Tuesday 25 October 2016

Hardwiring our homes to underwrite our digital future

As high-speed broadband is rolled out, we need to ensure the houses we live in become smarter, writes Eircom boss Richard Moat

Richard Moat

Published 19/04/2015 | 02:30

INTERNET OF THINGS: A once in a lifetime chance, says Richard Moat. Photo: Damien Eagers
INTERNET OF THINGS: A once in a lifetime chance, says Richard Moat. Photo: Damien Eagers

In just over four months' time, the first customer in Ireland will be able to order a one gigabit per second broadband connection.

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That's 1,000 megabits per second - the holy grail of broadband connectivity - and while most people don't need all that capacity today, the projected growth in data traffic and capacity requirements only points in one direction.

Already, 1.1 million homes and businesses have access to broadband with speeds of up to 100Mb/s on our network right the way across all 26 counties. That will grow to 1.6 million homes and business in 2016, representing 70pc of the country.

We are busy investing significantly and it is delivering dividends. A recent survey from Akamai called State of the Internet ranked Ireland fourth in Europe and seventh in the world for average broadband speeds - figures which underline the progress that has been made to date.

That is not to suggest that all of Ireland's broadband questions have been fully answered - but where answers are not in place today, there is at long last a coherent plan. The final piece of the puzzle is the National Broadband Plan, currently at development stage by Minister White and the Department of Communications Energy and Natural Resources. It will ensure that every building in the State has access to high speed broadband - no matter how rural or remote.

We fully support the plan and will compete vigorously to win that tender. To underline our ambition, we envisage delivering up to one gigabit per second capability to customers covered by the tender.

Ironically, this may create a short-term anomaly that inverts the current urban and rural digital divide, where very rural locations could have faster broadband speeds than parts of urban Ireland before the digital divide is abolished once and for all.

It's clear this is a once in a generation opportunity - and much like rural electrification, access to super-fast broadband will provide a much needed boost for rural communities, encouraging businesses, employees and their families to remain in local communities with new employment and home-working opportunities at the most local level.

The key question is what exactly does one do with all this high-speed bandwidth once it arrives on your doorstep. To answer that, we need to understand some of the emerging themes and thinking in our sector.

The Mobile World Congress, one of the industry's largest annual gatherings, took place in Barcelona earlier this spring. This year the buzzwords at the conference were all about the 'Internet of Things', 'automated homes', 'connected environments', 'conscious homes' and 'digital life'.

In short, companies are developing endless new ways for customers to connect and integrate devices to do simple things like monitor an elderly parent who lives on her own via an internal security camera; or have the ability to turn on the oven while commuting home from work, or adjust the temperature of the heating system in the house to aid energy efficiency.

But the true smart home is much more than the latest clever gadgets. It creates an ecosystem that allows multiple technologies to converge and provide customers with a seamless experience, such as taking a simple mobile phone call and moving it between 4G and WiFi platforms when entering a home environment without interruption.

Or take another example, where someone is watching on-the-go video content on a smartphone or tablet and can choose with a single swipe of their hand to switch viewing onto a large screen.

For our own part, we aim to build a suite of converged services that will allow customers to do just that.

Large tech companies are investing heavily in this space. A tsunami is coming and due to a unique set of circumstances Ireland has a great opportunity to capitalise by making a virtue of an immediate problem.

According to the National Housing Agency, only 8,700 new homes were built in 2014. They estimate that 16,000 new homes need to be built in each of the next four years to meet market demand. With 64,000 new homes needed and thousands awaiting construction, there is an opportunity to evolve and improve our approach towards planning rules and regulations for house construction in Ireland.

As part of the planning application process, if every local authority ensured that each new home built in Ireland had the internal infrastructure to support the high bandwidth connectivity that is coming into the home, right throughout the home or office, then we would quickly create a stock of fully-integrated smart homes. The cost to the overall build would be minimal if the work is done as the house is being built.

A connectivity rating/certification for every newly built home, much like the BER Certification rating could be assigned.

The rating would reflect the extent that the home is able and ready to provide integrated converged services - a simple and understandable system for any purchaser.

Importantly, this would provide a ready made and ideal testing environment for the ambitious tech companies which are driving the Internet of Things industry.

As a small English- speaking open economy, it would make Ireland a very attractive location for a new wave of inward investment from technology companies.

Now is the time to think ahead. Our commercial roll-out, combined with the pending implementation of the National Broadband Plan, provide the pre-requisite quality connectivity the country needs.

Discussion and debate must now evolve as to how we harness that connectivity to make Ireland more competitive, not just in our cities but throughout the country.

Ensuring that all newly built homes are smart homes would be an important first step and make Ireland an attractive proving ground for the Internet of Things. If home broadband capability is now seen as the equivalent of the past arrival of water and electricity networks, can anyone now envisage a newly built home without the necessary connectivity?

Richard Moat is chief executive officer at Eircom

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