'In a globalised world, local communities not nations will become more important'
Ireland is making slow, steady strides to becoming a digital economy, says BT chief executive
IF you ask BT chief executive Chris Clark about Ireland's broadband woes - and believe me he knows - he actually sounds upbeat. There are reasons to be cheerful, he says: "I don't think we should underestimate the progress that has been made in the last few years."
Last year, Clark signed a landmark multimillion deal to transfer BT's consumer, small-business broadband and voice customer base to Vodafone. This deal, which involved the transfer of some €4.8m worth of assets, has given Vodafone access to BT's 22 unbundled local exchanges around Ireland as well as access to BT's consumer phone and broadband base of 84,000 consumers and 3,000 small businesses.
Post-Vodafone deal, BT remains a key player in the lucrative enterprise and networks business, winning major contracts with other telecom operators, Government and large businesses. The company designs, builds and manages networks for 3 Ireland, Telefónica O2 Ireland, Vodafone, UTV and Coillte. In the past five years, BT has deployed 3 Ireland's 3G network of more than 900 sites, in addition to 110 new sites, under the National Broadband Scheme (NBS) as part of what Clark describes as "the fastest mobile rollout in western Europe".
He is also keen to see the Republic of Ireland benefit from developments such as the 21CN network. In the UK, BT has committed to spending £1.5bn sterling on its fibre-to-the-premises strategy and has begun by rolling out a 40Mbps fibre-based broadband service called BT Infinity.
"In an ideal world, Ireland would have an overarching communications plan that would look at the next 10 to 20 years. But one has to be a realist and say that an overall vision for the future of Ireland would include skills alongside infrastructure and innovation."
However, Clark adds that the onus also rests on individuals and communities to encourage such a plan and not just wait for the Government and industry to come forward.
"We need an overall framework, but nearly 12 months since we first talked about the need for a digital plan for Ireland a lot of people are saying the same things and a vision is being created. Pragmatism is key. There's a huge amount of work to do to have a digital Ireland of the future, but we are heading in the right direction. The responsibility sits with us as an industry, but also with the community, to make it happen."
Another key facet to getting Ireland back on the road to recovery and growth is entrepreneurialism, with Clark echoing Craig Barrett's (ex-CEO of Intel) sentiment that the Irish people's mindset needs to change.
"On the whole, the Irish people are intuitively very entrepreneurial. It's a critical strength but it needs to be funnelled and that starts with the young people, improving performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects. We also have to get out of the culture of victimising entrepreneurs and even start celebrating failure because, as we know, it drives success at times.
"Craig Barrett pointed to the legality that if you fail in business in Ireland you can't direct a business for 12 years. I think we also need to create tax incentives that encourage people to take risks.
"And it's not just about kids at school. We can't forget that 70pc of the workforce today will be still in the workforce in 10 years' time, so there's an opportunity to look inwards at business to unlock potential as well," explains Clark.
As sponsor of the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition and the upcoming Business of Science & Technology Programme, Clark again echoes Barrett's viewpoint that we need to turn our universities into wealth-generation centres. "We have two universities in the top 100 worldwide, but they are not as entrepreneurial as some of the others. That needs to change."
Looking at the competitive landscape of telecoms, he says the industry is a much-changed place from two to three years ago. "There are exciting opportunities at play. UPC is rolling out next-generation cable, Imagine is deploying WiMax, the mobile operators are getting ready for 4G Long Term Evolution and Eircom is talking about next-generation networks.
"These are encouraging aspects, not least of course because of the rollout of the NBS - people today on the Aran Islands are getting at least 2Mbps, which is good. There are people in the Highlands and islands of Scotland who would be envious of that.
"There are a lot of different broadband technologies coming together. I don't think it would be realistic to ever compare Ireland with Singapore, Tokyo or Seoul where 100Mbps and higher is the norm. The scale, demographics and geography are different and I don't think the public finances could sustain such advanced infrastructure.
"That said, we really need to ask ourselves how do we move from average to good to great in terms of broadband? There are plans that will help Ireland do that and we'll see greater collaboration over the next 12 months between industry players. The conversations in industry are constructive. Necessity is a wonderful driver."
Clark says technology investment will go hand in hand with public-sector transformation, particularly in core areas such as health and education.
"The digital economy is absolutely central to the future of wealth creation. It's not just about the digital infrastructure but also the green economy, innovation and a more equitable society. I am confident that a lot of jobs could be created.
"But if the digital economy is going to be a wealth generator, computers in schools are vital. It is a challenge the entire modern world faces in driving IT, fibre and laptops to every classroom. But we need to be very careful that, in getting there, we don't drive what could be a significant digital exclusion between the haves and the have-nots.
"There are already schools in Ireland with incredible technology, but we should start by focusing on the schools in areas where people don't have that access. I've walked into private schools where the kids have unbelievable technology, thanks to the parents and school boards.
"We need to make sure that all schools reach a similar level of technological development. The Government will have to have a clear vision, the industry will need to be more collaborative and local communities will need to call for the infrastructure.
"Although we are living in an increasingly globalised world, it is local communities rather than nations that are becoming more important," Clark concludes.
To watch a video interview with Chris Clark, go to www.digital21.ie.
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