BT’s Colm O’Neill: reboot brain infrastructure and create a global tech brand (video)

6 Aug 2013

Colm O'Neill, CEO of BT Ireland

As the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition approaches its 50th anniversary, BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill says it is vital that the enthusiasm and professionalism of young scientists on display each year in January is maintained and nurtured throughout the school year. He also argues it’s time Ireland had a globally renowned tech brand born locally.

According to O’Neill, Ireland is on the cusp of a wave in terms of attracting major tech brands to locate in Dublin and other Irish cities, and this is having a clustering effect with more brands being encouraged as a result of the talent and experience that has developed over the years.

The presence in Dublin, for example, of experienced management teams from Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and others is having a magnetic effect in attracting the next generation of players, including Twitter and Dropbox, to name a few.

“There’s a cluster effect. When you have so many of the large names here already as ambitious companies from the west-coast US and from other parts of the world starting to think of where they might base their European operation or their first foreign operation, Ireland has to be one of the ones that at least gets on the list for consideration.

“We need to continue to have a great product to sell them once they decide to do that. Ireland is very definitely on the map, it is about making sure we continue to have a great set of skills and talent in an environment that is a frictionless environment for them to establish themselves here.”

Digital infrastructure

Digital Ireland: BT Ireland CEO Colm O’Neill on Ireland as a global hub for digital and internationally traded services – Part 2

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.

O’Neill says Ireland is doing far better in terms of digital infrastructure than the country gives itself credit for. However, that is from a global perspective in terms of links to BT and other global carriers’ networks.

Internally, in terms of bridging the digital divide between locations served with quality infrastructure and those that are not, that situation cannot be allowed to run on.

“I’ve always said we are better than we think we are but there are still big gaps. In terms of connecting reasonable sized businesses to global networks I think Ireland is world class. We have BT here with a very significant workforce plus connecting into one of the three major global networks. But it is not just one of the three big networks, we have strong links with all of the global networks.

“If you are a business that is looking to connect high capacity data links locally or globally you are well serviced. To date, the consumer has been less well served and the roll out of high-speed broadband has been a limiting factor.”

He says Ireland is beginning to get its act together on this front and the Government’s National Broadband Strategy has ambitious targets.

“The concern I would have is that it is still only going to go to somewhere between 50pc and 60pc of the country where it is economically viable to get to it. We have the National Broadband Plan and the plan to invest €175m in the uneconomic to reach regions and we need to see how that goes over the next 12 to 18 months – what kind of a solution we get out of that because we need to make sure we don’t have that digital divide. The further you drive out high-speed networks, the more difficult it becomes for people not connected to that network.

“I think it is important both economically and socially that we deliver high-speed connectivity as far out to the country as we possibly can.”

Time to reboot Ireland’s brain infrastructure

O’Neill says the talent and commitment on display from secondary students at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition is a constant source of amazement and reassurance for the future.

But he believes the education system in Ireland needs an overhaul to reflect a changed world.

“I think the world has changed so much and the education system has changed so little and it really does need quite a significant overhaul. There is a lot of work being done to achieve that but not clear to me whether there has been enough or not, but certainly a reboot of the brain infrastructure is important.

“If you look at the BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition and what we can learn from it, first of all we’ve been organising it for 14 years and it is going to be in its 50th year this year and we’ve demonstrated that there is a huge interest in the country in this type of thing, which is a good thing. We’ve also proven that the winners have gone on to be hugely successful in Europe, they are not only interested in it but quite good at it.”

He says that when you visit the exhibition, there is a different environment to what you see in a classroom or school, typically.

“You see young people with their ideas being taken seriously, people are listening to what they have to say and what they have to say is often remarkably simple and remarkably insightful. Something has to be learned about putting people in that type of environment where they are challenged and supported and high standards are expected and they are judged three times throughout that week. It’s a very challenging process. But we’ve demonstrated when you put people in that type of a process, challenged but supported at the same time, they produce amazing results.

“It feels to me like we spend too much time talking at young people and not enough time working with them or listening to them.”

Next-generation tech brands

Having proven it has the digital and intellectual infrastructure to attract global tech giants, O’Neill believes it is high time Ireland starts producing global tech brands of its own.

“There is one thing attracting investment into Ireland, another thing producing great global tech companies.

“If we had a world-class indigenous Irish company on the tech stage, that would further enhance and amplify that message of Ireland being a good place to conduct global business.

“We do it in agri-food, gaming and airlines. We have world-class renowned brand names but don’t seem to have cracked it in the tech space and I would like to see us create and develop a world-renowned tech brand based here and born here in Ireland,” O’Neill says.

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