increasing its local loop unbundling (LLU) footprint, giving the company the capability to deliver high-speed broadband to more than 1.1m phone lines around the country at speeds of up to 24Mbps.

In recent weeks, we reported that BT is planning to trial fibre-to-the-cabinet broadband in Dun Laoghaire and a number of semi-urban locations across the Republic of Ireland with a view to deploying 80Mbps VDSL broadband. If the trials, which aim to commence in the coming weeks, are successful, BT Ireland will work to secure funding from its parent company to do a wide-scale rollout.

In terms of the changing habits of connected consumers and the need for cutting-edge digital infrastructure, O’Neill believes there are opportunities where we think there are disadvantages. “I think it’s going to change everything: how we provide healthcare, for example. Providing healthcare in the home is better for patients and is substantially cheaper.”

Another potential benefit of the digital economy is what will happen with education. “I drop my daughter off at school and I think of her going into a school that is far less technologically advanced than her home.”

Saying that, however, O’Neill is quite optimistic about the future in terms of the activity happening around rolling out next-generation infrastructure.

Connecting the next generation

“First of all, in terms of businesses getting connected on the north-west coast of Europe, this is an island that has had huge disadvantages given our geographic location. All of a sudden it doesn’t have those disadvantages in a connected world. It matters less where you are. I think if you look at the networks that are in the country connecting larger businesses, it’s actually quite good. Companies like BT, Vodafone, UPC have all made substantially large investments in Ireland to connect businesses.

“Having organisations like that in Ireland connecting to our global network is a huge advantage for the country.

“Where the disadvantage is, it is in broadband; connecting smaller businesses and our homes and we’re not where the rest of Europe is going at this point in time.

“A lot of great work has been done by the Next Generation Task Force and Minister Rabbitte is ambitious in terms of what he wants to achieve.

“We need to catch up and catch up quickly. We need to improve the quality, the speed but also the cost of broadband in Ireland.

“I think the implications of us not doing that would mean that Ireland misses a massive opportunity, which is to take a leading place in this globally connected world and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to do that,” O’Neill says.

The good news, says O’Neill, is that companies like BT and the companies it works with have a lot of backbone and wireless networks in place in anticipation of future needs. He says that every element, from mobile communications to cable broadband in the home, will rely on fibre infrastructure.

“Even when you look at technologies like 4G, delivering superfast speeds of connectivity.

“The solution is not straightforward and it will be about setting priorities at a national level. That’s not just about the government, that’s about what we as citizens consider to be a priority and we do need to prioritise connectivity as a natural resource and make the funding available so we don’t have a society that is disconnected. A connected society will deliver for Ireland,” O’Neill says.

He says that in many respects Ireland is already a hub for digital media industries when you consider Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon and many others have a presence in the country.

“Also, look at the reputation we’ve achieved in the animation world and the creation of digital content. A lot of the building blocks to be successful are already here.

“The key things you’ve got to deliver as a country to take that onto the next level and truly become not just a place where those companies establish themselves but potentially our own companies, is to deliver those services but also be the destination, the ‘go to’ place for content.

“But you need people first and foremost and certainly our education system produces innovative, bright young people. But we’re not producing enough of them with the skills required by companies and that has got to be addressed.

“We also need to look at the work visa situation in order to attract in the skill sets that we need.”

O’Neill argues that Ireland has a lot of the pieces in place – particularly infrastructure – to be a key player in the global digital economy. The missing pieces are access to that infrastructure and people with the skills to thrive in the internet economy.

“We face many challenges, but we’ve a lot going for us,” he said.

Ireland’s digital leaders will be joined by international speakers to discuss Ireland’s opportunities and challenges in the age of the connected consumer, at a forum hosted by Silicon Republic on 21 September in Dublin. Digital communications expert Neville Hobson and Wired‘s editor-at-large Ben Hammersley have been confirmed as keynote speakers.

Confirmed panelists include:

  • Jeroen Hoencamp, CEO, Vodafone Ireland
  • Tanya Duncan, CEO, Interxion Ireland
  • Múirne Laffan, managing director, RTÉ Digital
  • Maurice Mortell, MD Ireland, TelecityGroup
  • Colm O’Neill, CEO, BT Ireland
  • Andrew Maybin, network services director, Tibus
  • Daniel Adams, executive director, Communications, Media & Technology, Accenture
  • Anna Scally, partner, KPMG in Ireland

Click here for full details and for keynote and speaker updates.

Highlights from the last Digital Ireland Forum in March can be viewed here.

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