Digital revolution gathers speed as Tralee makes most of latest fibre broadband rollout
The Co Kerry capital has a new development weapon thanks to Siro, the joint Vodafone/ESB venture. Our technology editor reports from a town with new hope for local businesses as they join a growing band of firms finding success online
A recent set of trade figures from the European Commission showed something startling. Irish small businesses out-perform all other European small businesses when it comes to ecommerce.
The figures from the European Commission's Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI) showed that Ireland ranks first out of 28 countries in Europe when it comes to small firms selling online, turnover from eCommerce and cross-border ecommerce.
But there's a catch. To get into this thriving group, the small firms first have to have access to genuinely high-speed broadband. In Ireland, that has traditionally ruled out any company outside cities or the very largest towns.
And with a rollout of the state's National Broadband Plan still a year off from even starting, dozens of regional towns are being starved of basic infrastructure that could enable their local businesses to compete with counterparts in Cork, Dublin, Galway and cities around Europe.
However, some towns are starting to fight back. Aided by new plans from some of the country's largest broadband infrastructure companies, a number of regional centres have hustled to get connected to proper fibre internet access systems.
One such town is Tralee. The Kerry capital has had a challenging time in recent years. While Killarney and Dingle have been booming thanks to their stellar tourism brands, Tralee has been left to fight a more blended development strategy, trying to mix industrial progress with commercial, retail and tourist expansion. Compared to neighbouring towns, it has struggled to offer up a clear reason to attract startups and other businesses.
However, it recently got onto the development roadmap of regional fibre broadband supplier Siro, a joint venture between Vodafone and the ESB. As a result, 8,000 of the town's 12,000 homes and businesses now have access to fibre broadband lines directly into their premises.
The service offers speeds of up to 1,000Mbs, many times faster than equivalent speeds from traditional telephone landline broadband.
Faced with such opportunity, demand has instantly rocketed with 1,200 orders already taken.
One of the beneficiaries of Tralee's new fibre network is HQTralee, a new office working facility located in the middle of the town. Set up by local entrepreneurs Ken Tobin and Tom O'Leary, the building is kitted out like a tech co-working space with bright, airy meeting rooms, one-person offices and a series of hot-desks.
"You see working spaces like this popping all over cities like Dublin, London, and San Francisco," says O'Leary. "The advantage is that you get access to almost everything you need as a small company. You get massive broadband speeds, a desk or an office if you need it, access to meeting spaces and the ability to meet and mix with other small businesses if you want."
As soon as HQ Tralee opened its doors, there was a flood of startups and businesses who took space. Demand became so high that it filled up, forcing the founders to set up a second building next to the first one. Whereas the original HQTralee building houses 52 people across 18 companies, the second will hold 30 people with a target of 15 companies.
"This is amazing for Tralee," says Colm 'Gooch' Cooper, a Kerry GAA star forward who now works with AIB in Killarney and who was involved in helping to fund HQTralee. "People are so used to thinking that you can't stray outside Dublin for things like startups, but you absolutely can. We're going to see more and more here over the next 18 months. The economy has changed in the last couple of months and there's a lot of optimism around. We can see it here on the ground."
Like towns such as Westport, Galway or Tramore, Tralee is positioning itself as a lifestyle option for executives, developers and entrepreneurs who want to work in high-growth industries in a surfing or non-city environment.
Siro, which took the decision to go into Tralee to meet demand for fibre broadband, is set to repeat the move in a further five towns in the coming months. Its director of corporate affairs, Stephen O'Connor, said that it is targeting similar fibre launches in Carlow, Dundalk, Cavan and Letterkenny to complement an almost-completed rollout in Drogheda. In all, the company says that it will reach 50 towns around the country with such fibre rollouts.
Siro isn't alone. Eir is currently rolling out fibre broadband in some towns and rural areas, including a targeted launch with Údarás na Gaeltachta in Tralee's neighbouring town, Dingle.
"Dingle now has access to broadband speeds that are on a par with leading European cities," says Bill Archer, managing director of Eir Business. "This is extremely positive for local business people, entrepreneurs, startups and visitors to the region. It means they can live, work and visit Dingle and be able to connect on a national and global scale."
Back in Tralee, HQTralee charges €250 per month for a one-person office of about 100 sq ft. For that, the small firm gets high-end broadband and access to all the building's facilities, including meeting spaces and beverages. It also has 'hot desk' options from €90 per month.
HQ Tralee currently has a mixture of businesses from graphic designers and software firms to PR companies, architects and clothes companies. It also has executives from businesses who use the facility as a remote office. All need office space and high-end broadband to do business effectively.
One of the startups at the facility is Creative Practice, a graphic design agency run by Aisling Carmody.
"I work with clients around the country," she says. "That includes food, retail, lots of areas. It's a different project every day. I need this type of broadband."
Another young company is Harpoon Connect, a software startup that specialises in commercial development technology such as targeted advertising systems for local media companies.
"We're up to seven people now," says Derek Counihan, the company's CEO. "We're doing well in Ireland and the UK. We're just about to sign a deal with a US-based company that delivers audio advertising. We basically step in to help small radio stations and others like them to monetise their audio streams. From an advertiser's point of view it's gold because they can do hyper-local, targeted advertising."
Carmody and Counihan, who are both under 30, could not hope to sell nationally or internationally without proper broadband access. They are following in the footsteps of famous Kerry entrepreneurs such as Jerry Kennelly, the former Stockbyte stock photo founder who sold his locally-based business to Getty Images for €110m in 2006 after branching out around the world.
"There's a hotbed of entrepreneurialism in Kerry," said O'Leary. "We're trying to put it out there that there is an alternative to two-hour commutes or having to move altogether."
With an eye on what Tralee has pulled off, other towns in Kerry are starting to ramp up bids to attract the main telecoms providers. Killorglin is one such town. At the launch event for HQTralee, a senior executive from one of Killorglin's biggest companies, Fexco, was on hand to press the case directly for Siro and Vodafone to wire up Killorglin as it has done to Tralee. Catherine Evans, senior relationships manager at Fexco, was joined by local TD Michael Healy Rae at the event's launch.
Siro started out with a general principle that it needed 4,000 premises in an area to consider it as a potential location for its fibre rollout. However, it sometimes makes exceptions on the edges of this criteria. Last summer, it wired up Skibbereen, a well-to-do town in West Cork with the potential to attract high-growth companies seeking a lifestyle-focused setting.
For towns such as Killorglin, the presence of influential companies like Fexco could prove vital to its prospects.
Eventually, all Irish towns are to be hooked up to fibre broadband through the state-subsidised National Broadband Plan. But with negotiations ongoing as to who might stay engaged with that competition (Siro is understood to be reconsidering whether it will bid for the contract), a rollout of the government-backed scheme looks several years off from completion.
"The landline speeds are awful and mobile isn't much better," says O'Leary, talking about regular landline broadband available outside the fibre zones. "You still have people desperately trying to get two megabits using a mobile dongle in their laptop. Or others who end up having to buy 10 cups of coffee to sit in the lobby of a hotel in town that has broadband."
He says that many of the entrepreneurs who work at HQTralee live outside the town, where such high speed broadband isn't available.
However, despite its high tech connectivity and fit-out, HQ Tralee isn't pitching itself exclusively as a space for tech companies. "Whereas places like Dogpatch Labs in Dublin are really for tech businesses, we cater to designers, architects, videographers, marketers. If an electrician comes to us and needs a modern space, that's no problem. We want that kind of collaboration across different disciplines."
Tralee is just the first of several co-working facilities planned by Tom O'Leary and Ken Tobin. "We hope to follow Siro around," says O'Leary. "Where they go and roll out their fibre, we'll go to open up a HQ."