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'We'd be in a different place if this crisis had happened five years ago'

In Person: Robert Finnegan, ceo of Three UK and Ireland

Three boss on tackling his extended UK role from home in Dunmore East

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Challenge: Three’s UK and Ireland CEO Robert Finnegan is keeping on top of high network demand

Challenge: Three’s UK and Ireland CEO Robert Finnegan is keeping on top of high network demand

Robert Finnegan, ceo of Three UK and Ireland

Robert Finnegan, ceo of Three UK and Ireland

Safeguards: Three has temporarily shuttered its 65 Irish retail outlets

Safeguards: Three has temporarily shuttered its 65 Irish retail outlets

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Challenge: Three’s UK and Ireland CEO Robert Finnegan is keeping on top of high network demand

For millions of us, the ability to work, study and maintain any modicum of social life during lockdown depends on strong phone and data connections.

Telecom executives like Three Mobile's Robert Finnegan are no exception.

In normal times, he'd be working from the mobile telecoms company's offices in Dublin and London. For now, his home-office view is of his native Dunmore East and Waterford Harbour - relying on a 4G signal from a laptop dongle to keep connected.

"Technology has evolved so quickly. How long has 4G even been around - five years?" Finnegan asks. "We would be in a very different place if this crisis had happened five years ago, not now. The networks maybe wouldn't have been able to handle it. I don't believe we would have been able to enable remote working to the level we have."

The Waterford man took the helm of Three Ireland soon after its 2005 launch. The business is now the second-biggest mobile telecoms firm in the State with 2.35 million customers, a 36pc market share and earnings (before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization) last year of €211m.

Today, Three carries nearly two thirds of mobile data traffic nationwide, and circumstances right now mean household demand for voice and data services is running at record highs.

Telecoms regulator ComReg this month granted Three, Vodafone and Eir - which each operate their own mobile infrastructure - approval for temporary access to extra radio frequency to cope with demand. Finnegan says he's experienced no faults in his own connection - and insists that being top man at Three doesn't mean he gets a special supply.

"I wouldn't do that. I want to experience what our customers experience," he says. "If I'm in a particular area, and not getting what I think we should be getting, I'll be on to our networks and say: listen, we need to do something here."

He's currently sharing the family home with his wife and three of his four grown sons; demand for network access is high. "I don't have any cables in any of my locations. I'm on mobile all the time, and I find it perfectly good. When I do Microsoft Teams calls or Zoom video-conferencing, I have no issues whatsoever."

Those calls and conferences take up much of his work day, often in dialogue with new British colleagues he's yet to meet face to face.

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Finnegan is barely two weeks into a greatly expanded role as CEO of Three's operations in the UK, where the firm has 10.3 million customers - fourth behind BT's EE, Telefonica's O2 and Vodafone.

The UK arm has only a 10pc consumer market share and, in stark contrast to Three Ireland's 40pc share of business customers here, has few business clients. Its high IT restructuring costs and slower customer growth produced a 5pc drop in 2019 earnings to £713m (€818m).

Finnegan sees the UK market primed for consolidation. Here, Three swallowed up O2 five years ago.

"We're a consolidator - and we won't be consolidated. We've done it in Austria, Italy and Ireland. We're always looking for opportunities," he says.

"I will be spending more time in London to concentrate on how we can move the UK business forward to the same scale as we have built in Ireland. We will be looking to utilise some of the skills and knowledge we have in the Irish business for the UK - and from the UK into Ireland as well."

Three UK is ahead of Three Ireland in launching 5G services this year in London and more than 60 other British cities and towns. Three Ireland's 5G gear is being supplied by Sweden's Ericsson, whereas Three UK has partnered with China's Huawei.

The Chinese supplier's access to the UK has been a lightning rod for US president Donald Trump's anger and claims that using Huawei creates a risk of Chinese intelligence gathering.

Finnegan says he's used to competing on multiple pitches. He was active in the GAA and soccer clubs in Dunmore East growing up.

He made the U-21 Waterford side and trialled with Queen's Park Rangers in the mid-1980s.

"When you're relatively good as a youth, you tend to play an awful lot of games," he recalls. "You're used in many teams: your under-age team, the second senior team, and on for the firsts when they need players. You end up playing three or four games a weekend."

He qualified as an accountant from Waterford Regional Technical College, as it was known then, and took his first job at the Irish Leathers tannery in Portlaw, Co Waterford, before its 1985 closure. He left for London, gaining finance jobs at Procter & Gamble and Allied Domecq, and then, in 1992, an offer from the industrial conglomerate Hutchison Whampoa to relocate to its Hong Kong headquarters.

He spent nearly a decade in Asia, building soft drink and ice cream brands and, eventually, became CEO of Hutchison's drinks division.

Next came a move back to London to lead development on UK-based Powwow Water.

"We had a 'buy, brand and build' strategy where we bought 27 mom-and-pop water operations and rebranded them as Powwow," he recalls.

"In 2003, Nestlé bought them off us. We got a five-fold return on investment at a time when stock markets around the world had crashed."

When Hutchison Whampoa expanded its Three mobile brand into Ireland in 2005, it tapped Finnegan to get ahead of domestic providers still focused on 2G services.

The business expanded significantly when Hutchison bought Telefonica's O2 Ireland for €780m in 2014 and merged it with Three a year later.

At the time, regulators were wary of consolidation, but the deal got the green light.

"We're fortunate that we were able to acquire O2 at that time, because if that acquisition had not taken place, I would seriously question whether either the O2 network on its own, or the Three network, would have been able to cope with the situation we have today. Instead, we were able to build one state-of-the-art network," he says.

"Don't get me wrong. We're still facing big challenges in meeting the demands out there. But we're doing it on the back of a modern network."

That network also rents capacity to smaller rivals Tesco Mobile, Virgin, LycaMobile and 48. Finnegan said some masts have reached 80pc of their maximum capacity, but ComReg's opening of frequencies should help to ease this.

"We have some sites that will get congested, there's no doubt about that. And we will immediately go out and upgrade those sites or add capacity where we can, or build new sites in close proximity. So individual cells get near their full capacity, yes, but at a core network level? No."

As part of wider Covid-19 shutdowns, Three's 65 retail outlets in Ireland have been indefinitely shuttered - but none of the approximately 350 retail staff have been laid off. Instead, they're trialling online videos to answer customer questions and drive sales online.

Overall, Three employs 1,350 in Ireland and 6,000 in the UK. After clearing GDPR regulatory hurdles, call centre staff normally based in Limerick and Waterford are answering calls from their homes too.

The three-member crews that manage Three's 2,350 towers and masts across the State have special Covid-19 rules.

"We've ensured that the engineers don't move between teams, as they normally would. This means that if a member falls ill and self-isolates, that team would be stood down."

Three has seen its voice traffic surge by 43pc since mid-March, when the Government announced the closure of schools and cancellation of large public gatherings.

Data use - amid increased video streaming and conferencing - has risen by 20pc.

Three has set aside its usual 60-gigabyte data limit for its 'all you can eat' data plans.

"Our priority is to maintain the network and ensure continuity of service and connectivity. We want to ensure that our customers stay connected to their loved ones and to work," he says. "That's the most important thing for us."

Three, like the Vodafone and Eir networks, has seen big shifts in traffic: "Normally, traffic is generated in city centre sites, but they're much quieter now, with traffic moving to suburban and rural areas. This is where we're targeting to add capacity and upgrade where we need to meet that demand."

Traffic now surges after major Government statements on Covid-19, particularly when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addresses the nation.

"We see a massive jump in traffic just after that," he says.

The sudden shift in focus means Three's goal of launching 5G services here - originally planned for 2019 - faces more delays.

"Rolling out 5G - for the sake of it and potentially putting staff at risk (from the outbreak) while its use is not required - is not worth doing," he says. "When we upgrade an existing site, we can add 5G at the same time. So we will still be turning on services for 5G later this year. It might go back by a couple of months, but it certainly will be this year."

He sees a late 2020 launch in sync with Apple's delayed launch of 5G-capable phones.

"The demand for rolling out 5G on all sites, the business case, is just not there yet.

"The initial use case for 5G will be around fixed wireless access, which will provide almost fibre speeds dedicated to businesses or homes. That's where demand for 5G will appear first - where there is no fibre, or fibre at a high price.

"Really, until Apple comes out with a 5G handset, we won't see the demand."


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