Thursday 30 October 2014

Wanted: Direct fibre optic cable to the EU mainland

Jerry Sweeney

Published 12/06/2014 | 02:30

The service, which is scheduled for 50 large towns and suburbs and is targeting 500,000 Irish homes and businesses

IRELAND urgently needs to improve international internet connectivity in order to properly benefit from the global growth in demand for data centres and bandwidth-intensive industries.

Today, Irish companies requiring high capacity connectivity must locate in Dublin, but Dublin itself cannot claim direct connectivity to mainland Europe except via the UK. There are solutions to both of these issues that could help position Ireland competitively in global markets. But we need to act soon. Many industries, not just data centres, require great connectivity to locate or remain in a region. IT companies such as HP and Cisco in Galway, Dell in Limerick or Apple and EMC in Cork would also benefit from a new spirit of investment in infrastructure.

Construction of a very low cost, high capacity, fibre backbone between major cities would facilitate the rollout of broadband to the entire country.

But right now, there are two main problems.

('Latency' refers to a time delay in the transmission of data and is a function of distance travelled and the number of intermediate hops. An end user sees poor latency as an unresponsive web page that refreshes slowly. A direct connection to France, avoiding the UK, reduces latency.)

Certain sectors such as cloud computing and financial trading are very sensitive to latency and every millisecond counts.

How could we fix this? A fibre connection from Cork to France would lower latency and improve resilience from Ireland to mainland Europe.

'Resilience' refers to how likely a system survives a failure. For example, submarine cables are prone to anchor damage by ships. Many of the cables from Ireland to the UK share proximate routes and landing points. The UK could be affected by a major natural disaster or by a terrorist attack. If all traffic from Ireland must pass through the UK then, by definition, Ireland's resilience has to be lower than that of the UK.

Having a back door from Cork to France that allowed internet traffic to go directly to mainland Europe, regardless of man-made damage, natural disaster or terrorist attack, would increase Ireland's profile as a resilient location.

Ireland's renewable energy sector creates a natural resource that we can add value to, and export across, Europe in the form of data over fibre. Every €1 worth of electricity could be exported as €50 of cloud services.

The vast majority of Irish data centre investment is centred in Dublin because all international transit is terminated there. For example, connectivity from Cork to Dublin is much more expensive that similar capacity from Dublin and onward to mainland Europe. So regional Ireland is at a huge cost disadvantage vis-a-vis the capital.

Existing providers such as Aurora, Eircom and ESBT are not currently delivering volume connectivity at the right price point to allow data centres to locate outside of Dublin.

This is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. The providers don't want to drop unit pricing because the volume is currently very low. But the volumes will never increase if the prices remain high.

A multicore fibre ring connecting the cities of Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Cork and Waterford would give Ireland the ideal solution for lower cost – and higher capacity – fibre connectivity.

This would allow the construction of data centres in locations outside Dublin.

Data centres located in the west and south are located closer to sources of renewable energy, thereby reducing the need for electrical transmission to Dublin. The south-west also has a surplus of traditional electrical generation capacity. For example, Whitegate in Cork, has 1.5 megawatts of generation capacity. This is approximately 10pc of the country's total capacity.

This fibre ring, once constructed, would also provide a transit route from existing Dublin data centres to reach France.

In 2013, Taoiseach Enda Kenny announced that Emerald Express was landing a fibre cable in Mayo from North America. The availability of low-cost fibre in Galway with onward connections to Cork/France and Dublin/UK would facilitate the proposed Emerald Networks connection from the US to Mayo.

The Department of Communications must recognise the strategic importance of solving the problems we have, both in the lack of a direct fibre connection to mainland Europe and the dearth of higher capacity, lower cost fibre here. By making state assets available and partnering with commercial players, the required infrastructure can be built very cost effectively and probably without any cost to the exchequer.

Jerry Sweeney is chief executive and founder of the Cork Internet Exchange (www.cix.ie).

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